Embracing Social Media in Teaching

by Leah Sera, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Suburban Hospital

OK, I admit it – I’ve been suckered into social media. Not at the crest of the wave, mind you. In my case it’s more like being pulled in by the undertow.  But the end result is the same: I have a Twitter account, I spend lots of time on Facebook, I’m an occasional contributor to various discussion boards and listservs.  And I’m really, truly, going to start a blog as soon as I have the time to do so. We’ve been using social media from the beginning in this class as a teaching and learning tool – this blog, for instance, and our discussion board. I think these techniques have been useful in our online class, but are they being used elsewhere? How successful are they?
Media consultant Fred Cavazza breaks the term “social media” into ten categories: publication tools, sharing tools, discussion tools, social networks, micropublication, social aggregation, platforms for livecast hosting, virtual worlds, social gaming platforms, and massively multiplayer online games. 1 Most of what has been written about higher education and social media addresses recruitment efforts, but there is some information available about its use in the classroom – and I found most of the information on discussion boards and in blogs!
Social media is apparently a more widely used instructional technique than I might have guessed from my own experience. A survey of about a thousand professors conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group reported that over half of those surveyed used video, podcasts, blogs, and wikis as part of their classes (online videos and podcasts were most commonly used), and about a third used social networks to communicate with students.2

It’s intriguing to imagine what things might be like if classroom techniques moved beyond BlackBoard and online lecture tools. How about creating a virtual classroom using a tool like Second Life? Using Facebook groups to increase communication between classmates, and between faculty and students? One educator has stopped using physical textbooks completely; instead she uses a social bookmarking tool to share current articles, websites, and other online content. She also requires the students to use the bookmarking tool to collect and share materials relevant to their field, as well as keep a blog. She even created a synchronous chat (e.g. instant messaging board) which allowed students to anonymously pass virtual notes during her class sessions so that they could “add their own voice to the lecture, as well as…have the agency to multitask while listening.”
The use of social media may be a way to mitigate some of the problems with traditional education in today’s tech saavy society. Often traditional lectures fail to capture students’ attention, especially when there are so many distractions. Teachers who inadequately attempt to bridge the gap between traditional classroom teaching and modern technology often seem to end up reading lecture notes verbatim from a set of PowerPoint slides. As a student, that experience is supremely boring, and a bit of an insult to student capabilities. I’ve been known to remark to my classmates that it doesn’t seem likely that I would have been accepted into a doctoral program if I wasn’t capable of reading the slides on my own. I can be snarky like that sometimes.
In the case of Educational Theory and Practice [the course for which this blog essay was written], social media makes the class much more accessible.  Since one of the instructors lives in Florida, I’d say social media makes this course possible. For those of us who also live outside the Baltimore area [this course is offered through the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy Baltimore campus], online discussions cut down on travel time (and gas money).  Indeed, it seems likely there are a few participants taking advantage of this class who otherwise would not have been able to do so. It takes some adjustment, particularly with regard to student participation. It’s much easier to be distracted when you’re not sitting in a classroom, and there isn’t as much pressure to participate because you can easily avoid eye contact with the professor (indeed, there is no eye contact!). However, my mother once told me that when she was in grad school, before Gmail and Facebook, and lectures were primarily accompanied by a set of slides, that the lights would go down and so would student eyelids. So maybe student participation is more about student attitude and engagement than the mode of delivery. As someone interested in a career in academia, I think social media has a lot to offer and represents a new and creative way to engage students in the learning process.
1 Cavazza F. Social Media Landscape [internet]. Accessed 2010 Sept 27. Available from http://www.fredcavazza.net/2008/06/09/social-media-landscape/
2 Pearson Social Media Survey 2010 (online presentation). 2010. Accessed 2010 Sept 27. Available from http://www.slideshare.net/PearsonLearningSolutions/pearson-socialmediasurvey2010
3 Manfield L. Effectively using media in social education: a college educator on the advantage of Web 2.0 Classroom [internet]. Published 2008 Dec 30. Accessed 2010 Oct 5. Available from http://www.suite101.com/content/using-social-media-in-education-a87365