Social Media in the Classroom

By Ben Eveloff, St. Xavier University

It is a very exciting time to be teaching Social Media at the University level. The developments we have seen in the last few years have fundamentally changed the way we look at the field of communication. The continued evolution of these technologies, in accordance with Moore’s law, will greatly affect the field of Communication at a rate never seen before. This is why it is essential not only to teach the most up-to-date practices and uses of specific social media, but also the fundamentals that will hold true as social media platforms come and go. Below, I will outline strategies I use to teach social media and emerging technologies.

The overarching philosophy I present during the course is the importance of building an online community. This is a principle that can hold true and be useful in any sub-field of the discipline. Another philosophy is that students need to be entrepreneurs and understand the importance of building their community and then making it profitable.

Class Scheduling

Currently, the field of communication technology is changing so fast, that while you are in the midst of teaching the course, a new development or trend could greatly affect your curriculum. In the current social media landscape, location-based services are serving this function and altering the possible uses of social media in a variety of subfields in the discipline of communication. This rapid growth means that what an underclassman in the field of communication learns during his or her first two years of school could be irrelevant once he or she graduates. Indeed, it is almost a given that during the course of a semester, a new development in the field will greatly affect the way we understand and use social media.

To address these challenges, I design my course schedule to be open, while designing weeks that focus on various areas of the discipline. Examples of this include: “Social Media and Journalism,” “Social Media and Public Relations,” and “Social Media and the Entertainment industry.” This avoids locking yourself into very specific course work while also allowing yourself to discuss the latest developments to the area you are focusing during that specific week.

It is also important to focus on underlying principles of social media rather than strictly focusing on the best uses of each platform. An example of this is to speak to one of the major ways that social media has changed the media landscape: “engagement.” No matter the platform (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc), what social media allows you to do more than any other form of mass media is to engage and connect with the audience. Teaching specific principles that can be applied to each of these platforms can enhance students’ skills in the field while not strictly limiting them to most popular platform at the time.

Classroom Exercises

In my social media course, a major component of the class was for students to set up and post to their own blogs and Twitter accounts. Students were allowed to write on a topic of their choice, as long as it was class appropriate. Allowing students to write on a topic they are excited about helps them realize that they can build a community around any subject or topic they choose.

While focusing on building their online community, the students learned about analytic data from the blogs, including page views and bounce rate. After a weekly assessment of page views, the class discussed strategies to draw more visitors to each site. With more and more people having access to the Internet, niche sites can thrive because even an obscure topic might have 200,000 people who are interested worldwide who have Internet access. This is another major difference from older types of media, specifically newspapers, and allowed for a productive discussion about how media have evolved over time. Any newspaper that is printed has only a limited area of the country it is able to reach and because of this they do not allow for niche interests to be represented.

Additionally, students used Twitter to create conversation in relation to their chosen topics. They were instructed to follow and chat with other Twitter users who shared similar interests. Students found a great deal of success throughout the semester doing this. One student who was writing a blog on the show Lost actually chatted with one of the show’s stars. Another student, who wrote a blog on music, was able to contact and interview D.A. Wallach of the band Chester French about the band’s pioneering use of social media to build their brand. Other students in the course were able to get their stories posted on related blogs and websites across the web, including Yahoo! News.

Other assignments included weekly quizzes on stories published on Mashable is the leading social media focused website in the world and should be required reading for not only students with an interest in social media, but all communication majors.

The course culminated with a final paper and presentation. The paper and presentation were on one of the less well-known social media platforms not previously discussed during the course, such as,, and Loopt. Students were not given their topic or assigned to their presentation groups until one to two weeks before the final. This was done to remind students that when working in the industry they must be able to quickly learn, understand, and present on a social media platform. They must act fast to be ahead of the curve when understanding emerging technologies, given the current rate of change the field is seeing. This project also teaches students an additional ten social media platforms that were not talked about in class, building their knowledge base in the field.

Outside sources

During the course, I was able to invite two guest speakers who are prominent in the social media field in the Chicago area to speak to my class. First, Sarah Evans, a social media consultant came to speak to the class. Evans was a great speaker for the students because she is a leader in the field and built her company Sevans Strategy completely through social media.

Another guest that came to the class was Amanda Mauer, the Chicago Tribune Digital News Editor. Mauer works on social media as well as search engine optimization techniques for the Tribune. A special note in relation to Mauer’s appearance is that she was not able to make it to campus in person, so we had our chat via Skype. This virtual visit illustrated to students how easy it is to connect with others even when they cannot be at that location. Another important lesson for educators is that even if your school is in an area without a high concentration of social media professionals, often you can reach out to them and ask them to participate in a Skype chat with your students.

Suggested Reading and Videos

Suggesting reading for a course of this nature is particularly tough because of the rate at which the field is changing. As I have already mentioned, one major source that all students should read is, the top blog in the field of social media. The site is continually updated with industry information, social media strategies, and other related news.

In addition to keeping tabs on Mashable, I also read six to seven other technology blogs on a dally basis to keep up with various perspectives on the field, including,, and If I come across a story I would like to cover in class, I typically post it to my Twitter account and then, once class begins, I ask students to read and discuss it.

One of the great advantages of emerging communication technologies is the access they provide to high quality speakers via web videos. I choose videos for very specific purposes during the semester. These videos range from lectures by prominent social media experts like Gary Vaynerchuk and Clay Shirky to the PBS Frontline special Digital Nation, which I show when discussing the role of technologies and how they can negatively affect students and their learning.

No comments: