Social Media as Teaching Tool

This semester while teaching an upper level seminar on Media, Culture & Society, my students and I have been reading and discussing the social effects of new media. We mostly talk about what is “new” to us, such as digital media and social media, but we also think historically about radical changes in media technologies and how society has responded to those changes. Through all this, we’ve been putting our thoughts into practice by testing out different social media in the classroom.

We started out in an inhospitable room with no computer and chairs bolted to the floor. If we hadn’t had the aid of sociology department staff and the registrar to get us a more appropriate room, this course would have been entirely different. Thanks to their help, we now have the luxury of a computer lab room with chairs on wheels. Each student has access to their own desktop and I can project from an instructor computer. This room change gave us the opportunity to test out how we might incorporate social media into in-class discussions. First I’ll talk about what we did and then about what I think it means in terms of student learning.

Tools
First we used Collab, an innovative attempt by the University to create course homepages in the form of collaborative work groups. Its similar to the Blackboard interface, but is more flexible in its design. Unfortunately, Collab is also buggier. We couldn’t add media to the wiki page, couldn’t cut and paste from Word into the blogger feature, and real time collaboration was difficult. While it is a great improvement over the one way communication of earlier programs, it created more headaches that just talking together or writing on a piece of paper.

So we moved on to Google Docs. I have reservations about the use of commercial web based tools in the classroom because it forces students to choose a particular product, or at the very least advertises the features of Google over those of other tools. But then again, the University has scrapped its mail system in favor of Gmail, so the boundary between educational and corporate is already quite blurry. Google docs worked quite well for text, but real time collaboration was a little stilted and sometimes students lost information. Only ten of us could edit at a time, which was frustrating in a class of eighteen. People can easily loose focus when they can’t participate.

This past week a student suggested drop.io as a collaboration solution. So far, this is the most versatile program, though it too has its bugs and frustrations. It allows us to collaborate in real time, without the loss of contributions, allows us to chat while we add content, and allows media file sharing as well as text. You can even call your contribution in from your cell phone and it will leave an mp3 file of your voice mail on the drop. The downside of this program is that entries are organized chronologically and not even the administrator has the ability to change the the date and time. So, for instance, as I uploaded our earlier content from Collab and Google, it appears first rather than last. There is also no tagging system to organize information, which may make this interface unwieldy by the end of the semester. Unless I upgrade from the free account to the $19.95/mo account, or find a better free program, we’ll have to live with these problems.

Learning
When we first used drop.io, I asked students to create a “note” about the Internet privacy concerns that they had read about in Solove’s The Future of Reputation. I then asked them to add links to other privacy scandals or issues they had heard about. As I read theirs from my computer and added my own, a heard a few students wheeling around to ask questions of others, but it was relatively silent apart from the clunky click of Dell desktop keyboards. When I next looked at my watch 30 minutes had passed in this manner, and my students were still silent and concentrating on their task. No one even drifted off to youtube or to check their email.

At that moment I wasn’t sure if this was a positive learning experience or not. If it was, did we really need to be in the same room? If it wasn’t, had I just wasted half a class period? I reconvened us for a face-to-face discussion. In this discussion, I realized that it hadn’t been a waste of time, and that we did need to be meeting in the classroom. Starting the period with social media addressed several perpetual problems in classroom discussions. It 1) allowed students to converse in public without being “on the spot,” alleviating concern about an immediate assessment from the teacher, and leaving room for more reserved students to participate equally 2) helped students to refer back to the ideas of specific fellow students using their names and 3) primed students not only for what they would present in the large group discussion, but also for how they could respond to the ideas of others, moving discussion forward in an interactive and coherent manner.

There are also some downsides. Looking back at our conversation in the drop, its not nearly as vibrant as it was in person. Its more like a series of preliminary sketches than an account of what happened. If we were using paper, its more likely that students would polish a “product” for submission that would better represent the discussion. Also, this kind of activity requires resources. In many university settings, including my own, its not possible for all students to have access to a computer in the classroom.

Despite these drawbacks and continued limitations of the web based programs themselves, I see some intriguing possibilities for the incorporation of social media into classrooms as a means to increase horizontal communication among students and to quickly construct a collective knowledge base.