Social Networking: Use-Cases for the Classroom

There is an increasing number of college professors finding success with putting social networking tools to work for them inside of the classroom.  Because many of them are free, and most students are already familiar with them, almost every experiment has been helpful in getting greater participation and academic success.  Here are examples of professors putting Facebook, Twitter, social bookmarking tools, and Wikis to use in class:

Illinois State University instructor Peter Juvinall, teaching a freshman business course this fall, uses Facebook as a course-management system.  He requires his students to “friend” him and says that the reaction is “99.9999 percent positive.” He merely had to work with the one or two students who objected to set their privacy settings, something that many of his students have done to limit what he can see.  Students post questions on his wall, and they submit assignments via their own profiles.  They can even chat with him if he’s logged in.  But the friendship is fleeting – at the end of the semester, he “unfriends” all of his students.

APEngEventsEven high school teachers are finding success with using Facebook for class.  Teacher Svein Arber created a Facebook group to connect with his Advanced Placement literature class. Over the course of the year, students post on the group’s discussion boards to collaboratively analyze readings, they post questions for their teacher on the group wall so he can easily respond in a forum where all students can access the information, and the Events feature is used to remind students of due dates for assignments. “It’s been very positive,” he said. “I’m able to reach my students where they live.” (via Facebook’s blog)

Another great example of using social networking tools to increase classroom engagement is called ‘backchanneling’.  This is when students actively participate in class discussion by submitting comments, questions, and even poll and quiz responses in class and, usually, professors will monitor and even display the results in real-time.  Purdue University built their own backchannelling application, called Hotseat, that allows students to submit messages via Twitter, Facebook or their mobile phone or laptop.  Two classes are piloting the application this semester, and 73% of the more than 600 students are using the tool.  Other tools, such as Today’s Meet, tinychat, Text the Mob, Turning Technologies, and even just using Twitter hashtags, offer a similar functionality – greater participation, and a record of all questions and comments that persists beyond class time.

There are professors around the world using a variety of other social networking tools in class.  Richard Buckland, a Computer Science and Engineering professor at the University of New South Wales, is well known for his use of collaborative websites called Wikis.  On his class Wiki, students can collaboratively take notes, annotate them with questions, and have on-going discussions about class material.  He believes that the Wiki increases participation by breeding a spirit of collaboration and a strong sense of ownership of the course among the students..

Dr. Norm Vaughn, Assistant Professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, is conducting a research project called ‘Student Engagement and Web 2.0: What’s the connection?’ There are five different instructors currently analyzing the effectiveness of five different collaborative technologies as tools in the classroom – blogs, wikis, social networking systems, mash-ups and voice-over-Internet-protocol.  At the end of the semester, student engagement will be measured with a survey that will focus on these points: how actively collaborative the learning is, the quality of interaction with instructors, is there a sense of challenge or rigor, is there a connection between the assigned task and a future purpose, and the larger campus environment of learning.

Fred Stutzman is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who is teaching his fourth semester of a class called Online Social Networks.   He has been studying the implications of OSN’s since 2005, when he did a longitudinal study of UNC’s still-private Facebook.  The focus of his class is on exploring the theory, methods, applications and use cases of social networks, and providing the students with a lens through which to analyze on-line, social interactions.  The class studies a wide range of use-cases, but they actively use a private Facebook group as a forum for class discussion, as well as a Delicious tag (inls490) that, when attached to an article or website, allows it to be archived in the class library of bookmarks that is used both for discussion and research.

Because the wide-spread adoption of using social networking tools has only happened in the past couple of years, and only a few, brave professors are experimenting with using them for academic purposes, it’s still difficult to measure their exact impact on classroom engagement.  But, the initial results are clear – students enjoy using the tools, the tools can be beneficial to the learning experience of the students, and we will most likely be seeing more interesting applications of using social networking tools in the classroom in the near future.