Teaching with social media can be an effective way to engage with students and build community. Christine Greenhow, an educational psychology professor at Michigan State University, has studied social media’s use in education and has found that when used as a class communication tool, teaching with social media has a number of benefits.
These benefits include making students feel more engaged in learning, creating deeper interactions between teachers and students, and expanding learning communities beyond school walls.
However, teachers need to make sure they are fostering responsible social media use that protects student privacy and adheres to the rules in their district or school. Those under 13 are not permitted on most major social media platforms, so the advice here pertains to high school students and older.
Before making social media a part of class, teachers also should ensure they’re not violating IT or other school policies.
Teaching with Social Media: Choose a Social Media Platform
After ensuring they’re adhering to their school’s rules regarding teaching with social media, the first step for any teacher looking to have students post class-related material to social media is to decide which platform to use.
“It's good to informally survey your students to ask what are they already using,” Greenhow says. “What do they feel comfortable with? What would they absolutely not want teachers to integrate into the classroom? For instance, some students have carefully crafted profiles on Instagram. And now, if you're going to ask them to use their Instagram for classroom purposes, you're, in a sense, hijacking this curated identity.”
Additionally, Greenhow advises teachers to use a social media platform with which they themselves are familiar and comfortable.
Choose a Closed or Open Mode of Communication
Some teachers are more comfortable incorporating social media into class in a closed social media platform, for example, a dedicated Facebook Group that only class members are allowed into. Students can use this type of group to engage in class-related discussions and post short assignments.
Using social media in this manner can have advantages over using an LMS in some instances. “If your goal is for your students to communicate their viewpoints in text, maybe an LMS is just fine,” Greenhow says. “But when you use social media, you see not just the students' post, but their profile is attached to their posts. On social media the people are as central as is the content they upload and share. So you get to see the students’ profiles and maybe learn something about them you wouldn't otherwise know.”
This knowledge can provide new ways to connect with students as individuals and around class material.
Harness the Hashtag
The potential for teaching with social media expands when teachers use open systems rather than closed ones. Creating a hashtag for the class or for specific assignments that students post to can be a good way for students to find different ways to connect with course material as well as one another.
“If you're teaching English and you're studying Wuthering Heights, you could have them go out and find resources related to the book or to the location or things that they're interested in related to the Wuthering Heights topic, and then have them use the class hashtag,” Greenhow says. “It's a way for you to see what your students are interested in, in ways you might never have known had they not done this assignment. It’s also a way for them to find their own way into the course material.”
Extend Class Community
Teachers can also strategically use these classroom hashtags to extend and deepen the conversation. For instance, some English teachers Greenhow has studied had their class tweet at an author who they were reading. “Then the author would become part of the Twitter stream,” Greenhow says. "The students really were excited about that, because that makes the book sort of this living, breathing thing that they could then talk to the artist about.”
The concept applies to classes in other disciplines as well. “You could be tweeting at mathematics professors who maybe are doing something interesting in math to pull it into an algebra class in high school,” Greenhow says. “That's an example of when you're using the social media to expand the class community beyond the classroom walls.”
Network with Social Media
As students advance in their academic careers the opportunities to use social media as a professional network increase. For instance, Greenhow asks her doctoral students to use Twitter to network with experts in their field.
“One of my goals for my students is that they start building a research community around their topic of interest or this educational issue that they're becoming an expert in through their dissertation,” Greenhow says. “I'll say, 'Find 10 scholars whose work you're reading, or who have a presence on social media, or who you want to know, or who you want to know you, and follow them. Look at what they post and maybe even tweet at them, maybe even direct message them.'”
Social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and others are increasingly being used as networking tools by professionals in various fields. Making students of any age aware of that and encouraging them to build those professional networks as soon as is appropriate, can help provide them with a powerful life skill.
Safety and Media Literacy
At any age, it’s important to discuss responsible use of social media and teach students to become critical consumers of the media they consume, social or otherwise.
Greenhow recommends teachers incorporate digital citizenship for any of these lessons as well as media literacy. Students should be critical of social media sources and content and watch out for the toxic behavior that is all too often a part of the discourse on most social media platforms.
“Model good behavior and teach that to your students,” Greenhow says. "When you see inappropriate behavior, use that as a teachable moment to say, ‘As citizens, what do we do when we see these things?’”