“They’re on it all the time, so why don’t we acknowledge that and figure out a way to use it to our advantage.”
Talking about students using social media, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Shawn Peters said he sees value in integrating social media into the college classroom.
“This is the way students are already communicating with each other, so it’s acknowledging a medium that already exists for students,” Peters said. “It frees up dialogue and makes dialogue better.”
A professor in the UW-Madison Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) Department, Peters started incorporating social media into some of his courses in fall 2011.
He most notably uses social media in his ILS 275 course, for which the primary “text” is the first season of HBO’s “The Wire,” a gritty crime show based in Baltimore.
Peters has students tweet during class using the hashtag #wire275 while they watch the hour-long episode. Then, in the last 15 minutes of the class period, he projects the aggregated tweets on the board, and students discuss their reactions to both the show and the tweets.
Michael Penn II, a UW-Madison freshman enrolled in ILS 275, said he did not believe the syllabus when he read that students would be tweeting as part of the course.
“I never truly thought I would tweet about something in class that had remotely anything to do with the class material itself,” he said in an email.
But the syllabus was accurate, and Penn is thankful for that.
“In a room of 30, all armed to the teeth with social networks, the conversation is streamlined, real-time, and accessible,” he said. “This puts ILS 275 ahead of the majority of classes offered in Madison.”
Peters agreed, saying the advantage of Twitter is that it allows students to share an immediate response to the material.
“When you have a multiplicity of perspectives, then you want to have a framework where they can be expressed,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to have conversations while we’re engaged in the text, and you can do that through Twitter.”
Who is using social media on the UW-Madison campus
The types of courses that currently build social media into their curriculum vary, but are largely concentrated in the liberal arts fields. For some courses, the integration of social media dovetails with the course content more than others.
For example, Danny Kimball, a UW-Madison associate lecturer and Ph.D. candidate, teaches Communication Arts 346: Critical Internet Studies, and said he considers the integration of social media into Communication Arts 346 to be a “natural fit.”
“The course is all about exploring the Internet and studying the Internet as a social and cultural phenomenon.” By incorporating social media, “Students are learning how to apply some of the things they’re talking about, thinking about, reading about as part of the class.”
As part of the curriculum, students are required to post on a course blog. But there is also a supplementary course Facebook group and a class hashtag on Twitter that students use to share articles relevant to class material or to ask questions about an upcoming exam.
Don Stanley, a faculty associate in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC), also teaches a course that analyzes the influence of digital technologies called LSC 440: Contemporary Communication Technologies. In this course, Stanley has students live-tweet during lectures to broaden class participation and to help students assemble a collection of notes for themselves.
But more significantly, Stanley employs Twitter as a way to encourage students to reach out to authors of the class material.
“One of the goals is to show the students how these technologies have removed a lot of barriers, so people who are traditionally not accessible are now willing to connect and communicate with people who reach out to them,” Stanley said, adding:
“That’s one of the reasons I incorporate Twitter into all of my classes, even the ones that don’t focus on social media, because you see that people, in a lot of cases, are willing to continue the conversation and are willing to help if you are willing to reach out to them in an appropriate way using these technologies.”
Stanley said that nine times out of 10, he and his students have received responses from individuals they contacted via social media, and he has had authors guest lecture for his classes via skype as a result of Twitter interactions.
Advantages and disadvantages of social media in education
All of the professors agreed that the use of social media as an educational tool has indirectly provided students the opportunity to cultivate a highly marketable skill. They said learning how to use social media and communicate effectively on a variety of platforms will benefit students as they enter the job market.
Stanley said that this semester, in course evaluations, at least three students in one of his 20-student courses said that they got jobs because employers recognized their ability to communicate effectively through social media.
“People saw that they knew how to use the tool as a professional, in a professional way,” Stanley said.
Kimball also said social media fluency is becoming an increasingly valuable skill for students, especially those planning to pursue careers in the fields of strategic communication and marketing.
“Tweeting and learning how to express yourself with brevity are skills that are going to become important to a lot of different careers,” Kimball said. “For a lot of the industries communication arts students are going into, knowing how to use social media is what is expected of you. And not just writing a status update or tweeting a random thought, but how to use those same tools in a professional context, as well.”
Although social media literacy can provide students a competitive advantage after graduation, professors still cite some limitations to using social media in the classroom.
Specifically with Twitter, Peters said, “The danger of it is, it can be shallow. It’s only 140 characters, you cannot do a substantive amount of stuff in that limited amount of space.”
Stanley added that because social media is conducted primarily through text, some degree of interpersonal communication is lost.
“One of the things we often forget is how much we read subtle cues we give each other physically,” Stanley said.
He explained the mechanics of social media do not allow for these cues to be conveyed.
Social media also presents challenges to instructors because of the fact it is changing so rapidly. Megan Costello, Director of Communications in the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science Office of Advancement, said she thinks the continually changing social media landscape is one reason some professors are resistant to incorporating social media into their curriculum.
“I’m not a faculty member, but I think if you’re going to spend your whole summer making a class, the last thing you want to do is build it all around this one aspect of Facebook — and then Facebook changes,” Costello said.
Looking to the future
Despite some of social media’s disadvantages as a learning tool, no professor has yet conceptualized an ideal social media channel for the classroom environment.
But when asked about their vision for a future partnership between education and social media, all professors interviewed agreed that future classrooms will incorporate some form of integrated learning technology that not only facilitates greater interaction between students, but also allows for greater communication to take place across campuses, nationally and internationally.
From a student’s perspective, Penn also expressed an interest in the continued use of social media in the classroom.
“I want a future where digital textbooks and online lecture notes and social media class blogs are standardized practices,” he said.
But whatever does come of the relationship between education and social media, Peters said he thinks “Anything is better than sitting for 75 minutes and taking notes. I don’t think that’s anybody’s idea of a good time.”
To check out a Q&A with UW-Madison Digital Studies Director, Robert Glenn Howard, click here.