Using social media as a classroom learning platform

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This post appears in the Spring 2015 issue of the Teaching Matters Newsletter, published by the Teaching and Learning Centre at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.

They are something that the vast majority of us are aware of and may see as a teaching barrier – social media (SM). SM are a set of relatively new and popular online tools whereby individuals can create profiles to communicate and keep up-to-date with the daily musings of their friends, family, acquaintances, or complete strangers. SM can consume a great deal of time in the daily lives of students, and can be a distraction in class if not monitored. However, SM can also be a useful teaching tool and can enhance student engagement by supplementing or adding to institutional classroom learning platforms (Said et al. 2014).

The case study

During the Winter 2015 semester I conducted a quantitative case study (REB file no. 007-2015) to compare the teaching-tool efficacy of SM versus other learning platforms. Specifically, I used available statistics from three communication platforms (D2L discussions, e-mail, and Facebook) to assess the independent engagement of students in BIOL1202, by sharing additional, relevant material that students could choose to interact with or not. No bonus marks were assigned for participating. Engagement was approximately 4 times higher on Facebook than through e-mail, although engagement was still relatively low; D2L was not used by students. Students used Facebook primarily to share pertinent information that they found independently (something I did not initially consider) and communicate with each other, while e-mail was primarily used to communicate with me. The results of this case study and my experience using Facebook helped elucidate some of the pros and cons of using SM as a teaching tool.

Social media as a teaching tool

The biggest benefit of using SM as a learning platform is that most students attending university today are social media savvy, checking them regularly and independently. Despite having access to university-provided learning platforms (e.g. Desire2Learn, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) and student e-mail accounts, many students check their SM accounts much more often (Clements, personal observations), simply because it is something they already want to check. Although most students are active on multiple SM platforms, some serve better than others as learning platforms.

In particular, Facebook (FB) is well suited to use as a learning platform because it allows users to create “closed groups” – a group that you can tailor to your course and personally moderate. In closed groups, the group administrator can control who can join the group, who can view/comment on material, and who can post material themselves. This allows an instructor/professor to create a group for a given course, only let students enrolled in the course into the group, and modify posting restrictions to coincide with what the instructor wants to get out of the group.

Another convenient feature of FB is the “chat” option. Using this option, the instructor/professor can chat with students in real-time and can even set “FB hours”, where students can expect the instructor to be online and ready to chat. Furthermore, this option allows students in the group to chat with each other as well, with the potential to facilitate and expedite communication and enhance various course requirements (e.g. group work). Although this may seem to take more time and effort from the instructor, it can easily be synchronized with office hours to maximize student outreach and assistance.

Students can also have group notifications sent directly to their phone or tablet so that they can engage with the material instantaneously. Although such notifications can be activated on mobile devices for e-mail accounts and institutional learning platforms, this is typically a step that students must take on themselves upon university enrollment. Given that students already have FB notifications set up, they are likely to receive class messages more quickly via FB than other learning platforms (Sturges 2011, my study). This is not only useful for sharing course material, it is a great way to communicate last-minute updates to students (class cancellations, documents, etc.) as well.

FB also provides a variety of useful statistics which allow instructors/professors to evaluate how students are interacting with the material. On each post, instructors can see how many people and exactly who have seen a post, “liked” a post (primary level of engagement), and have commented on a post (deeper level of engagement). These statistics can be used to assess student engagement, as well as assess how FB is operating for a particular course.

Although it is a great outlet for communicating and sharing material, there is a risk that students may be distracted by other aspects of SM, leading to a reduced level of understanding or engagement. For example, students may be more interested in what their friends are doing on the weekend rather than discussing course material. Given that online multitasking can hinder learning (Sana et al. 2013), caution should be taken in this regard when considering using SM as a learning platform.

Another potential problem is that not all students are SM savvy. This can limit the number of students joining and engaging in, for example, a FB group. Although students can be required to join FB and engage, this introduces many of the same hurdles as institutional learning platforms. As such, understanding class demographics is important.

Finally, using SM in synchrony with other platforms can be extremely time-consuming for instructors/professors. It is thus beneficial for educators to garner an understanding of classroom demographics before deciding to implement SM as a teaching platform. A well-defined class demographic can help educators determine whether or not SM may be a useful avenue to explore with the class.

Ultimately, SM (FB in particular) can be effectively utilized as classroom learning platforms, either synergisti­cally with or in place of institutional classroom learning platforms. Given that the educational services provided by institutional platforms are available through FB, the familiarity that today’s students have with FB makes it an optimal and convenient tool to foster learning at var­ious levels. I plan to follow up on this case study and strictly implement FB as the learning platform in future courses to see how my results regarding independent engagement compare to those from mandatory engage­ment.

References:

Said MNHM, Tahir LM, & Ali MF. 2014. Facebook as a tool: Exploring the use of Facebook in teaching and learning. 2014 International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Computing and Engineering, 1:120-124.

Sana F, Weston T, & Cepeda NJ. 2013. Laptop multi­tasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62:24-31.

Sturges, M. 2012. Using Facebook as a teaching tool in higher education settings: Examining potentials and possibilities. International conference on the future of educa­tion. 2nd conference edition [online]. Accessed 30 March 2015 from http://conference.pixel-online.net/edu_fu­ture2012/common/download/Paper_pdf/182-EL10- FP-Sturges-FOE2012.pdf. 12

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