Like all college and university faculty, August means finalizing fall syllabi and lesson plans, and pre-reading articles for fall courses. For many professors, this process includes thinking (or rethinking) on how to leverage social media to engage students in the semester's learning.
At Rutgers, my fall Understanding and Designing Social Media Course is designed as a hybrid -- the best of a well-structured, MOOC-style online learning environment with a robust schedule and structured activities from Tuesday-Thursday of each week, and a weekly, in-person meeting on Wednesdays.
Having experimented with social media for learning -- especially Twitter -- across my courses, I am convinced that social media offers powerful opportunities to connect with students, by providing new ways for them to own the learning. But doing it well takes a good deal of planning and structure, especially if social will be part of your graded class activities.
Below are 10 strategies and tactics for integrating Twitter into your college course.
1) Assign a course #hashtag. The hashtag is the most basic of Twitter formalities. Assign your course hashtag early, include it on all of your materials, and reference your hashtag consistently to drive the culture of Twitter across your course learning. The tag should be short, catchy and relatable (bad example: #introcommunication101CFU). My fall course at Rutgers will tweet under #rusocial14.
2) Provide Twitter training(s). One misnomer of the millennial generation is that they come to higher education with high-level social media skills. By and large, they don't. The digital natives, the Instagram generation, the selfie generation -- whatever label we assign -- is born texting, tweeting and socializing on digital. But, like all communication skills, strategic use of social media is a learned skill. IF you expect students to live-tweet Ted Talks, learn to follow and engage with issues via Twitter, or even create critical mass around course discussions, trainings must be offered as part of your course. Mid-career students returning to learning, or continuing their education also, are unlikely to have used social media -- especially Twitter -- in a strategic context. These are important skills to learn in the context of a modern higher education.
One set of progressive exercise I start my in-person classes off with is the following:
Step 1: Have all students open the Twitter app on their phones or laptops while projecting Twitter in front of the room, monitoring the class hash tag.
Step 2: Have everyone tweet one thing they would like to learn this semester, and remember to include the class hashtag. This allows everyone to see the hashtag string unfold in front of them.
Step 3: Now, Pose a question to the class, via Twitter (again, using the hashtag) -- like, "what is important about #Twitter?" Remind everyone to respond by including your twitter handle, and the class hashtag.
Step 4: Have students find a response they like, and retweet it, first by clicking the retweet button, and then by quote tweet, spelling out, for example: RT: @llorenzesq "Twitter connects ideas" #rusocial14
3) Demystify Twitter language. Once your students have done some hands-on experimenting, make sure everyone has the language and insight needed to grow their use of the platform. Taking a snapshot of a tweet, highlight the main components in front of your classroom, highlighting the handle(s), hashtags, links (shortened), and how and why each are used. I call this "the anatomy of a tweet."
4) Provide a glossary. RT, MT, PT, H/T, and some of the most often-used hash tags, like #ff, #icymi and others, can make a great one-slide glossary of terms to help demystify the platform.
5) Determine Influencers. The key to the Twitterverse is figuring out how to find and pay attention to what's important, and minimize distraction from the lunches, daily gripes, and assorted fluff that can flood your Twitter feed. Ask your students to do a web search (off of Twitter) for Twitter influencers + (insert subject of interest). Many bloggers have written about this, or preassembled lists of influencers. Students should return to class with a short list of twitter influencers in any field, and articulate why they are influential on, and off Twitter, and why.
6) Integrate Twitter in Grading. In my fall hybrid course, students will earn points for participation in Twitter conversations on each unit of assigned reading. Initial tweets, and two replies are due at set times during the week, and students receive points based on quality of engagement. Remember to offer a rubric for your grades, so that everyone is clear on how excellent Twitter engagement is defined for the purposes of your class. Number of tweets alone is not enough. Rather, the engagement should be measured by several factors: tweeting out to others is the minimum expectation; replying to classmates, engaging with ideas, and connecting external resources is higher level engagement, worthy of full credit. Storifying (via www.storify.com) students tweets from a unit, and reviewing those together, in class, is a great way of bringing their ideas and communication skills into the classroom.
7) Engage Your Guest Speakers on Twitter. Having a guest speaker via Skype, or in person? Provide his or her Twitter handle to your students a day or two before they address the class, and encourage your class to engage with the speaker before their talk, and to live-tweet during the conversation as well.
8) Live tweet Lectures. I have found even the least talkative students more likely to engage course lectures and ideas on Twitter. Asking students to live-tweet your lectures under the class hashtag -- either pulling out important ideas throughout the lecture, or simply tweeting a few of the main ideas after -- provides a powerful tool for engagement. You might ask a question during your lecture, or end the lecture by asking students to tweet the one or two of the most important ideas, crowd-sourcing the answer live in front of your audience.
9) Release course materials and resources on Twitter. The Hootsuite tweet-scheduling feature can allow you to schedule tweets at specific times during your class -- so that an essay question, or an activity prompt is tweeted during your class.
10) Ask what is trending. Whether running a course on K-12 education, modern history, civic engagement and community change, applied science, engineering or, in my case, social media, there is a conversation evolving on Twitter. Asking your students to begin some classes by answering the question, "what is trending?" gives students an opportunity to answer the question with examples, and an evaluation of why that issue or conversation is moving online.
Higher education teaching must evolve, and we must meet students where they are, and where the future of the economy demands. While the classroom, lecture and podium will have an important role in higher education for the foreseeable future, even the most traditional of courses can benefit from smart integration of Twitter, and other digital tools. Whether integrating one, or all of these ideas, students will benefit from more opportunities to learn, and more opportunities to engage in what is increasingly the medium of choice.
One caveat on all of this: When teaching millennials, a conversation about expectations for Twitter-worthy conversations, versus what should be kept to email is important. Your younger students, who live on this technology, may not hesitate in asking about grades and other issues in Twitter's public space. This is all part of the learning.
Future posts will explore additional aspects of social media and learning.
Jason Llorenz, JD is a scholar at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, where he teaches courses in technology and social media. His research focuses on universal digital inclusion in the digital economy. Twitter: @llorenzesq