Social Media in the Classroom

By Kim C. Smith, North Carolina A&T State University


Following a discussion of communication-related theories with ties to online social media, students used their newly-found knowledge as a foundation to:
(a.) participate in Second Life (SL), a online virtual reality community
(b.) attempt to go three days with reduced media use
(c.) observe online social interaction behavior among them and their friends on Facebook, the most popular online social network among students.

Students wrote papers on their experiences, and had the option of videotaping their reflections using Web cams, or using Xtranormal, a program that allows students to speak through avatars. Students got a chance to see the theories they learned come to life through the online media they so heavily consume. The teaching technique (combining theory with practical application) brought a new dimension to teaching communication theory.

What can Students Learn About Communication-Related Theories by Using Second Life?

After discussing media system dependency (Baran & Davis, 2009), self efficacy (Bandura, 1983) and media richness (Daft & Lengel, 1986), uses and gratification (Katz, Blumer & Gurevitch, 1974), and online social support functions (Cutrona, 1992), students in my communications theory class experienced or observed media system dependency, self efficacy and media richness while spending time as avatars in the virtual world of Second Life.

They were asked to reflect on their Second Life experience by producing an Xtranormal, a program that allows you to create a pre-programmed avatar who says everything that you write. As part of their assignment, students had to discuss the role media system dependency, self efficacy and media richness played in their Second Life experience.

They responded better using Xtranormal than submitting a regular reflection paper. Through Xtranormal, students learned more about media richness. Media richness proposes that media that arouse more of a persons' senses (like visual and audio cues) are richer than a medium such as a print publication. Here are links to some of their Xtranormals, which were submitted to a Facebook page that was dedicated to the class.

Experiencing Media System Dependency and Media Deprivation

In another exercise after discussing U & G, its cousins media system dependency and media deprivation, students were asked if they could go an entire weekend with reduced media use. Students kept a diary of what it was like reducing their use of or going without the media they had come to depend upon.

The rules were to limit cell phone use, and the playing of video games. They were asked to avoid the use of the Internet unless it was related to class work, and try to avoid listening to radio or watching TV, and movies. They then had the option of writing about media deprivation or producing a Webcam video about their experience. All of them learned that they had a media system dependency problem. Drawing, to a small degree, parallels experienced by Hurricane Katrina evacuees, all of the students mentioned the frustration, sense of isolation at being unable to use the Internet for cruising or being unable to text their friends as much. “It didn’t go too well,” said one student as she summed up three days of trying to go without using her Smartphone, the Internet, and other electronic means of communication. “I’m addicted to media,” she concluded.

All of the students mentioned how much time they had on their hands as a consequence of reducing their media use. They said they felt more productive, got more homework done, and slept more hours. Some denied they suffered from media system dependency, and pointed fingers at other students whom they said suffered from media addiction. Then I explained the 3rd person effect (Davison, 1983). The idea that they might be suffering from a case of media system dependency denial was enlightening.

What can Facebook Tell Students about Online Social Interaction?

We discussed what researchers have learned about online social support functions, which included peoples’ need for informational support, emotional support, esteem support, tangible aid and social network support (Cutrona & Suhr, 1992). As an assignment, students spent time on Facebook looking for examples of how online social support emerged among their friends who were on FB. They noted how friends left words of encouragement for friends who were having a bad day, or who were expressing grief over the death of a loved one.

Concluding Thoughts

Online social networks provide a living laboratory for students to learn about the robustness of time-honored communication-related theories, such as uses and gratification and media system dependency. The networks are also where new theories and concepts are likely to emerge. Exposing students to these communication theories/concepts, and having those theories mostly validated through personal experiences, while using the Internet, apparently had a powerful impact. Armed with a better understanding of traditional and new media’s impact upon their lives, it is hoped that some of them will remember what they’ve learned in this class and be able to pass along some of those lessons to their children about the benefits of limiting the use of media.


Bandura, A. (1983). Self-efficacy determinants of anticipated fears and calamaties. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 464-469.

Baran, J., & Davis, D. (2009). Mass Communication Theory: Foundation, Ferment and Future. Boston, Mass: Wadsworth.

Cutrona, C., &. Suhr, J.A. (1992). Controllability of stressful events and satisfaction with spouse support behaviors. Communication Research , 154-174.

Daft, R., & Lengel, R.H. (1986). Organizational informating requirements, media richness and structural determinants. Management Science , 554-571.

Davison, W.P. (1983). The Third-person Effect in Communication. Public Opinion Quarterly 47, 1-15.

Katz, E. J., Blumler, J.E., & Gurevitch, M. (1974). Utilization of Mass Communication by the Individual. In e. In J.G. Blumer & Katz, The uses of mass communication:Current perspectives on gratification research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Wei, R., & Smith, K. (2005). Your call can not be completed at this time: Exploring the psychological impact of media deprivation among disaster victims. Unpublished manuscript. University of South Carolina . Columbia, SC.

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