Social Media in the Classroom

By Steve Fox, University of Massachusetts

How Can You Not Use Social Media In Teaching?

The question I ask is not how educators can use social media in teaching but how can they not?

Social media pervades all aspects of my teaching but it is more than just a tool for teaching and communicating, I believe it is part of an exciting new approach to teaching that embraces not only new tools but also the notion that instructor and students can experiment and learn outcomes together.

In many ways, this new “social partnership” approach to education was echoed by Dan Gillmor at AEJMC last year when he said the era of the “Professor as All-Seeing Oracle” is gone. Sure, I know the answers to many student questions, and while I bring 25 years of professional experience to the table, I prefer to interact; to sit down and work things out with students. And, when I don’t know the answers, I admit that and we seek to find the answer together. Call me a “social professor.”

I use social media not only as a tool for doing journalism but also as a way to communicate on a daily basis. It’s 1-to-1 communication but also one-to-many and many-to-one. Most importantly, I’m open and available to communicate electronically with students almost constantly once we leave the classroom. One student recently said to me that the g-chat conversations we’ve had over the past year have given new meaning to the concept of office hours.

How To Incorporate

So, how do we incorporate social media into our teaching?

A former student who landed a job at a local newspaper recently e-mailed me asking for some “best practices” guidelines for social media. He was tasked with convincing reporters and editors to embrace the world of tweets and Facebook updates. I chuckled as I passed along my thoughts – this was the same student who argued with me a few years earlier about the merits of a class assignment where students were required to live tweet one of the presidential debates.

Not only do we see resistance from colleagues on incorporating these new methods, but students also resist.

But using social media – Twitter in this case – is invaluable as a tool for live coverage. Students are put in a position of capturing a moment in the event in 140 characters – so the need to be succinct is important. It’s a great way not only to develop skills for writing ledes but also in capturing detail.

What I’ve begun doing is creating a three-step writing process: Tweet an event, then blog about it and then write a full-blown, in-depth piece that build and develop on your tweet and blog entries.

What’s interesting is that students often feel overwhelmed. In the case cited, I was asking them to watch the debate, follow Twitter feeds on the debate and respond to what classmates were saying. When we reviewed the assignment, it became apparent that students quickly abandoned their journalistic postures in place of advocates commenting on everything from McCain’s comments to his posture. Students became swept up in the moment and abandoned any sense of journalistic fairness.

But the exercise was not a waste – it led to an interesting lesson/discussion about the use of such tools and the idea that taking time and waiting to tweet after you’ve collected your thoughts is good practice for journalists. The twittersphere can be a “hurry up and do it NOW” place but the lesson for students here was to understand to slow down and take a second before tweeting. Students also began to develop an understanding that what they tweet has ramifications. Slowing down and thinking before tweeting helps them from getting caught up with opinions and comments not necessarily appropriate for journalists.

Google Wave as Back-Channel

One of the big developments with Twitter is its function as a back-channel at conferences. Students used Google Wave in my Investigative class last semester as a way to keep track of their tasks within the investigation but it also developed as a back-channel. During a visit by a guest speaker, students ‘back-channeled’ during the discussion: Not only were they talking about her discussion but they were asking each other questions about where to head next and what to ask her during the Q&A. As an educator, this was exciting because I did not tell them to use Google Wave but offered students the option to use it as a tool for project management. They took it and ran with it, finding a positive way to use technology in and outside the classroom.

Students in my classes are required set up accounts with: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and/or Vimeo, Delicious, Flickr, Gmail, Google Wave, as well as RSS feeds. With little prompting, students use social media to reach out and contact sources, even creating pages for their topics.

Blogs Are Social Media, Too

Here are some of the other ways I use social media:

Blogs: I use blogs in multiple ways with my teaching. I have class blogs for all my classes ( as well as a blog that I keep for the Journalism Program ( And, I have students keep their own blogs ( in most of my classes. The class blogs create a continuum of teaching – I’m able to stay in contact with students outside of our class meetings and I’m able to create an environment for discussion between students by having classroom discussions on the blog.

Students are able to get a sense of the role of the audience when they participate in class blog discussions but they also get a sense of how the user informs the journalist when they get into discussion with their blog audience. I had one student in my Sports Journalism class who critiqued a Boston blogger on her blog and he responded, creating a back-and-forth conversation that created a nice teaching moment in class.

The blog I keep for the department provides another avenue for communication with students. Students are not only able to get analysis and commentary on issues from me, but I also pass along information on jobs and internships.

Twitter: I have students in all of my classes set up Twitter accounts and I show them the advantages of using TweetDeck. I have them select top journalism thinkers and practitioners to follow, as well as news sites and niche sites that interest them. My Twitter feed is linked off of my class blogs and I’ve also set up a hash tag for the Journalism Department. Much of the social media readings in class come from folks they follow on Twitter, including me. Relevant articles that I find will be passed along to students via the #umassjourn hash tag.

Facebook: Facebook is another way I pass along information to students – everything from pertinent articles to news about classes and the major. The Journalism Program has a Facebook page that is updated several times a day and I’ve also set up a Facebook page for the Sports Journalism Concentration.

Students have also used Facebook as a way to reach out and find sources, especially ones on campus and abroad. It’s also another way for students to stay in touch with each other in between classes.

Texts/Articles: I have used Journalism 2.0 by Mark Briggs and I will be using his new book in the Fall. But, I expose students to Delicious by linking to my Delicious account and updating it regularly with interesting articles I find pertaining to the use of social media.

Students also use Flickr and YouTube as platforms for their multimedia projects.
And, while I use these tools now I’m also constantly on the lookout for new ways of doing things. Google Wave is probably the best example of that. And, that gets back to philosophy. The tools are changing all the time and we as educators have to be ready to sit down with the students and learn and use them -- together.

I believe that an open approach to teacher-student communication translates into the way students approach and think about journalism. Journalism becomes not just a classroom activity, but also a way of life. And, since I’m open about using social media tools, so are they.

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