Social Media in the Classroom: Some Useful Guidelines
As we all gear up for a new school year, I thought it would be worth putting together a few guidelines for effective use of social media in the classroom. I’ve made social media part of my pedagogy for at least the past seven years, in various ways, and so I’ve learned a few basic guidelines that go a long way toward making the use of social media a smoother process.
Privacy and Safety
The most important part of any social media assignment is allowing students the space to protect themselves. If you are asking students to engage on a public platform, allow them the opportunity to use nicknames or fake names. About half of my students opt to create a Twitter account under a name related to the class theme rather than under their own names—and it makes no difference at all to the effectiveness of the assignment.
Another way of making this possible is offering an alternative form of the assignment. Social media is not always a safe place, and forcing students into it is not inherently a positive choice. If students know there is an alternate version they can choose, they may not feel compelled to put themselves in a vulnerable position simply for a class grade. I have only ever had one or two students take me up on the offer of an alternative assignment, but it’s a valuable option. Some potential alternatives:
- Have the students update a Google Doc with their posts; this may be accessible to just you or to the class as a whole
- Have an account that the students do not create, where you can post the material the students write or produce on their behalf
- You may ask for student volunteers to run this dummy account, perhaps for extra credit, if you don’t want to be responsible for it yourself
- Give the student another task that mimics the learning outcomes you want them to accomplish, that does not require interaction with a public space
The other most important part of any social media assignment (to quote The Mindy Project, it’s a tier, not a title) is ensuring all your students can access and complete the assignment without undue burdens. Although it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming all students have smart phones, high speed internet, and personal laptops, that is not always the case. Perhaps it’s through choice, perhaps it’s not, but making such presumptions is detrimental to you and your students. Try to build your assignments around platforms that can be accessed from more than one kind of technology—and if you use one that can’t be, acknowledge that up front. Instagram, for instance, doesn’t allow uploading pictures from a computer. But there are various emulators that can make such things possible, so I built that option into my assignment sheet when I asked students to use the app.
Also consider the ramifications of using various social media platforms for students who have some form of visual impairment, who are hard of hearing, or who have disabilities. Do the platforms have accessibility options built in? If not, the alternative assignment becomes even more important to have in place.
While it may be tempting to tell students to join Twitter and have fun, in my experience the more guidelines and structure you offer students, the more effective the assignment. Tell your students how many posts you expect. Tell them if they should cover specific topics or use (or not use) hashtags. Tell them what you hope they get out of the assignment—how do you want it to work?
Moreover, students benefit from seeing you model what you expect them to produce. You want them to live-tweet their readings? Do it yourself. You want them to discuss their writing process? Do that, too. Despite what the media might have us believe, not all of our students spend their whole lives online. (The number of students whose eyes go wide with fear when I tell them they have to use Twitter is much higher than you’d expect.) In addition to adding links to tutorials to your assignment sheets, the act of modeling the use you want to see can help limit the learning curve for students new to the form.
Enough about your students. What about you? One of the biggest challenges with social media assignments is finding an effective way to evaluate student performance without having to spend every second of the day counting posts. I recommend setting specific checkpoints throughout the semester where students will submit their work in batches. There are different ways that can work:
- Use the social media platform’s built-in features
- While the Twitter Moments option is frequently mocked (often with good reason), it’s actually perfect for this purpose. Students can collect all their tweets under one link, and they can set it to only be accessed by those who have the link to the Moment.
- Use your course management system to your advantage
- Consider building in assignments or assignment modules where students can submit their work. When my students used Tumblr, I didn’t have this process set up—and it definitely increased my workload.
- Use a fun combination of platforms
- When I had my students using Instagram, I had them maintain a Google Doc where they would post links to their weekly posts. I then had students submit the link to that Google Doc on Canvas, where I could easily access it at anytime without having to hop around between Canvas assignments or scroll endlessly through the course hashtag.
If you find a workflow that is functional for you, it can simplify the use of these kinds of platforms significantly. You can find links to the social media assignments I've assigned at Georgia Tech over on the Courses Taught section of my website--feel free to peruse and use whatever might be useful to you.