Interview with the Fordham University Newspaper, The Ram

Late Autumn Sun and Two Sun Dogs  (c) 2013 Robert Goldwitz
Late Autumn Sun and Two Sun Dogs
(c) 2013 Robert Goldwitz

The other day, Joseph Vitale, the opinion editor of Fordham University’s undergraduate newspaper, The Fordham Ram, interviewed me about using social media in the classroom. He emailed me the questions, and I responded in writing. Mr. Vitale incorporated some of my responses into his very good opinion piece about using social media in educational settings. Here’s my responses to his questions, in full:

First, I would ask if you could explain a couple of ways in which you find social media useful in the classroom, just to get a sense of how professors are using it at Fordham.

In my classroom, my students have occasionally used a private page on Facebook and a public Pinterest page to collaborate on collecting material for discussion and research on American literature. I find Facebook to be particularly useful because most students are comfortable with that medium. It’s easy for them to write original material and respond to other people’s posts. However, I change things just a bit by having students write rather long posts (for Facebook) about something they’ve researched and include a link to supporting material. Students are often surprised that they can add so much content to a single post. Pinterest is more challenging because not as many students use it. It’s also better for posting images, and since my courses are generally about writing and reading, Pinterest is less useful for my students.

In what way do the functions of social media transcend traditional teaching methods? Traditionally, the classroom has not been a social place. Students arrive to class, sit in a chair and, the teacher hopes, listen to a lecture and take notes. Many educators today see that model as outdated because it causes students to be passive learners. Social media can be a way to encourage students to be more active during class hours and outside of class.

For example, during class, some teachers allow students to tweet important material from the lecture to the rest of the class. While this is happening, students participate in a Twitter back channel, in which they add their own ideas and links related to the lecture. After the class is over, students can refer back to the Twitter stream, using it as a set of notes for the lecture and continue the conversation. This approach allows students to help teach the class because they are contributing their own knowledge and insights about the material.

Using Twitter in a directed way can help prepare students for careers that may involve using Twitter or other social media venues. That kind of job might include broadcasting information to clients or customers, or cultivating a personal learning network among colleagues.

What obstacles have you seen come up when using social media in the classroom? Are there limits to its functionality?

One major obstacle, obviously, is that when a teacher allows electronic devices in a classroom, some students are going to do things with them that have nothing to do with the class. Some students with devices may be tweeting the lecture, but others may be checking email, Facebook, or even doing work for another class. A way around that scenario is, for example, to only allow several students to tweet the class, but then the backchannel might lose some richness.

Teachers can turn this problem into a learning opportunity for students: Learn to use devices responsibly and make the most of your time in the classroom. In my experience, most students at Fordham are responsible and do want to use their time here in the best way possible. Moreover, it’s important to be conscious of how one uses social media. Students should cast a critical eye on their use of social media and how it uses them. A great book about mindful use of social media and technology is Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012).

Another obstacle is that not all students want to use social media. There are many good reasons for not wanting to join the digital herd, including not wanting to divulge personal information to companies such as Facebook. In my current class, one student does not use Facebook. She sends me her material, which I post for her on our private course page, and then she reviews the posts in my office with me using my account. Fortunately, this student is very accommodating. If that wasn’t the case, a workaround could be to have students collect their material in a shared GoogleDoc or in a wiki created by the teacher. But these solutions, as well as the use of social media, assume that all students have access to the internet. That’s not always the case—and another obstacle and limit to the usefulness of social media.

If you were a student, would this be something that would excite you? Why or why not?

Social media in the classroom would definitely excite me if I were student. However, I’d probably be looking for the next hot thing. I would be less interested in using the same platforms as my teachers or parents. Or, I would search for innovative ways to use the most popular forms of social media. That said, it’s very important that all students who use social media, whether for social or academic purposes, use it responsibly. As we’re constantly reminded by the news, reckless use of social media can haunt users at some point in the future.

According to one study, 41% of college professors use social media in the classroom? How do you think this number can grow within the next few years? 

This number may grow, especially as new (younger) teachers are hired and bring their experience using social media productively for academic purposes. But what will social media look like in the next few years? A recent New York Times article reported that Facebook has seen a decline in new users, particularly with teenagers. They’re already moving on to the next big social media thing. And that’s going to be a challenge for teachers who want to use Facebook or Twitter in their classrooms. Students who use newer forms of social media might resist signing up for the old ones on the grounds that they don’t want to give companies such as Facebook information about themselves. Teachers might not want to learn how to incorporate new social media venues into their course work.

Some teachers avoid social media. I think that’s a mistake. Social media is not going to go away; it will continue to develop and become more complex. It is important that students learn to use social media not just for entertainment, but in creative and productive ways, and that they use learn to use it safely and critically. What better place for that than a college classroom?

Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

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