Integrating Social Media Into the Classroom

By Kelli Matthews, University of Oregon

Overview: In spring 2006 I invited two guests to my Principles of Public Relations class to talk about blogs. You would have seen many glazed eyes in the classroom that day, including my own. It was, however, at that point that I realized blogs specifically (and social media generally) were going to be important for my students to learn and to understand how to execute as part of a strategic communications plan.

Levels of Involvement: Since then, I’ve incorporate social media into all the classes I teach at the University of Oregon. Students in my classes have: maintained blogs, participated in Twitter, LinkedIn, PROpenMic, created social media press releases, developed social media policies, and created strategic social media plans.

I’ve also been tasked with creating the undergraduate social media curriculum and have launched two new courses: Social Media Essentials and Strategic Social Media.

In the Strategic Social Media class, we focus the entire term on the theories, concepts, core principles, and strategic thinking behind social media campaigns. As part of that course, the students are required to sign up for one day during the term to manage the twitter backchannel during class and drive conversations. This assignment has proven to be one of my favorite parts of the course and is one that I recommend to others teaching social media-related topics to consider.

Twitter Management

Twitter--inviting distraction or enabling richer discussions? The debate on this topic is fierce. When students’ eyes aren’t making contact and they are clicking away on their laptops, does that mean they aren’t listening?

I’ve found the answer to be a resounding “no!” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The concepts stick (as proved in their weekly case study assignments), the discussion is vibrant. I do believe that some of the success I’ve seen with this Twitter in the classroom is a function of the class – 35 students focused on social media strategy is an engaged group. I also think that providing a backchannel allows students to connect with each other and with me in a different way than ever before possible, regardless of the class.

As a micro-blogging network, Twitter is designed for short, quick sharing of information. It allows for spontaneous interaction, sharing resources and prompts on-the-spot reactions to discussions on and offline .

My approach to the Twitter management assignment hinges on two ideas: preparing my students for the kinds of work they might do if social media were in their job description and doing so in a way that emphasizes ethics, transparency, and authenticity.

J412/512 Strategic Social Media (SSM) is a special topics course on social media marketing and strategic social media. As a conceptual course, it is designed to build on a basic foundation of the “how to” of specifics tools and to help students understand the why and when of social media for the purpose of building relationships and creating conversations with stakeholders and key audiences.

This term, SSM students don their community manager hat for one day in class and focus on engaging their audience (both inside and outside the classroom) in the topic of the day. The assignment requires that students choose one day during the term for which they are tasked with twitter management duties (with 35 students, filling the dates was no trouble. Most dates had two or three students signed up).

In advance of the assignment, students review job descriptions and overviews about what a community manager does. Twitter, of course, is just one piece of the puzzle, but recognizing that managing Twitter and engaging in conversation is more than just reporting on what you see or hear. Sentence fragment here

Community Manager Resources:

Ask student to identify their audience.

The primary audience will likely be classmates and students who may be interested or involved in social media. Trust me, that audience is bigger than your class. The secondary audience may be faculty, staff, and non-students in the academic community, both on and off campus. Finally, your third audience is those in marketing, communications (PR, Advertising) and social media work. This is a networking opportunity for your students.

What's your goal?

The goal is for the students tasked with that day’s management to engage their classmates in conversation related to the class discussion by asking questions (on Twitter), retweeting, and asking subject matter experts to chime in.

Students may want to review the previous class summary of tweets and set an objective for a specific quantity of tweets, percent of non-class participants, or percent of classmates who participate.

The Assignment

This assignment has three parts:
  • The day before – send an email with readings, links, and even your PowerPoint presentation that might be relevant to the next day's lecture and discussion. Students can use this information to "prime the pump" and tweet a few links, resources, or information that will get students thinking about the discussion. All tweets should be tagged with the class hashtag (#J412 in our case). Each student assigned a particular day needs to tweet at least twice on the afternoon/evening prior to the class to which he or she is assigned.

  • Class day, the Twitter management team (or individual students) should be actively participating in the twitter discussion (if not the primary participators, certainly among the most active). By asking and answering questions, extending the in-class discussion, and retweeting important points, students should identify the most salient topics of the day.

  • Before the next class period, students should collaborate with others assigned that day to write and post a summary of the day's discussion on the class blog. I registered #J412 with, so students (and myself) can easily review the transcript from the day.

  • #J412 transcripts here:

  • You can see all the Spring 2010 summaries:
The Results

This assignment has proven to be my favorite of the term. As Brian Solis put it during a recent Skype with the SSM class: "each of you is a mini media outlet." This assignment allows students to show their interests and expertise in social media, see live and in person how to drive conversations on specific topics, and engage with each other.

Rather than “recipe for chaos,” requiring the use of Twitter in the classroom has resulted in much richer discussions in the classroom and beyond. I’ve seen zero reduction of in-class discussions; in fact, students seem more engaged and attentive.

In one class in particular, we had a guest join our class via Skype. The topic was ethics and transparency. In addition to the reactions to the guest’s lecture, students were sharing resources to reinforce and clarify the discussion for themselves and their classmates.

Some examples of resource-sharing:

karlybolton: Alt. to "astroturfing:" sockpuppetry - soliciting reviews under one name, adding user reviews under another. #J412

SamanthaLuthra: That's scary! RT @karlybolton: Astroturfing coming from a plastic surgery organization - faking positive reviews #J412
BrittFK: #j412 What is astroturfing?

MadelineWillman: The Wrath of Rahodeb #J412
jliebman: Ribena commercial. Gadda love the 80's #j412

Students also asked questions about their own practices:

elliesax: What about emails? I write emails "from" Oregon baseball coaches every day. Do recruits find it unethical? or do they see they're busy #j412

Finally, most tweets were about the topic of the day:

cabowers: You can't outsource relationships! You need open & authentic relationships with your stakeholders. Building trust is key #J412 #@paullyoung

laurenswitzer: What to do in a SM crisis situation: First, build relationships with customers PRIOR to a crisis (prepare internally and externally) #J412

sarahannelilly: #J412 @paullyoung How can brands be has honest as possible and still maintain some control?

This is just a snapshot. The class tweets between 100 - 200 times during the one - two hour discussions, and students often extend the in-class discussion in new ways. The conversation also extends outside the classroom - the SSM students continue sharing information and resources with each other, and they also get feedback and input from people outside the campus walls. That, to me, is invaluable.

The Caveat

Students have the option to tweet from a class account, rather than their personal one. If you're concerned about privacy or safety, this is a good option. See Tiffany Gallicano's tips for protecting student privacy here.

Download the assignment here: Twitter Conversation Management Assignment

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