Five Reasons to Use Social Media in the Classroom

I’ve just returned from a few days at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine (Trinidad). I was invited by the campus’s Instructional Development Unit (IDU) to deliver the keynote address at the presentation of their biennial UWI / Guardian Life “Premium” Teaching Awards. The theme that they asked me to speak on was “Teaching Excellence and Social Media,” something that I was excited to spend a few weeks thinking about more concretely than I have had the chance to recently since I am not currently teaching courses.

It was apparent that the theme struck a chord with many of the campus’s faculty. An afternoon conversation between myself, the Programme Coordinator (Dr. Anna-May Edwards-Henry), and thirty or so faculty members about the practicalities of using social media in the classroom and some of the assignments that I’ve designed was exciting and helped me refine some of my own ideas further. But it wasn’t just the university that was interested in the topic. We were also interviewed on television (watch us from 1:37:25 to 2:00:50) and radio; and these weren’t PBS stations: they were morning shows that are among the most viewed/listened to programs in the morning. Imagine if Good Morning America or Today cared enough to talk about social media — or even just education. (I’m not holding my breath for an invite.)

In the interest of continuing the conversation about social media and putting “theory” into practice, I wanted to post the talk and the accompanying Prezi here. (Prezi takes a lot of time to do well, in my opinion. But if your audience hasn’t seen a Prezi before, your time will be well repaid.) If you want to see how the presentation was linked to the talk, you can see a marked-up copy on Scribd.

“Five Reasons to Use Social Media in the Classroom.”



  • In an article titled “Fear and Trembling,” Ellen Nold discusses the difficulties of getting scholars to use the computer creatively in their teaching and research. In a statement that might just as well be directed towards social scientists or natural scientists, Nold suggests, “What is preventing humanists from using the computer…is merely their belief that they cannot use the machine. It is ironic that a group known to undertake calmly and surely the study of Latin, Greek, Russian, Chinese, Swahili, or Gaelic often balks at the much simpler task of learning the more logical, far less capricious language of the machine.”
  • Nold’s critique of fear and trembling on the part of scholars when faced with new technology is timely. It addresses some of what is at the crux of integrating social media into the classroom: nervousness and uncertainty on the part of the professoriate…which is interesting since the article appeared in 1975…and was discussing the use of the revolutionary, computational tool: the word processor.
  • Thirty-five years later, I’d be willing to guess that word processors have become second nature and indispensable to most of us. The only time “fear and trembling” might apply to the tool is when Microsoft radically overhauled the menu interface for Word 2007.
  • If we’ve become used to using the word processor, surely we can become used to using social media in the classroom
  • Of course, one difference between the two is that the word processor is something that professors adopted before students. In this case, the tables have been turned. We, perhaps, are the students when it comes to social media.
  • As such, we should perhaps briefly note what exactly social media is.

Definition of social media

  • When we think of social media, we tend to think of a few big players: Facebook, Twitter, perhaps MySpace, Friendster, Orkut
  • These social networks are certainly social media. But social networking is not the only type of social media.
  • When I talk about social media, I prefer a wider definition. (Something along the lines of the definition on the Wikipedia, itself a social medium)
  • Media are how we communicate with one another. Throughout the 20th century, we developed ever more pervasive and sophisticated broadcast/publishing media that could reach more and more people: radio, traditional book publishing, television, and eventually the Internet.
  • But access to these electronic and print media was expensive and centralized. Even the Internet was expensive and limited at first, despite all the utopian rhetoric associated with it.
  • With advances in technology in the 1990s and in the 2000s, the cost of participating in content creation fell. Suddenly, almost anyone could be involved in publishing or broadcast.
  • When almost anyone can be involved, the media landscape suddenly becomes more communal, more participatory, more social.
  • Social media supplements traditional media models. Podcasts occupy the same space as radio; blogs and wikis play along with traditional print publication; and YouTube takes over television.
  • In short, you might say that any time we get our students creating and responding to one another online that they are using social media.

Social Media In the Classroom

  • So that’s what social media is. As Howard Rheingold puts it, “The power of social media in education […] derives from their affordances for forms of communication and social behavior that were previously prohibitively difficult or expensive….”
  • Lowering the costs means that it’s easy for all of us to use social media in the classroom.
  • But just because it’s easy to use doesn’t mean that that use will necessarily be excellent. So how do we go about encouraging excellence in the classroom with social media?
  • As far as I’m concerned, the first step to being effective with social media is to ask yourself why you want to include social media in your classes.
    • What are you hoping to accomplish? What learning outcomes do you desire?
    • And you don’t just need to know why you’re using social media for yourself; you will need to make it clear to students why we are using social media in the classroom.
    • We owe it to them to clarify how a new assignment—something very different from what they’ve probably done before—will help them learn the course’s content better.

What, then, can social media add to the regular classroom dynamic or experience? Let me suggest five ways to think about these additions.

1. It gets the class knowing each other better, which improves the classroom dynamic.

  • I believe that getting people to know their classmates is an important thing that social media can do.
  • We all know that it’s easier to teach a class at the end of the term than in the beginning. After several 15 weeks, we know one another better. You know who they are and you know their personalities. You can get away with a slightly different pedagogy, and everyone has developed relationships that make it easier for them to talk to one another.
  • When used in the classroom, social media can do the impossible: speed up time. We move more quickly to those last weeks of the term where we know one another better and consequently reap the benefits of that increased contact with one another.
  • This happens when one uses Twitter or when students read each others’ blog posts.
  • Football fan
  • Faren’s story
    • In this moment, she explored the tool for its ability to shape our perceptions of her.
  • Discussions really did improve when using Twitter in the classroom.
  • People asking each other for help with assignments
    • They help each other because they have come to know each other better. Social media is, in other words, a gift economy.

2. It provides a different pathway for people to be talking to each other and to be participating.

  • As Monica Rankin (UT Dallas) wrote : “Most educators would agree that large classes set in […] auditorium-style classrooms limit teaching options to lecture, lecture, and more lecture.  And most educators would also agree that this is not the most effective way to teach.”
  • So another way that I’ve used Twitter in my classroom is as an in-class backchannel.
  • So what I do is I project the students’ tweets on a large projection screen like this. As I teach, the students are welcome to send messages from their phones or computers, and all of the messages end up behind me.
  • This proves helpful in a lecture-based course because in that format, students normally do not have the chance to engage with the teacher. The professor is simply talking at the front of the room.
  • Using Twitter in this way allows the students to talk to each other and also to me.
  • There’s always a backchannel. This just allows me to capture that backchannel and make it public, inviting the students to communicate with each other.
  • I can look at the screen and respond to questions and get immediate feedback on what I’m doing.
  • There’s the chance that the students will post sarcastic things about what I’m doing or some mistake that I’ve made, but that still indicates that they are engaged with class material.
  • In a smaller, discussion-based class it can also engage those who are less vocal.

3. It allows the conversation to continue easily outside the space and time of the classroom. It makes things asynchronous.

  • The asynchronous nature of social media means that you and your students can get to things when you have time for them or when you’ve had more time to consider. We all know students—again, the less vocal ones—who take longer than others to formulate what end up being very insightful comments. Social media in the classroom gives these students a different avenue and a different temporality for presenting these viewpoints.
  • It also gives the entire class a way to continue discussing the course material, whenever someone wants to. You no longer have to depend upon being in the same place at the same time to learn.
  • Digital office hours, accomplished via IM
  • Wikis
    • My favorite social media assignment uses a wiki.
    • A wiki is a tool that allows multiple people to edit a document and to track the changes made to it.
    • For each day of class, I assign a small group of students to write notes—a summary, key passages and terms—and publish them on the wiki.
    • Suddenly, group work is much less painful thanks to the technology. They don’t have to be in the same place at the same time.
  • The asynchronous approach has the final benefit of keeping my students thinking about my course material.

4. It provides students with transferable skills and toolsets that they will use after completing university.

  • How to write clearly and persuasively is perhaps the most important thing I teach students in my literature classes. So writing is good.
  • But if they also know how to write online? That’s better.
  • Writing online—blogs, tweets, wikis—is an important skill for this century. I want my students to have other abilities that will distinguish them when they meet with employers.
  • One of the ways I accomplish this goal of teaching new skills is through an interactive timeline assignment.
  • Timelines, Google Docs, and HTML
  • It’s not only particular tools or technologies that matter, it’s skills. Working in social media teaches the students how to collaborate on a team (wikis)—something that humanities classes in particular don’t teach by default—and how to behave in a networked environment.

5. The fifth (and last) reason to use social media in the classroom is that it opens the classroom to the world.

  • How often have you heard students ask, “Why does this matter?”
  • Because social media tends to be public, classes that use social media open themselves to participation from the wider world. From other students.
  • You can also bring guests into the classroom using Skype. These guests can include other scholars, authors, or maybe just native speakers of the language your students are learning.
  • Alternatively, assignments can ask students to engage with the wider world. Many of my friends who teach political science or film assign their students to write new entries for the Wikipedia. They contribute to the world’s wider knowledge and it’s suddenly clear why what they’re doing matters.
  • And because social media is open, it’s something we can capture. We generate our own record of what we’ve learned. This record can be of use to students in the future. It’s something that they can show to other people (parents?).
  • And in this sense, it opens the classroom and the learning experience to the larger world.


  • So there are five reasons to use social media in the classroom. Even with those reasons, you might still feel nervous about its inclusion.
  • But just remember…
  • We’re ALWAYS been social. We use a profoundly social space in our teaching—the classroom—, and being social is how we’ve always been excellent. It’s certainly a trait of those who are being honored this evening.
  • Just because we’re already social, however, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try supplementing our classroom with something new, like social media. The reasons for using social media in the classroom are so overwhelmingly positive that it’s worth the experiment and the risk of becoming uncomfortable for a short period.
  • It is possible to have teaching excellence and social media in the same classroom.
  • We just have to be willing to become students again ourselves.
  • Thank you.