Social Media in the Classroom

By C. Michael Elavsky, The Pennsylvania State University

Utilizing interactive media in the contemporary classroom is an important and emerging trend for how such technologies can potentially facilitate greater student engagement with course content, dynamics and other participants therein. This is especially relevant for the large lecture hall, where anonymity, unilateral knowledge transfer (from professor to student), and banking concepts of education (Freire, 1970) are generally the norm. Incorporating Twitter, Google Apps, and the Harvard Moderator Question Tool (HMQT) ( into such courses encourages the students to contribute more substantively both to the evolving classroom discourse surrounding the themes and discussions therein, as well as the very course design itself by employing these “disruptive” technologies (Camplese and McDonald, 2010) in constructive ways which actually solicit greater student collaborative participation.

The large lecture hall implicitly erases student identity and stifles student participation. Utilizing social media provides avenues to offset these tendencies by giving the students a(nother) ‘voice’ both in-class (through backchannels) and in relation to developing the overall course objectives and assessment processes. Specifically, they allow for more extended, inclusive, and multi-faceted conversations to occur in class (and beyond), linking course content and insights more effectively to the real world experiences and the diverse perspectives the students bring to the course (Anyanwu, 2003). Additionally, they can actually foster an environment for collaborative, self-directed learning in the ways they provide specific avenues by which student input can inform the course design (Tapscott, 2008). Doing so allows the students to take ownership of the knowledge parameters of the course and develop their critical literacy as well as skill sets in relation to these technologies in ways which have real-world applications well beyond the course.

What Happens

At the beginning of the semester, the students are introduced (utilizing in-class and written tutorials) to Twitter, Google Apps, and HMQT, and their twitter IDs are registered with the course instructor (to help offset the potential problems related to anonymous tweeting). Employing a specific #ID with each tweet (i.e “#comm100”) serves to collectively aggregate the tweets in a stream, and this is projected live on an overhead screen during the class. This adds an unfiltered complement to the class whereby tweet content (comments, questions, examples, URL links, rebuttals, etc.) can be folded into the lecture/discussion as relevant, producing a multi-layered conversation whereby the live diachronic in-class conversation is effectively augmented synchronically by classroom tweets, dovetailing to facilitate a space whereby new forms of critical dialogue and reflection can be fostered. It is also particularly helpful for assessing student comprehension/engagement in real-time. Moreover, Twitter’s open nature means that the students can carry on the discussion beyond the classroom setting (which often occurs). Likewise, by monitoring this conversational stream and contributing input regularly, the course instructor has the opportunity to generate and expand the classroom dialogue, foster more personalized engagement with students in general, and assess the “pulse” of the class to see what is and isn’t working in terms of developing course objectives (Watkins, 2009). HMQT is particularly effective for eliciting robust participation in relation to guest speakers/panelists for how it allows students to collectively post/vote/foreground questions/issues they want the presenters to address. Moreover, all of these technologies produce an empirical record for future analysis, consideration, and conversations extending beyond the time/space constraints (i.e. ‘outsiders’ have contributed tweets) of the classroom (Naaman, Boase, & Lai, 2010).


Having discussed as a class ideas related to knowledge assessment and effective testing procedures (i.e. the structure of a good exam question), potential student test questions (multiple choice) are solicited each week and participation is encouraged in this endeavor by offering extra credit to those individuals whose questions are ultimately chosen for the exam (187, 338, and 248 questions were solicited respectively for each exam this semester; many stronger than I could create). These are collected in an unshared Google Document which keeps the questions initially confidential and allows the instructor to organize/edit them in a spreadsheet format. The submissions portal is closed one week prior to the exam and the questions are reviewed for relevance, accuracy, etc. Several questions from the instructor are also uploaded to offset perceived nominal deficiencies regarding neglected course content (readings, lecture points, etc.) in their questions. Through consultation with the TAs, 40 questions (those which most effectively comprise a test of the course content) are ultimately chosen for each exam. Three days prior to the exam, a PDF of all questions submitted ((without the student ID or any correct answers listed) is released back to the students and they are encouraged to collaborate in preparation for the exam. Utilizing their knowledge of Twitter and open source editing software, one can watch the collaboration unfold in real-time online in deliberative and fascinating ways. In this way, the exam process itself becomes a teachable moment about social relations, community engagement, knowledge production, information/technology access and the very idea of education itself with the students actually laboring harder in self-directed ways to frame and produce the basis for their knowledge, the parameters for their assessment, and ultimately the merits for their effort. Moreover, it provides an opportunity for students to collectively explore new media’s relationship and role in nurturing conceptions of community and democratic participation, while developing a capacity for critical reflection and consciousness in their education practices.

Currently, a new course component is in development which seeks to foster stronger civic ties between the campus student body and surrounding community at large utilizing semester-long group projects. Centered on local outreach/service learning initiatives, these projects are designed to foment greater student participation in, awareness of, and commitment to local civic life. To the point, it is intended to provide the students with a practical and pragmatic awareness of what it means to be civically engaged and how that relates to fostering their civic agency. By creatively documenting these group-project engagements via new social media (i.e geotagging, Youtube, Facebook, blogs, twitter, wikis, etc), the students will self- generate (utilizing a content management system, i.e. Pligg) a "cyber" public sphere whereby local civic information can be aggregated and communicated more effectively as both a classroom & broader open community resource (Jenkins, 2009). This component is specifically designed to dissolve the civic divide between “town” and “gown,” whereby the students -- by putting their “feet to the street” and utilizing new media technologies -- can inject the experience and significance of these civic encounters back into the course (and by extension, the campus community) in unique and compelling ways in real time, while simultaneously ascertaining the real world meanings and implications of the course content in relation to developing civic commitments to their community beyond campus life. By doing so, it is hoped that the students will ascertain a greater awareness and appreciation of their connection to their local communities as citizens with a voice, role and responsibility towards making it function democratically, stimulating further their understanding and inclination of active agency as it relates to civic life (Dahlgren, 2007; Loader, 2007).

Ultimately, social media technologies can serve to unsettle the large lecture hall dynamics in profound and stimulating ways, deconstructing the standardized didactic education model, and reframing the classroom discourse in ways which allow novel spaces for more inclusive and liberatory forms of participation to emerge, while motivating engagement with the course content in ways which are self-directed and sensitive to the very interests, perspectives, and experiences of the students (Junco, Heiberger, & Loken, 2010). By encouraging such an environment, the classroom and its potential as a pedagogical space/exercise come alive in ways that are exhilarating. The course objectives (and the related assessment processes) become outcomes of student engagement as a collective endeavor. In real terms, social media allows them to integrate themselves more meaningfully (as individuals and as a community) into the course dynamics, inserting their own personal stamp on an ‘impersonal’ situation by more effectively integrating their perspectives into the course discourses and design. By making the exams – and then working collaboratively to create public on-line study guides for them -- including extended and substantive debate on the questions therein (i.e. their merit/use value for the test) – the students largely determine what information is important for themselves to take away from the course as well as the measures by which they are to be assessed in this endeavor. More important, their ongoing backchannel discussions/debates regarding the nature of the course itself and especially the evolution of the exam process (what are we learning, how can we make more effective tests, how can we collaborate more effectively to study for these tests, etc.), facilitates a broader conversation about the very nature of education and these technologies in ways that are empowering, uplifting and enlightening beyond any initiative an instructor could have designed. As a result, students became active agents in formulating the design and meaning of their education in uplifting ways which can have life-long implications.

Tracey Ore asserts that critical thinking involves exploring assumptions, ascertaining an awareness of our place and time in our culture, searching for alternative ways of thinking, and developing our capacity for reflective analysis (2008) . This course is designed to that end, offering a multi-faceted forum for stimulating the exchange and interrogation of ideas and perspectives related ultimately to understanding our place in a democracy and new media’s relationship to fostering the tenets of citizenship. Such engagements encourage the students to recognize the vital contribution that critical thinking skills engender for surmounting the personal, environmental and institutional forces that can stymie our potential for rational inquiry.

In turn, such critical thinkers “are no longer passive recipients of knowledge or products of socialization. Rather, by employing thoughtful scrutiny to the perspectives they engage, they actively participate in formulating their own knowledge and ideas pertaining to the social as well as ethical commitments grounded on a solid and informed foundation” (Paul and Elder, 2009). It is hoped that upon leaving the course, the students are more informed about the society they live in, are able to be more open-minded and understanding of the relationship between one’s quality of life and one’s quality of thought, and are more engaged and empowered to act upon these impulses in direct and tangible ways which ultimately fosters their notions of civic identity.

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