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Engaging Students with Social Media: Best Practices for Student Success

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Written by
Dr. Julie Delello, Associate Professor of Education at UT Tyler, and Dr. Peggy Semingson, Associate Professor of Education at UT Arlington.

According to the New Media Consortium (2014), students' instant access to networks and social media has facilitated a rise in their level of expectations for the higher education classroom to embrace collaborative learning and content creation. The use of social media allows instructors to create a virtual community of practice (VCoP), which includes the following three components: the domain (the group of individuals who share a common interest and learn from each other), the community (the members who build relationships with each other while networking/interacting), and the practice (the group shares a collection of resources that can be linked to learning) (Wegner, 2006). However, when considering the use of social media, it's important to consider the following questions:

  • How do we get students to participate in social media use?
  • What is the value for educators and to students in participating and engaging with social media for learning?
  • How do instructors set expectations for using social media in learning?
  • How can we protect students' privacy and address security concerns?

Julie:

I teach science and technology courses to undergraduate and graduate students at The University of Texas at Tyler, and I use a variety of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter in my courses to help create social pressure and build a sense of community.

Facebook: Each of my courses has a closed Facebook group to supplement instruction, break down the distance barriers felt due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, and allow for the sharing of ideas with their fellow classmates. For example, students in an introductory robotics course shared their dancing robot projects with one another (See robot) via Facebook.

To get started, all of my students were given a link in Canvas, our learning management system (LMS), to connect to the private Facebook group. Initially, as the administrator, I created a video describing the expectations of the group, how they could join, and how we would use the platform. For example, students were allowed to use the virtual chat feature, contribute to ongoing online discussion topics, and access course-related material such as videos, articles, and PDF files. They were asked to share a picture and tell their peers something about them and share additional resources they found that correlated to the weekly modules. Students were required to participate and were given low-stakes points for weekly postings. Facebook brought a level of competitiveness to the class; the projects became better as they saw what their peers were sharing and creating. The students were not afraid to ask for help from one another as they might have in a face-to-face classroom. There was also an immediacy factor, in that most students already had accounts and access to them on their mobile devices in a visual way that a typical discussion thread did not allow for.

Another social media platform that is increasingly used in higher education is the social networking and microblogging tool, Twitter. This past summer, I required my graduate students in an online technology course to participate in a series of five Twitter chats during the semester (see assignment). Students were given a preliminary list of chats, chat schedule, topics of discussion, time, day of the week, and descriptions of the various chats. Initially, they had to set up a professional profile if they did not already have one and follow me. Students were given the freedom to collaborate with and learn from those with similar interests in informal learning environments at various days and times. Students had to keep a reflective notebook on what chat they attended, what they learned from each chat, and who they chose to follow. In addition, they had to make an active contribution to each chat by asking a minimum number of questions from attendees and using a course hashtag to document their contributions. The students in this course reported that, as they became more comfortable with Twitter, they followed more individuals, tweeted more often, and shared information and resources. One student noted in her journal after her second chat: "If I have learned anything from just these two chats, it is that the more we collaborate, the better we can make the education world for us and our students."

Peggy:

Like Julie, I am also a teacher educator. My classes are mainly taught online at The University of Texas at Arlington, so it's a natural extension to include social media in my courses.

YouTube: Since 2009, I have created my own digital content on YouTube for three reasons: (1) to model creation of digital content for my students, colleagues, and anyone else; (2) to create unique content that aligns with my course objectives; and (3) to create content that is open and accessible for a broader impact and reach. Currently, I have over 3,000 YouTube subscribers and video content has been viewed for over 1.7 million minutes! I embed professor-authored videos as well as quality YouTube videos in my course. I encourage students to search on YouTube for related videos to share in the discussion boards. With teacher education, YouTube helps students to see applications from the "real world." A goal is to provide more direct and specific tips on how to curate quality video content into playlists and for sharing. This post by Sidneyeve Matrix has inspired me to connect social media to the LMS discussion forums (e.g., Canvas or Blackboard).

When using social media content in your courses, consider how students can use applications and mobile learning to connect to curation, viewing, and creation of social media content. Focus on one thing at a time and do not bombard students with too many platforms or possibilities. Instructors need training and examples on how to integrate social media into coursework. Also, with advances in social media, it will be important that institutions have effective policies in place regarding privacy and responsible use.

Guest writers Drs. Julie Delello and Peggy Semingson are both recipients of the UT System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards. Both Drs. Delello and Semingson served as presenters in a session titled "Designing and Delivering Online Classes for Student Engagement & Learning" at the UT System Student Success Summit: The Faculty Role in Student Success in September 2018.

Dr. Delello is an Associate Professor in the College of Education and Psychology at The University of Texas at Tyler who has served in education for over 20 years with extensive experience in K-12 teaching, administration, and leadership. Her research focuses on academic innovations, visual media technologies, gerontechnology, and social media platforms for authentic learning.

Dr. Semingson is an Associate Professor  in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Arlington. In 2013, she received the USDLA Best Practices Platinum Award for Excellence in Distance Learning Teaching, the highest level honored in this category. Her primary research interest is students who face challenges in literacy learning.