Teaching Research Methods with Social Media Tools

By Kelli Burns, University of South Florida

Today’s tech-savvy student generation is actively participating in social networking and other online communities, so most students not only understand how to use Web 2.0 teaching tools, they thrive in the environment when Web communication solutions are integrated in the classroom.—K. Driscoll, 2007, p. 10

Social media tools can enrich a research methods class by providing students with a way to collect data, share research, and monitor online conversations. At the beginning of the course, students create their own blogs using Wordpress and then throughout the course, use the blogs to post reports, photos, videos, and podcasts. The five social media assignments that have been assigned in this course are described below. These assignments include (1) a social media monitoring project which asks students to monitor social media sites for conversations about a client; (2) an ethnography project where students collect data through photographs that are posted to a photo-sharing site; (3) an interview project where student create MP3s of their interviews and upload them to their blogs as podcasts; (4) a focus group blog project where students collect data on a blog over several days; and (5) a survey project requiring students to create a video and an online survey.

Social media monitoring assignment.
This assignment gives you an opportunity to learn how to monitor blogs and other social media content in a way that provides similar insight offered by more traditional environmental scanning methods.

Many people will discuss an organization and its products/services on their own Web sites or on social media sites, outside of realm traditional media. For this assignment, you will 1) monitor the online conversation that has occurred about an organization or brand of your choosing, 2) create a table for your data, and 3) write an analysis of the conversation with suggestions for action.

To monitor the conversation, you might find bloggers who are blogging about your client organization or brand, people who are creating Web sites about it, message board members who are discussing it in forums, Twitter users who are tweeting about it, social networking users who are commenting about it, or video producers who are posting YouTube videos about it. Your goal is to find 10 nuggets of information across multiple social media applications about your organization or brand. Here are some suggestions to guide your search:
  • Check out Twitter and run a search for your client. IceRocket also offers a search of Twitter.
  • Search Flickr groups to see if there is a group about your client. Scan the photos for interesting information.
  • Conduct key word searches on various blog search engines like IceRocket, Technorati, or blogsearch.google.com for blogs or posts about your organization or brand.
  • Search the Web for Web sites about your organization or brand.
  • Find Facebook and MySpace pages created by fans of your organization/brand.
  • Search message boards (http://messages.yahoo.com/) for users who post about your organization/brand or boards dedicated to your organization/brand.
  • Find YouTube videos. Report the main message of the video and some of the insightful comments.
  • Run a search on Addictomatic for a good summary of social media conversation.
  • Use Google Alerts, Social Mention, or Femtoo to receive updates about your organization/brand.
You are looking for information that will help your client understand its consumers better. Do not use social media channels, profiles, or boards that are sponsored by your company or brand or use information from articles published by mainstream media sources. Avoid promotional messages and celebrity-related news.

Your data table should describe every nugget of information: list the source, provide information about the source (Quantcast, Alexa, or Technorati can be used to provide statistics about a blog or Web site), list the date and time of the comment, and describe the nature of the comment itself. Write a report that summarizes your findings and place a PDF of your report and the data table on your blog.

Ethnography assignment.
Ethnographic research can help communicators better understand a target public so they will be able to construct a more appropriate and effective message.

Your assignment is to do a photo ethnography illustrating healthy (or positive) behaviors, unhealthy (or negative) behaviors, or use of a specific product/brand by college students. If you do not spend time with college students, you can look for these behaviors among your own friends, coworkers, or family members.

This assignment requires you to document ten people through photography and write a one-page analysis of your research. All photos must be taken by you during the course of this assignment. Upload your photos to a Flickr.com account and make them available to our class group. You will also need to post a PDF of your report on your blog. Use the Flickr.com widget on Wordpress to display your photos there as well.

Interview assignment.
This assignment gives you an opportunity to learn how interviews are used in research. For this assignment, you will 1) write an interview guide of 5-8 questions, 2) conduct and record three interviews, 3) upload the podcasts to the Web, and 4) write a research report that summarizes the findings from your interviews.

When you locate your participants, ask if they have access to Skype, and if so, conduct your interview using Skype. If not, you can interview them over the phone or in person. In-person interviews can be recorded using Audacity or another audio program such as Garageband. Create an MP3 of your audio files and upload them to your blog using the Box.net widget on Wordpress. Place a PDF of your interview project report on your blog.

Focus group blog assignment.
The purpose of the focus group blog project is to provide you with an opportunity to manage a blog to collect feedback from participants.

Recruit 10 people who are relevant to your study and willing to participate in your blog every day for 10 days. Use your blog to post 1-2 questions per day. Set your security controls so that only your participants can have access to the blog. Also, e-mail participants to notify them when a new post is published. (Your blog may be able to automatically generate these e-mails for you.) Finally, write a report that includes your purpose, objectives, method, results, and discussion and place a PDF of the report on your blog.

Online survey with video assignment.
The purpose of this project is to provide you with an opportunity to conduct a survey research study from start to finish. In doing so, you will create a video to encourage college students to get the H1N1 flu vaccination, develop an online survey to test the effectiveness of the video, and write a research report to present your results.

First, create a 1-2 minute video using your Flip camera. Your video should raise awareness of the H1N1 flu virus and the need to get the vaccine, change attitudes toward the flu/vaccine, and/or encourage students to get the vaccine. Then, create a survey using Surveymonkey that asks questions that serve your research objectives and e-mail the survey link to your sample. Finally, analyze your results and write your report. Your report and video should both be posted on your blog.

Other possible topics include recycling and distracted driving.

I have collected three semesters of data on these methods using a pre-test at the beginning of the semester and a post-test at the conclusion. Both tests included a self-assessment of experience levels with the following tasks: creating a blog, creating a podcast, conducting an online survey, uploading a document to the Web, uploading photos to the Web, using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), uploading a video to the Web, shooting a video, and editing a video. Students were asked if they felt social media tools were fun to use, whether they were skilled at using social media, and whether they were willing to work with and learn about social media. Additional items included whether they felt students should learn about social media, whether they believed knowledge of social media would help them get a job, and whether they thought knowledge of social media would help their performance on the job.

The post-test included additional items that reflected on the assignments of the class. Students were asked whether they recommended the instructor emphasize social media again the next semester, whether the social media tools were fun to use, and whether they felt comfortable using the social media tools. They were also asked whether social media made the assignments more relevant and more enjoyable, whether they could easily use the technology again, and whether they were more actively involved in the course because of social media. Finally, students were asked about outcomes with respect to what they learned about conducting research and what they learned about social media and technology. These same items were also asked in the context of whether this knowledge would help them get a job and benefit their performance on the job.

Many students responded to an open-ended question at the end of the survey to gather feedback about the experience of using social media. At the beginning of the course, some students lacked an understanding of why knowledge of social media would be necessary. Some were even resistant to the use of technology.
  • I hated some of the technology I had to learn to use at first, but now that I learned how to use them, I have used them for almost every other class as well.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the social media component of this class. The aspect of social media really helped me apply the material. I had fun using the Flip Cam. I really enjoyed the interview project as that enabled me to interview a professional, which provided me with solid evidence as to why social media was important. I admit, I was skeptical at first, but this project was a great intro to conducting research.
By the end, students saw value in the course assignments, with some reaping immediate tangible benefits and others recognizing the importance of learning about social media.
  • The experience I gained using social media in this course helped me branch out and learn something that I wasn’t previously comfortable with. I even got an internship developing a social media plan and monitoring social media for a company. I tell my employer all of my knowledge on social media that I have learned from this class.
  • I am working with social media right now in an internship and I have referred back to information, Web sites and all other sources I have learned about in this class countless times. I definitely think out of all my classes this semester this class has benefited me most as of now as far as social media goes.
  • Before this class I never really used social media and I thought it was more a tool for fun. Now, I think social media can be used in many situations like gathering research and communicating with people. It is important.

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