Incorporating Social Media in the Classroom: A Few Examples and An Overview

By Leslie-Jean Thornton, Arizona State University

I’ve seen so many benefits from using social media in my classes that I have no wish to teach without such tools, no matter the subject. They enhance my ability to teach skills in real-world situations while allowing the growth of community within and without the group.

Twitter is my current multi-tasking favorite device, but content-management systems (such as Wordpress, Tumblr, Posterous and the like) are almost as versatile. In my classes, they’re backed by our use of individual services that include Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Docs, Delicious, Twitpic, Google and Yahoo maps, various RSS readers, Skype, and SEO/audience analyzers. I haven’t quite worked out the particulars yet, but I intend to use Foursquare (and its mash-up companion, Fourwhere) as both a model and tool in classes this fall. It plays on an interesting reward dynamic that appears to be growing in popularity in the marketplace. It’s worthy of study for that reason alone, but I’m thinking along craftier lines. Perhaps we’ll develop an in-class badge system…

For me, setting the stage for incorporating social media tools begins well before classes start. A class Web site becomes a vital focal point that far exceeds Blackboard’s usefulness. I’ve been building them for at least eight years, usually one per class, and they’ve become second nature. They model the dynamism, personalization and transparency that are hallmarks of successful social media. (or the .org version) makes it easy, and other content management systems are beginning to provide competition through enhanced services. I developed “Multimedia Journalism” ( ) for my graduate classes last fall. It contains a Twitter feed and provides links to student blogs, multiple models, and diverse resources. It grew throughout the semester in response to class needs. It was there that I could post links to current events, readings, assignments, and resources, building a targeted reference “shelf.”

When we launched our professional masters program, we knew we would base it on a boot camp system for the cohort’s first semester. The students would have to hit the ground running. I launched a blog site during the summer and asked each to sign up. They were all given “author” privileges and were asked to post an introduction. It sparked lively discussions, at least one roommate match-up, and several parties, but most importantly, it broke the ground for collaborative work once in class and initiated a support system integral to their success in the school. As a result of their sign-up, they each had a account, easing them into one of their first-day assignments: creating a blog that was fully intended to meet professional standards. Another first-day assignment: Set up a Twitter account.


Each class has a hashtag (#bc9 for the Boot Camp students who arrived in 2009, for example) and a Twitter list ( The first facilitates discussion by grouping tweets; the second allows the group to be followed even when the hashtag has been forgotten – a good resource for the nurturer/professor – and it models how they should use lists to build professional networks. (My Advanced Editing students each compiled a list of copy editors who tweeted, for example. Mine was a model: Students are responsible for keeping up a Twitter presence; assignments should be given in the early stages to make sure the pump is primed. It takes awhile to become comfortable communicating in this venue, and it takes skill to do so effectively.

Some of the assignments included:
  • Building a stellar collection of people to follow (and following them)
  • Tweeting links to examples of interesting multimedia reports or projects
  • Tweeting links to news stories
  • Retweeting valuable tweets from interesting sources
  • Suggesting people to follow (this can derive from their “professional” lists)
  • Contributing to ongoing discussions in helpful, intelligent ways
  • Tweeting well-crafted messages to drive traffic to the student’s own blog posts (one a week)
  • Tweeting well-crafted messages to drive traffic to a student colleague’s latest blog post
  • Live-tweeting special events.
These can be tailored to the class topics, of course. In my Advanced Editing class, students tweeted about design and layout issues and offered links to examples. They even did a series of tweet-length grammar tips and created Twitpic illustrations. The discussion (under #413t) became so lively that it attracted considerable attention in the Twitterverse and was written up in several places (Mashable, Innovative Multimedia, 1,000 Words) as a model of innovative use. (Such reinforcement from outside sources is invaluable and is unique to the use of social media.) The careful crafting of a tweet is not that different from the challenges of writing headlines and Web blurbs and is a valuable exercise in and of itself. Students in all of my classes are told they have a standing assignment to tweet instructive and helpful links to coverage of breaking news when it occurs. So far we’ve had several earthquakes, a revolution, an oil spill, the Oscars and a volcano. More importantly, they’re instructed to watch how news spreads in social media formats.

Collaborative Twitter

Colleagues from three other universities joined me in establishing #jweb. All four classes (later joined by several others, but with less involvement) tweeted links to photographs they’d taken to show what life was like on their campus. I put together a slideshow on Flickr

and from those photos, 20 winning images were chosen. I displayed those in a Posterous blog. For a sample archive of the #jweb tweets, see

Students struck up “side” conversations with each other, which was particularly interesting as four major regions of the United States were represented. It was a wild success in showing the power of crowdsourcing, collaboration, networking and just plain fun.

Another fun assignment that played into network dynamics was the Facebook “album cover” meme. This refers to a popular “game” on Facebook whereby you select a random image from Flickr, get the name of your “band” from a Wikipedia page, and get the name of your imaginary album from a random-quote generator. The goal is to visually mix the elements and then post your album cover for others to see. I added a Twitter aspect to this by having them tweet a description and link to the cover as well. The assignment was essentially a tool for teaching Photoshop; after they did the album, they went on to create customized banners for their blogs and avatars for Twitter and other social media uses. They were encouraged to join professional networks on ning, for example, and the “branding” advantages of having a unified “identity” were stressed.

These are just a few of the ways in which social media informs and enhances my classes. I’d welcome the opportunity to elaborate and demonstrate these and others.

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