12/02/2010 05:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Online Social Media: Taming the Beast for the Classroom Part I

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My office is often a flurry of activity with students coming with a wide array of questions. Whenever possible, I respond to their questions via email. Last Fall, one of our students expressed dismay when I told her I would respond to her request with an email.

"Email, Dr. Toney? That's so old fashioned."

After some thought, I realized she was right. After all, I sent my first email message sometime before the class of 2014 was born (in the early to mid 1990's), so it should be no surprise that this form of communication could be seen as quaint.

It is obvious that the way college students communicate with each other has changed dramatically over the past few years. We've all seen it: traversing the hallways transfixed by their mobile device, texting while in transit, they seem more attached to this electronic portal than they are to each other. Engagement in this digital world can be consuming; a recent article in The New York Times, "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction" describes a 14 year old student who "...sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time." Without a doubt, most or all of this communication is social - but can we use this technology for teaching and learning?

As educators, we can regard this technology fixation with frustration, as an obstacle to reaching our students. But it is also a tremendous opportunity to enhance how we teach them.

The student's rebuff at my using email to respond to her question became an opportunity to update how I communicate with students and more, importantly, how to teach them. Over the winter break, I set up Twitter and Facebook pages specifically for a course I was planning to teach the following Spring.

The response was remarkable (keep in mind that this is in no way a scientific analysis of the effect of online social media on teaching and learning). I often develop teaching materials using the most current information -- this week's issue of Science or Nature, for example. Using Twitter and Facebook to post these articles or related links, the student engagement was dramatically improved compared to now traditional approaches such as Blackboard. The reason is simple -- students are using these tools constantly, and media such as Twitter and Facebook are active, not passive. The information is conveyed in real time to mobile devices.

A recent study of the effect of using Twitter on class performance using 125 pre-health professional students was published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. The researchers concluded that students using Twitter to access information and assignments for a first-year seminar course earned a half point better in grade point average compared to students who accessed the same information using a more traditional web-base course management system. Earning better grades certainly does not guarantee enhanced student learning, but the students using online social media were more engaged -- the goal of every educator.

I am not suggesting that every educator adopt this approach, simply that it should be considered seriously as another tool for teaching and learning.

What do you think?

This subject is sufficiently complex and rich to warrant a series of articles; this is the first posting.
This article was originally published on ScienceBlogs.