Integrating social media into the classroom: resources, readings and lessons learned.

By Gary Ritzenthaler, University of Florida, Ph.D. Student/Instructor, @gritz99


At the 2009 AEJMC Convention in Boston, I presented a paper (written with David Stanton and Glenn Rickard) entitled, "Facebook groups as an e-learning component in higher education courses: one successful case study." (See the paper here or presentation slides here.) The paper described a study we did in 2007 regarding students use of a Facebook group as a course component. That 2007 study, in turn, grew out of my experiments in building social media websites for a college audience, undertaken as a part of my master's degree on social media, completed in 2006.

In each of the semesters since that study I have been attempting to answer the questions of how to integrate social media tools into the classroom. In this outline I hope to summarize some of the things I have found that worked and some of the best resources I have used.


Since 2007 I have been able to teach four separate courses that integrated social media tools into the class. Here are short descriptions and links to course sites; these sites are the most thorough way to learn about some of the things I have been trying out in the past few years.
  • Social Networks and Social Media (2008): In ‘08 I was allowed to create this survey summer class on social media, which featured a Ning group, Facebook page, list as course components integrated into class. In addition to using these tools, of course, we also studied several more.
  • Social Networks and Social Media (2009): In this re-tooled version of the class we explored a Huddle group, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn groups, and Diigo groups as course components. In both courses we spent the first part of the semester on history and survey and the second part on issues, but the final part of the semester involved planning, building, and promoting a social media project.
  • Storytelling and journalism skills in new media (2009): This was a skills-based class focused not only on social media but on multimedia creation, blogging, etc. I went back to Ning for this course to try out the new “apps” and see if they would allow me to create everything I wanted in one platform. We also worked with Blogger, Wordpress, Posterous, Vimeo and several other social tools.
  • Technology, Change and Communications (2010): This was a low-level elective with a more historical/philosophical approach on “the study of media revolutions.” I weaved together several Google tools for the class, including Google Wave.
Course Resources

For my Social Media class, the main text has been Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody. Students in all of my classes have given it high marks for both content and readability. To supplement the text we watched some additional Shirky videos like his ‘09 TED talk and ‘09 visit to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, and there are several other links for those students who want more.

For defining what “social networks” and “social networking” are, I have them read boyd & Ellison’s “Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship,” which, though it was published in ‘07, is still about as close to canonical as anything I have seen. Each semester I pick a relevant and current piece by boyd and assign that as well.

Another staple of my courses is a sampling of Michael Wesch’s work, starting with his excellent video on YouTube and including the other videos on his YouTube channel if they come up in our discussions of social media issues.

A final required author in my courses is Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture. Usually we read a chapter or two from his book Convergence Culture, but I like to include pieces from his blog as well, and again offer a video of his 2007 talk at Google for summarizing his work.

(The PBS Frontline special Digital Nation, from Feb. 2010, was a big favorite with my students this semester, so that may be a core source in coming semesters.)

Beyond those core sources, I change the readings every semester (and occasionally during the semester) to keep pace with new viewpoints on the themes of the class. My delicious links for the class and related diigo group contain readings assigned to the class in the past (as well as many others). The course sites on the first page contain descriptions of where these links are used.

Unique Topics or Assignments

Here are a few places where I think I have created some unique approaches to topics related to social media and their effects on our culture.
  • focus: the "Digital Nation" episode includes segments about multi-tasking and being "always connected." After watching the episode students are given specific tasks that involve long periods of intense focus and they write in a "diary" about the challenges they have completing these tasks and their reactions to those challenges. I like to do this in the beginning of the semester because this exercise leads to good discussions about Facebooking in class and similar lifestyle issues.
  • class digg: I use this for extra credit readings, videos, etc. Students submit links and vote the links they like the best to the top - this gives the other students initial feedback on which links to read and review for extra credit.
  • wiki writing test review: I encouraged the students to collaborate on study notes for an upcoming test using a wiki. This caused a surprising amount of frustration among the students but led to an understanding of collaborative writing and why Wikipedia shouldn't be used as a credible source.
  • tracking a trend: In almost every semester there has been a topic that allowed us to discuss the usefulness and dangers of Twitter as a news source: the Iraq elections in 2009, for example. Some students got actively involved, others just watched. What I’ve learned is that the discussion of Twitter’s usefulness improves when the students are seeing information and misinformation battling in real time. The trick is planning the course so I can accommodate these events when they happen.
  • the naked generation: Students start with “the Naked Generation,” a post by Caroline McCarthy on how much we expose of ourselves voluntarily and the new kind of social media stars McCarthy describes. We read a selection from Gabler’s book, Life the Movie, an earlier look at the same topic. We discuss what drives these people and what drives out culture to revere them. This assignment usually leads to:
  • managing identity: Students try to find as much information as they can about themselves; we look at sites like, read about privacy issues on FB and in general and discuss. Then the students use tools like, Google profile, and Facebook controls to manage their identity.
  • team projects: After looking at several successful startups and also a famous failure, students in my social media class always plan and design projects. For example, in 2009 the students adapted a WordPress blog into a social media site based on the question, "If you could ask any living person one question, what would it be and who would you ask?" (I think they were driven along this path by a visit by Frank Warren from PostSecret and a class infatuation with the work of Jonathan Harris.) In addition to getting a variety of questions from users, the students planned to then seed the site with answers wherever they could find them. The projects teach students how planning is different for social media sites and allows them to answer the question, “what makes a successful social media site?” for themselves.
  • bowling together: In 2009 I had a fairly small class, so when I assigned students readings on social capital, we discussed the readings online, then met for the next class at the campus bowling alley and (in between bowling frames) discussed what was different about social capital in online contexts with a UF grad student doing her research on that topic. In addition to helping the students understand the concept of social capital I think it helped build some in the class. (Students who could explain why it was appropriate for us to meet at a bowling alley got extra credit.)
  • redesign the course: My last assignment encourages the students to redesign the course for extra credit. This isn't an invitation to bitch - it is a challenge to them to use everything they have seen to create something better. I frame the assignment as, "You've seen how social media are changing everything, including education. How would you redesign this course to adapt to those changes?" I invite them to use as many of the tools we have explored in their answers as they want. Often the end-of-semester crush prevents them from really digging in to this assignment, but when they do the results are always interesting.
There’s more, but I hope that provides some of the flavor of the different experiments I have tried in my courses over the last four years. I still consider them experiments, and perhaps I won’t ever find a full set of solutions, but I try to make it as fun as possible for both the students and myself as we explore the possibilities.

1 comment:

Carrie Brown said...

Excellent ideas, thanks! Love that you bring them to the bowling alley :)