Social media is one of the hottest topics in education. Look at any teaching conference program, and you will find that a large percentage of the sessions are on how to incorporate social media into your teaching. This can lead instructors who do not use social media to feel like they are missing the boat.
But an online instructor can understandably wonder how social media provides an advantage over the traditional Learning Management System discussion forum. While there undeniably are some benefits to using such a forum, such as permanence of messages and ease of finding messages, there are also a number of advantages that social media systems, such as Twitter, afford over LSM discussion. An understanding of those advantages will allow online instructors to decide whether, and how, to incorporate social media into their online teaching.
Broader range of topics
Discussion forums are fundamentally designed to channel discussion into preassigned topics, normally those chosen by the instructor. This can help keep students on topic, but can also limit the scope of discussion. Plus, students are often just “giving the instructor what he or she wants to hear” by writing posts that fulfill the preestablished criteria for the forum. Students have little invested in their posting.
By contrast, social media messages are person-centered. The tweets from students are on topics chosen by those students, and thus students take more ownership of them. Whereas while a student who is asked about his or her discussion forum posting might say “that is just what I answered for the grade,” the same student will defend his or her tweet because it comes from them, and thus more represents their personality and belief system. As a result, a social media–based discussion will tend to flow into a wider range of thoughts. An instructor who wants more creative, blue-sky thinking in the discussion would be better off using a social media system.
Creativity often comes at the oddest moments, because it often involves connecting two seemingly unconnected things. Einstein came up with his Theory of Relativity when he looked out the window of his office to watch men working on the roof of the building next door, and realized that if they fell off they would feel weightless on the way down. We often have our “aha moments” when our minds wonder.
This is important because it means that students may have aha moments outside of class. It could be while reading material from another class, walking to the library, watching television, etc. The student can capture them when they occur with social media, and pass them on to others before they are forgotten. Thus, social media discussions are more likely to elicit moments of creative serendipity.
More outside material
We run across articles, videos, and websites all the time that relate to something we are doing. I was teaching my medical ethics class during the health care reform debate, and basically jettisoned all of my predeveloped content in favor of New York Times articles and a fantastic series of NPR podcasts on health care costs.
When we run across something of value from the Internet, we can easily share it via Twitter or other social media systems. Most sources even have a specific button built into their websites to facilitate sharing. This allows students to share resources they run across that are related to class topics. Students could be given credit for sharing resources with the others in order to encourage them to engage in course topics. This will help them see the relevance of topics to the real world, and develop a repository of material that enriches the course content.
All a faculty member need do is assign a hashtag to the course for easy content collection. Students post a link with that hashtag to Twitter, and all the postings can be gathered together at any time through an aggregator such as TweetDeck. By contrast, students who need to wait until they log in again to share information in a discussion forum will soon forget it.
An instructor can solicit content from students on the fly by posting a tweet asking for resources the day before a class. Students are likely to get it within a few hours and respond. Meanwhile, most students only check email once a day, if at all, and discussion forums even less often.
Making formative assessments
Faculty tend to focus on summative assessment—assessment of learning after the fact. But making formative assessments on progress during learning is critical to gauging student understanding and adjusting for problems. This can more easily be done with social media by asking students simple questions via Twitter. Students will get the questions quickly and can respond immediately. Plus, numerous students can provide the same short responses to indicate whether they have gotten the material. This would not work as well in a discussion forum, since the forum is fundamentally designed for threaded discussion where each posting is unique and builds on another.
Preparing for modern digital citizenship
A fundamental goal of education is to prepare students to be productive members of society. This means teaching how to communicate within society. Unfortunately, faculty tend to restrict assignments to artificial communication such as a research papers. Few students will write research papers after they graduate. Social media is the dominant means of communication today, and incorporating that into your courses will help students learn to effectively use this medium.
Some faculty ban social media from the classroom on grounds that student writing tends to deteriorate. But this is actually a reason to include it in order to teach students how to write effectively to convey their thoughts and contribute to public discourse. There are numerous examples of celebrities in all fields writing embarrassing tweets that they wished they had not written. Since this is the dominant means of communication today, the role of higher education is to teach students how to use it effectively when they enter the real world.