Social Media and Course Cohesion
This semester I have a large class with online and offline sections. How to bring them together, so that the e-students would feel connected, not isolated online? Feeling out of the proverbial loop is one of the most oft-cited challenges for distance learners. Traditionally, a face-to-face classroom, “requires a disciplined commitment from the students to actually participate in the learning activities and reach out to others in the class,” observes Cory Stokes, director of the Technology Assisted Curriculum Center, in charge of testing for online courses. In an online course, the onus is on the student to be self-disciplined enough to engage in self-study, often without the benefit of a class community to drive engagement and interest.
Research shows that there is a correlation between social presence and student success. When students feel connected to a community of inquiry they are more enthusiastic, motivated, and they perform better. If that engagement, communication, and awareness happens continuously and in real-time, as it does in a face-to-face classroom — all the better.
So I decided to take my teaching to the one place where students naturally connect everyday, all day: social networks. First I socialized the learning management system (we use Moodle) by creating discussion boards for on-demand threaded conversations in a secure, gated community. Then I looked to Twitter and Facebook as more public and familiar places for members of my “bricks” and “clicks” course sections to sync.
Teaching on Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to be an option that makes sense for every instructor, but here is why it is working wonders to create a sense of social presence in my class:
P2P Effects. On the Facebook wall, students do peer-to-peer mentoring, troubleshooting, and Q&A at every hour of the day and night. I check into the course social channels several times a day, and yet often by the time I see the Facebook wall or Twitter hashtagged conversation, issues and solutions are already being shared without input from the prof. Not only is this a great example of generous community spirit and peer support, but it’s also self-directed learning on-demand. Since research shows that many students strongly prefer to learn from their peers, this is a good opportunity to enable positive peer effects. As a bonus, “students become partners in blended learning” to borrow an insight from a study at The University of Wolverhampton (<– link opens PDF).
Crowdsourced Curriculum. In the threaded discussions and on the wall, students post links to this week’s lecture topic — before and after the in-class lesson or online-webinar schedule. Put differently, my students scoop my lecture topics and Facebook them! They scoop my case studies and newsworthy tie-ins and tweet them! Students are plugged into the news and they have high-traffic platforms on which to share the most intriguing stories. There’s nothing that delights me more than this crowdsourcing effect, as students work together to make the material relevant for each other (and thus easier to learn). “If Generation Y likes to do one thing, it’s to share cool, creative, funny and quirky things with their friends,” concluded a recent survey (<– link opens PDF) of millennials’ social media consumption habits by L2ThinkTank.
Network Effects. Sharing course information on Facebook and Twitter means that it is automatically distributed not just to registered students, but to students’ entire social graph. A course tweet is sent to all followers, a Facebook post to the course page is also on one’s personal Facebook profile. This distribution of status updates means that course-related conversations (online and presumably off) happen far beyond the webinar chat rooms and lecture halls. Unlike the formal learning management system, which keeps discussion posts behind a wall (what happens on Moodle stays on Moodle, so to speak), the network effects model of social media amplifies students voices across their personal networks. I’ve found this online word of mouth virtually guarantees that enthusiasm for the course (and enrollment) remains high year after year. But more importantly, it allows students to demonstrate their membership in, and contributions to, a learning community—in a very public, and sometimes even positively viral way.
These three ideas are just the tip of the iceberg, as there are hundreds of ideas for teaching with Facebook. Of course, not all students use these social platforms. Having a course Facebook page instead of a course Facebook group enables non-Facebookers to read all posted content, and likewise, Twitter is also accessible without a site membership.
Although there is a lively debate ongoing about using popular social networking as teaching tools, my experience encourages me to agree with studies that show social networking enhances student performance and enriches learning experiences both inside the online or offline classrooms and elsewhere on campus.
There are many other tools and techniques beyond Facebook and Twitter for using social media to create social presence, including this roundup. However if your goal, like mine, is to meet students where they are, and leverage their familiarity with social communication for educational purposes, then Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are the obvious channels of choice.