Evolve or die: Modern classrooms need to change with times

Fellow profs, if you’ve been around students anytime within the last few years, you know social media is integral to their lives.

They Facebook message each other (Yes, even in class!) and tweet pictures of their Friday night fun to their followers. Often, young people eschew email and phone calls in favour of texting or Facebooking.


Social Media for Academics: A practical guide

Edited by Diane Rasmussen Neal
Woodhead Publishing

According to a 2010 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the typical American teen sends 1,500 texts a month – and you can rest assured they’re texting with Facebook open, playing music in the background, playing a video game and a host of other activities.

If you don’t believe me, visit a campus coffee shop or the UCC and observe their behaviour.

So, with all these online modalities present in their lives, how can professors increase student engagement and learning success? Is it unrealistic to expect them to listen to our linear lectures twice a week when Facebook photos are beckoning? (Perhaps, but we’ll work on that.) Is the university-sanctioned WebCT (or Sakai) the best tool to provide them outside of the classroom? (Definitely not.)

I’ve taught courses online since the start of my university teaching career in 2004, and found WebCT-like applications to be technologically dated, cumbersome, expensive, time-consuming and generally frustrating. It was a revelation for me when my friend introduced me to Edmodo (edmodo.com), a social media-based classroom management software tool.

The site appears similar in design and function to Facebook, but also includes many of the traditional online classroom tools that we have grown to expect from WebCT-like applications. It’s free, secure, does not require ITS administration and students find it easier – and more fun – to use than traditional, university-sanctioned tools.

My new edited volume, Social Media for Academics: A practical guide, contains ideas about how faculty members can utilize today’s technological tools such as Facebook, Twitter and smartphones in our daily endeavours. Co-authored with a former social media student of mine, Robert Foster, a chapter in the book, Learning social media: Student and instructor perspectives, describes how I teach my Social Software and Libraries course entirely online while using only social media tools such as Edmodo, blogs, Twitter, Skype, Google+ and so on.

Robert, and two other students who took my winter 2011 social media course, provided their thoughts in the chapter about how the appropriate use of these tools made the course fun, useful and engaging – without the class ever meeting in person. Through the use of these tools, the students gain first-hand experience with them as they complete the week’s lesson. The discussions surrounding social media policy, privacy and security, tool selection, organizational context and other topics we explore in the course are always rich and thoughtful.

Students who are too shy to speak up in a traditional classroom setting tell me they can find their voice comfortably online; these media seem to level the student participation playing field.

In addition to increasing student engagement, social media can also help us manage our time. For example, I require students contact me via Edmodo private message rather than email. When I am ready to handle course communication, I log into Edmodo and handle everything at once.

Some faculty members I’ve known hold ‘online office hours,’ times when they promise to answer messages via asynchronous (Edmodo, WebCT) or synchronous (instant messaging, Skype) communication. When social media tools are used in a way that works with our own teaching and communications preferences, they can help us practice effective time management.

Using these tools, we communicate with our students where they are – and where many of today’s educated workforce members are.

For this reason, social media experiences prepare them for their future careers. The only certainty in today’s online, information-driven world is change, and higher education must evolve along with our technological society in order to remain relevant to our young students and their future employers.

Allow me to quote Robert’s words from our co-authored chapter:

“… it is my view that more professors should make use of at least some of these (social media) tools to enhance the online experience. Further, a strong argument can be made that professors delivering programmes in a regular classroom setting would benefit themselves and their students by making use of several of the social media tools that are already available.”

Diane Rasmussen Neal is a Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor, and holds the permanent title of Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney, Australia. She is the editor of the recently released Social media for academics: A practical guide and the upcoming Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information.