In spring 2012 Angela Starrett, a mathematics instructor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, was teaching calculus, business calculus, and several other higher-level math courses. To provide students with extra support, she invited them to text her when they had questions. They took her up on the offer, sending images of problems they were struggling with, and she responded in a timely manner. This support seemed to motivate her students. They kept working on problems when they received quick responses from her. However, she found that the students often asked the same questions. Her solution was to use social media, initially Twitter and later Facebook and several other tools, to take this basic idea of one-to-one support to one-to-many and, ultimately, many-to-many.
“I thought Twitter seemed like a great idea because it's like the text message environment, but it provides a way for everybody to see,” Starrett says.
In addition to her upper-level courses, she implemented social media in her general education college algebra course, which, as at most institutions, had notoriously high failure and withdrawal rates.
Since incorporating social media into her college algebra courses, Starrett has seen a dramatic reduction in student failure and dropout rates. Normally 40 to 44 percent of students in this course would get a D or F or would withdraw. Now, just 9 percent of students in the course receive a D or F or withdraw from the course.
“Students loved it. They loved that illusion of my 24/7 availability. They also loved not having to go into Blackboard. They loved not having to email me, since so many students don't do email,” Starrett says.
One of the advantages of using social media is that students who may be reluctant to seek help can access the help provided to other students. It has also led to “organic collaboration,” where students help each other. In some instances, students will simply direct their classmates to resources that Starrett provided. But in other cases, knowledgeable students will actually help other students.
Students are more likely to offer help in Facebook, where they can join a private group especially for the course, whereas students don't necessarily follow each other in Twitter.
Starrett does not require her students to participate in the social media elements of her courses and offers no incentives, but they see the value of it and do participate. She attributes the widespread participation to the younger generation's familiarity with social media, the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the ability to operate outside the LMS.
“I have asked students why they answered a question [from a classmate]. Usually the response is something like, ‘I was sitting there watching a movie, and it came up as a notification on my phone, and I thought I'd answer it. I knew the answer,'” Starrett says. “These kids have grown up in an environment where there's a face-to-face personality and an online personality. The online personality is confident, bolder, and helpful, and likes to make comments.”
Another important factor in students' willingness to participate is feeling comfortable asking questions. To avoid embarrassment, students have the option of asking questions without being identified to classmates (though Starrett knows who asks the questions). “Students know that they can be safe asking a question. Nobody is going to embarrass them because they're asking a question, and the learning is actually becoming a community event instead of happening in isolation. That is the ideal that we hope for in learning environments,” says Lori Tanner, former director of a quality enhancement plan called Student Technology Enrichment Program-Upstate and current director of education workforce training in Cyberinfrastructure Technology integration at Clemson University.
This immediate help contributes to students' willingness to continue their work. “There's so much research that points to the millennial and neo-millennial need for instant gratification. When teaching this generation, if you don't answer their question, they will close their book or computer and say, ‘Oh well. I tried.' Social media gives them the ability to ask the question right when it comes up, get an answer, and keep moving forward,” Starrett says.
Tanner adds, “Some of the feedback we got from students was, ‘I knew I would never be lost, because I could get an answer in the middle of the night. It might not be my instructor. It might be a student who had the same problem.'”
Students must be clear about the problems they're experiencing in order to get help. “I really harp on the students about communicating the question. Especially in a math class, so often you get students who say, ‘I don't get it. I don't understand.' I won't answer in social media until they tell me what they don't understand, even if it's, ‘I have no clue how to start this problem,'” Starrett says.
Different students require different types of support. “For most students I will correct their wrong step so they can finish the problem. Or I will do a similar work problem. As I get to know how the students learn, I adjust that. I have a few students who have certain disabilities with math, so I know I am going to have to help them out with a few more steps and explanation,” Starrett says.
Tweeting images or sending them in Facebook is a common way that students ask for help. With Inkflow Plus (www.qrayon.com/home/inkflow/), an iPad app, Starrett can use a stylus to write on the image that a student has sent. For more detailed explanations, she uses the iPad app Doceri (https://doceri.com/).
The design of her course and the use of social media have enabled Starrett to teach a relatively large number of students. In the fall, she will teach 450 students.
Rather than lecturing in a face-to-face class, Starrett records her PowerPoint-based lectures in Camtasia and posts them on YouTube. The only homework that students have is to watch the videos and take notes. Starrett chunks them into five- to eight-minute sections. The decision to replace live lectures with video came after Starrett tried using a Twitter backchannel in her lectures.
“I found the [live] lectures to be a complete and utter waste of time, because students do not have a 50-minute attention span no matter how many bells and whistles you add,” Starrett says. “Students tell me they watch my videos two or three times until they get it. Between the social media and the way I've flipped the environment, I see motivation and confidence just grow throughout the semester. It's really amazing for students who had a hard time passing algebra in high school.”
Each week students attend the algebra lab for 150 to 250 minutes. There they work on problems on their own device or a zero client machine in the lab. Once they master the learning objectives, they take a quiz.
Starrett mostly teaches using this flipped approach, but she has also taught college algebra totally online. Based on students' preferences, the course used Facebook to provide the social media support. Facebook also was the forum for the dialogue that would typically take place in the face-to-face math lab.
As in the face-to-face version of the course, the social media support in the online version took place outside the LMS, which improves the ability of students to access it wherever they may be using a mobile device, without having to log in to the course.
Starrett sees the potential of social media use in a variety of disciplines. “I definitely think [it is helpful in] any subject that lends itself to being more visual, where the explanation of something tends to be a picture,” Starrett says.
She offers the following advice on getting started: