Successful Use of Various Social Media In A Class

By Ronald A. Yaros, University of Maryland

Summary Of A “Hybrid” Course Devoted to Technology and Social Media

This course, with 36 undergraduates, was one of twenty-five new interdisciplinary courses approved by my institution to address “new problems” facing society and to experiment with new teaching and learning strategies. The goals of the class are to use and evaluate various social media in the contexts of information production, sharing, consumption, teaching, and learning. Since the course is open to all majors, one of my goals as a journalism professor is to tap a diverse group of students to gain a better understanding of how digital information and social media are utilized in different disciplines. This “hybrid” course combines class meetings with the use of more than ten different social media tools during the 12-week semester. Some tools take the place of more traditional teaching methods such as papers and written exams.

In the first class meeting, students learn there are no written exams for those who successfully complete the weekly assignments of regular social media engagement. Each assignment requires students to communicate, research, share, and critically think about issues related to social media and different applications of those media. To further motivate students, only those with a “B -” or lower during the last week of class are required to take a written final. Those with a “B” or better have the option of taking the final. During the entire semester, students use social media to investigate and assess how audiences - and students in particular - seek, select, share, and use digital information. This is not a “skills” course, but one that requires learning of basic techniques with technology. More importantly, regular use of familiar and emerging social media to exchange information facilitates a deeper understanding of the relationships of social media and society. Although most of the course’s use of social media cannot be detailed in a three-page document, some of the primary tools and assignments are presented to explain how students engaged with course content and each other. Two categories of social media were employed.

“Asynchronous” social media

Asynchronous social media, though not real-time, provide the ability to share content in online discussion forums, emails, and blogs. Half of the course’s 500 total possible points is devoted to the quality and quantity of weekly postings on each student’s blog. Other assignments include collaborations with Google Docs to conduct online survey research, and a group reporting assignment in which students use social media to simultaneously cover a major event from different locations. Students also used and evaluated a class Facebook group for a three-week period that spanned spring break. Results are presented on page two.

“Synchronous” social media

Synchronous social media employed in and outside of this class for live interactions included: Twitter, Wimba (Blackboard’s live virtual classroom environment), and Skype (hosting guest speakers). The virtual environment Second Life was presented and discussed but not yet utilized for a graded assignment. The uses of both categories of social media will now be detailed.

Blogger and Twitter

In the first class, students are told that by establishing and regularly maintaining their own Blogger and Twitter accounts, they are essentially beginning a “final paper” in week one. Each student’s blog and Twitter feed must relate to his or her field of study or interest. During the semester, students review, research and then post discussions of how our weekly social media topic (i.e. privacy, ethics, security, citizen journalism, multimedia journalism, virtual environments, social gaming, etc.) relates to their area of interest. Students are also provided with weekly readings or URLs to review. Students must post 750 to 1,000 words per week plus one to three related news “tweets” on their Twitter feed. Posted content assessed four times during the semester is based on: (1) voice, (2) frequency, (3) focus and (4) supporting research. Students are told that more factual and fewer opinionated postings are expected until the final weeks of the class, when students post their reactions to course content and predictions for the future of social media. Until those final weeks, however, all claims and opinions posted require supporting evidence and/or links. For one fourth of the course, students also learn and then integrate basic multimedia (i.e. links to photos, slideshows, video, and audio from other networks) into their weekly blog discussions. The professor and teaching assistant rotate one half of the blogs (n = 18) for grading using a comprehensive rubric. Some assignments also require peer review of blogs by students. To date, students have averaged a total of 10,000 to 12,000 words on their topic-specific blog and Twitter. In addition to the 36 individual blogs, the class also shares a blog site and Twitter feed (using a hash tag). This site aggregates news found by students that relates generally to technology, and social media. This news often presents issues not discussed by our weekly topics. As of the writing of this document, more than 125 “tweets” and 110 postings have been made to the class blog.

Picasa, Audioboo & YouTube

To explore social media and journalism, all students were assigned as one team to cover a major campus-wide event using university-provided iPod Touches and a collection of mobile apps. (Students could also use their own digital cameras or SmartPhones, if desired.) The minimum posting requirement included: twelve original photos (using Google’s Picasa), four audio interviews (uploaded from the field using Audioboo), and 20 “tweets” posted to the class blog during four hours of the live event. Video to the class YouTube account was optional. A week before the event, students claimed their campus location where they could team with one other student if preferred. The objectives were to learn: (1) the benefits and challenges of using social media to collect and share information, and (2) how social media can represent different perspectives of the same live event. Data from pre- and post-event surveys measured student perceptions, experiences and reflections. Those data are being analyzed with reportable results in time for the Denver conference.


Results have already been compiled from the students’ use of a class Facebook group. Before spring break - and before the following optional activity was announced in class - students completed a survey measuring: (1) their perceptions of social media in higher education, (2) their efficacy, (3) social identity in the class, and (4) their enjoyment of and familiarity with classmates. We were also interested in whether social media in a class could affect the desire to collaborate in group projects. After completing the pre-survey, students were offered minimal extra credit (up to 25 of the 500 total points possible) if they chose to participate in the Facebook group during the following week known as “spring break.” Only three text postings were required on three separate days for 15 points. The maximum of 25 points could be earned for also uploading one photo and one video. Students knew that more postings would NOT earn more than 25 points. The teaching assistant joined the site to monitor for technical problems. The professor did not join. Amazingly, not only did 30 of the 36 students end up participating during spring break, 29 of the 30 participants far exceeded the minimum requirements for extra credit. Specifically, instead of the 90 total text postings needed for all students to earn at least 15 points, 362 text postings - or about 50 per day – occurred. The posting of nearly 100 photographs also exceeded the group minimum. We did not expect this level of engagement during spring break. At the start of class following break, students completed the same survey that was administered before break.

Preliminary pre- and post-event comparisons indicate some expected but also unexpected trends. Compared to students’ enjoyment of other classes, and how much they knew other classmates, their enjoyment of this class and classmates, as well as familiarity with classmates, increased. Unexpectedly, however, their enjoyment of other classes, other classmates, and their familiarity with classmates in other courses decreased, even though there were no classes during break. Students reported a higher preference for group projects after the Facebook use, but less of a desire to pursue friendships with classmates. This could suggest that either the information acquired from peers on the social network reduced the desire to pursue friendships, or that perhaps students prefer to keep established Facebook friendships separate from those associated with educational activities. Regardless of the reason, more research of social media in the class is needed. It is a goal for future semesters.

Wimba (as a virtual social media classroom)

The virtual Wimba classroom environment in Blackboard is a synchronous network in which students and guests meet and interact live with the professor and each other. Although Wimba is not a public social medium, questions for the class probe how virtual environments differ from other social media and face-to-face meetings when exchanging information. What are the pros and cons of a live network, and how does live voice interaction compare to the synchronous text of Twitter, for example?

One of our Wimba meetings occurred during a weather emergency that cancelled classes for one week. I asked students to voluntarily join me in Wimba for one hour and fifteen minutes at the regularly scheduled class time. I was surprised when 34 of the 36 students logged in and after all stayed for the entire “class.” Using PowerPoint slides, interactive live polling, and Web sites I could remotely display on everyone’s computer or laptop, plus synchronous audio and video from anyone comfortable sharing it, we discussed virtual social media and their potential applications in education. How could the current virtual class be better? Following the virtual class, most of the students answered open-ended questions about their experiences in a survey posted on Blackboard. Results indicate that all students enjoyed the virtual meeting for a variety of reasons. However, several said they’d prefer it only for selected classes, not regular class meetings. Detailed results could be presented at the Denver conference.


If selected, I would be excited to share these and other data. Some changes are already being made to the course for next fall. For example, while we plan to again distribute mobile devices, we plan to employ a custom app for the class that provides access to the social media we use (Blogger, Twitter, etc.). I would share tips on what worked best, suggest assessments of social media assignments, and note things to avoid when thinking about integrating social media into a course. I welcome the opportunity to share my experiences with AEJMC colleagues.

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