I’m writing this post to procrastinate grading the last batch of final papers that are sifting into my inbox. After one year of being a proponent of social media in the classroom, I can tell you what worked and what didn’t in the classes I taught at Bridgewater State University this year, and how it compares to what the current scholarly research is finding about student engagement in classes that use social media.

At the start of the 2011-2012 school year, I spoke to the faculty of Mass Maritime Academy about ways they could incorporate social media into their teaching. My instructions were clear: It’s only something you should do if you are 100% comfortable with the technology, and whether you were having students watch YouTube videos relevant to the course or tweet questions and discussion points in class, social media had to be a tool, not a distraction.

The reaction was lukewarm at best, with some instructors outright dismissive of what I was saying and others at least curious in hearing more. That tends to be the general attitude in higher education, where some professors will take away smartphones if they see a student giving it a wayward glance and others, like me, will actively encourage students to tweet throughout my lectures and our class discussions.

Evidence that Social Media Boosts Learning Outcomes, But No Best Practices (Yet)

There is a growing body of scholarly research suggesting that, when used properly, social media can boost both learning outcomes and student engagement. The key phrase in that sentence is “when used properly.” The problem is that research in this area is still relatively limited, and most of what is being done in classrooms is experimental. No one has figured out definitively what does and does not work.

While prior to this year I had used social media to informally connect with students and discuss class material, this was the first year I made some form of social media a core component of the English and communication studies classes I taught.

How social media was used depended on the class. The freshman writing class was encouraged to use Google+ to peer edit papers and discuss group projects. A film class used Twitter to ask questions and make comments during in-class screenings. An intro to journalism class live-tweeted events on campus, used Storify to analyze the coverage of major news events and performed a Twitter scavenger hunt to test their reporting skills as part of a final exam.

I started the year using Google+ and Twitter, but simply found students reluctant to use Google+ which was still just three months old at the time. I ran into problems with a freshman writing class in the fall semester (at the time, Google required users to be 18 or older, and I had several 17-year-old students who couldn’t sign up for the service).

Professors Aren’t the Only Ones Reluctant to Use Social Media

While the views are rapidly shifting, there is still a creep factor when it comes to professors friending students and vice versa on Facebook, which was one of the primary reasons I focused on Twitter. Even if students had a Twitter account they didn’t want their professor creeping on, they could easily create a second account for class-use only.

Most students were indifferent. Some loved the idea. But others outright hated it. The reactions included “It’s just not my thing,” “I hate that Twitter [expletive deleted],” and “I don’t get it.” It was that last group that ended up being most problematic: They required extra help, and going forward I need to work more “how-to” instruction into the classes at the beginning of the semester.

With a few exceptions, I did not factor Twitter participation into the grade. But students who were reluctant to use it, for whatever reason, tended to struggle in classes where there were high rates of adoption by other students. I made a point of never making crucial announcements or giving important information over Twitter, but in classes that were truly engaged, there were a lot of useful supplemental discussions happening on the back channel. Students who didn’t participate soon found themselves behind their classmates.

On one hand, I can equate Twitter to reading assignments, in that it’s ultimately the student’s decision to read or not read material that will help them understand the class material. But, at the same time, students presumably know how to read, and read well, when they arrive to my class. That isn’t always going to be the case with social media.

Simple and Not-So-Simple Ways to Increase Engagement

Each of my classes had a hashtag for posting class-related tweets: #COMM240, for example, was the hashtag used by my Intro to Journalism classes. One of the simplest ways to increase in-class Twitter use was to simply write the hashtag on the whiteboard at the start of every class.

I also needed to change my role from professor to participant when we were on the back channel. In the film class, my instinct was to over-tweet when I felt the discussion was lagging. Over time, however, I started to notice that student participation increased when I backed off. I would answer questions and insert a few discussion points when it was warranted, but the biggest key for increasing engagement was to let the students run with the conversation.

The best way to increase engagement, however, was to show how important social media has become. A lot of people - students or otherwise - still view social media as a way of connecting with friends and colleagues. Outside of tech and, to a lesser extent, journalism and demographic studies, the impact of the huge cultural shift is lessened.

Students who had been reluctant to learn social media skills by and large got more engaged after I spent a class discussing how people were using social media in Mexico to track the drug cartels, sometimes risking their own safety to tell stories on blogs and Twitter that the mainstream media was not covering. Other reluctant classroom adopters got on board after we discussed how student journalists at Virginia Tech were able to share information about a shooting on campus in December, even as the campus was locked down. A guest speaker who was just a few years out of college herself and was already doing quite well managing the social media strategy for a successful tech company also increased student interest.

Don’t Just Believe Me

As mentioned, there’s a growing body of research that says we at least need to explore ways to use social media in the college classroom. That’s a fairly huge cultural shift on college campuses, where professors operate with full academic freedom and many remain dismissive of the technology.

For further reading, here are some of the articles that influenced my own jump into incorporating social media into every class I teach:

The best place to start is a fairly comprehensive literature review of social media in higher education, including suggested research directions, by researchers from the University of Arizona and Claremont Graduate College.

“Tweeting For Class” by researchers at Stanford and Cornell is also a useful read, showing how students who “co-constructed” lectures by using Twitter were more engaged. Some 90% of students who participated in the research recommended the instructors use the method again: I haven’t finished my end-of-semester reviews, but I’m certain 90% is a higher endorsement than any of the techniques I tried will get.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.