Social Media as an Educational Innovation: Tips

Two weeks ago I gave a presentation at AECT about social media as an educational innovation. The presentation was part of a session brought together by Bob Reiser, and the other presenters were Clark Quinn (Mobile Learning), David Wiley (OER), and Curt Bonk (MOOCs). We were each tasked with providing our best tips or advice on our topics, with a 10-minute time limit.

It was an interesting task, trying to distill my thoughts on social media use in formal learning settings into a rather brief presentation. In the end I came up with 9 tips (and having passed them in front of my students first I feel confident that I hit on the main points I typically cover in a full semester’s class).

Here are my slides, as well as some thoughts on each tip:


  1. Forget about Facebook: When I tell people I look at how social media supports learning, they often comment “Oh, so you want to teach classes in Facebook?” My answer to that question is no. While I’m not saying that Facebook necessarily shouldn’t be used, but it shouldn’t be the default go to tool. When I mention social media, I’m talking about so much more than Facebook. Apologies to Zuckerberg, but Facebook is not the only game in town. And Facebook is problematic. The rationale for using Facebook is often that many people already use it. However, just because they use it for personal reasons one cannot assume they also want to use it for educational purposes. And there are non-users, most of whom I would refer to as “principled non-users.” They didn’t just forget or neglect to sign up for a Facebook account. They have good reasons for not using Facebook. My best estimate based on my own survey research is that these individuals comprise about 10% of the university student population. Oh, and if the plan is to have some sort of meaningful discussion, the limited threading and the algorithm that moves posts around can just make things more confusing. So why are we talking about using Facebook again?
  2. Don’t replicate the LMS: Learning management systems (LMS) like Blackboard and Canvas have a clear place and purpose in educational systems. They provide secure spaces for classes (important when you’re dealing with sensitive information such as enrollments and grades), and they are connected with administrative systems (so everyone enrolled in your class will automatically be attached to the class space). An advantage of using the institutionally supported LMS is that everyone else is likely also using the LMS. In other words, your students aren’t just logging in there for your class, but also for their other classes. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It serves a purpose. And many LMSs have incorporated social media-like features and tools in an effort to represent the best of both worlds. Trying to find a social networking site to use in lieu of an LMS is to ignore the often very necessary institutional and instructional supports offered by an LMS, and may result in inelegantly re-inventing a wheel that was already functioning perfectly fine. (More on this thought above and below … see #1 and #4)
  3. Get in the mindset: A fairly frequent conversation that I’ve had with instructors goes something like this:Educator: You study social media, right? I’m using social media with my class.
    Me: Really? What are you doing?
    Educator: Oh, I’m blogging for my class.
    Me: Blogging? That’s great. What are you and your students doing with blogs?
    Educator: Well, I created a blog for the class, and now instead of emailing my students or posting the the LMS, I write blog posts. I blog all of the class announcements, and remind students of what’s due. Sometimes I even share news stories.
    Me: And what do your students do?

    Therein lies the issue. What do the students do? Their role in this scenario is to be the consumers of the content that the instructor has produced for them. In this instance the content is now being shared via a blog. It could just as well be tweeted, or posted to Facebook, or put on a web page … or announced in class, sent via email, or posted as an announcement in an LMS. No matter the communication tool, one-way communication is still one-way communication.

    If social media tools are to be used in a learning context, then they should be used in a way that supports social media interactions. The social media mindset is not about adopting a tool, but rather about adopting a different approach to learning interactions. The way that people use social media in their personal lives — sharing their thoughts, interests, and items they’ve found and commenting on what others in their network have shared — is not so different from how they might use it to support learning. The differences are related to content, network, and purpose.

  4. Start with the activity (not the tool): It should follow logically (I hope) from the previous point that social media tools are just a means to an end. Tools alone do not shape activities or interactions. Teachers design learning activities and, in conjunction with their students, use tools to breathe life into those activities. Certain tools may be better suited for particular activities and interactions than others, but often tool selection is simply a matter a preference, familiarity, or access.

    Without a clear activity in mind, we tend to just engage in tool use. Sometimes tool use serendipitously results in good things. Other times it is just … well, tool use. I’ve talked to various educational tool users. Their rationale for using the tools has typically included things like “My institution is really encouraging us to use (insert tool name here)” and “(tool name) is really popular among my students now, and I’m trying to motivate them.” To the first point, yes, institutions do encourage tool use at times, but tool use without pedagogical rationale may earn brownie points with administrators but will not necessarily score points with learners or support learning in a meaningful way. Regarding the second point, any potential motivational effects are simply due to novelty — but consider also that not everyone wants to mix education with pleasure. When one’s social and leisure activities become course requirements, they tend to be a lot less enticing.

    Returning to this idea of activities, there are several knowledge activities (i.e., ways in which people interact with knowledge) that people engage in via social media. They collect resources and connections. They curate resources and artifacts that they have collected, organizing and annotating it. They create new information and resources (sometimes by remixing items they have collected in novel ways). They share that which they have found and created with others in their network. And they serve as brokers between networks, taking what they have learned from one person or group and offering it to another person or group that might also find it useful.

    Most lessons that rely on active learning processes incorporate one or more of these knowledge activities, whether mediated via social media tools or not. When instructors begin with the activity in mind, they can readily find tools that will help support that activity. When instructors begin with the tool, they may search for an activity that isn’t really needed or useful within the context of the course.

  5. Identify the tacit learning objectives: (And state them! Support them!) When people talk about reasons for integrating social media tools into learning contexts, they tend to make statements that extend beyond supporting the expected content-related learning objectives. The potential benefits to learners do extend beyond the required course content. Students who use social media tools in an educational context learn how to locate online resources related to their course of study, build professional development networks, and communicate with professionals online. We rarely see these skills listed among content-related learning objectives, but they nonetheless represent some of the tacit learning objectives that many instructors have for their students. Instructors are unlikely to articulate these objectives to their students, and sometimes they don’t even identify or reflect on these tactic objectives themselves. By noting these objectives and sharing them with students, instructors can help increase student buy-in with social media learning activities and encourage students to fully participate in not only learning the course content but also in preparing themselves for a range of professional communication and networking activities.
  6. Consider (dis)comfort: When you make the decision to use social media in your class, doing so is either in your comfort zone or you’ve chosen to step out of your comfort zone. However, have you considered the comfort — or discomfort — of your students?

    Before going further, let me acknowledge that learning is not necessarily meant to be a comfortable activity. Learning can be difficult. Learning challenges people to persist through frustration until they master new knowledge and skills. Course content can make people confront inaccurate beliefs that they’ve held for years, or practice doing things that do not come naturally or easily to them. These activities represent the natural discomfort of learning.
    The presence and use of social media tools in the learning context is another thing that can cause learners discomfort. This discomfort maybe due to a learning curve (lack of knowledge about how to use the tool), prior beliefs about social media (e.g., “it’s a waste of time, a silly space where all people do is overshare and brag”), privacy concerns, or context collapse. It’s useful to explore these issues individually and consider how they affect learning. The learning curve can be addressed, but may take time. Prior beliefs about social media can be challenged, but this also can take time. Students who believe social media is silly or inappropriate for educational use typically begin using social media under pressure and tend to be students who begrudgingly offer their minimal participation for a grade may be distracted from the actual focus of the lesson. Privacy concerns tend to be the realm of social media non-users or low users, and while these individuals may be a minority they nonetheless exist and typically have thought carefully about their preference to minimize their digital footprints. Fear of context collapse — the condition that occurs when different contexts of one’s life come together in a setting — is the domain of active social media users, who may have privacy concerns of their own, particularly when the class makes use of a social media tool that the student is already actively using within their personal life or for work. All of these issues can be addressed with solutions that will help the students develop comfort with social media use in their learning environment, but developing these solutions will take time and planning before the class activity, and then may take additional class time to put into place.

  7. Share ownership: If you’re operating within the social media mindset, hopefully you’re not thinking about how you can direct learners through an activity so much as you’re thinking about how you can facilitate learners through an activity. And hopefully you’re not only considering how learners can respond to your request for participation but how learners can help shape your request for participation. Learners have a lot to contribute to the learning environment. Even if they are not the people who can determine the learning objectives and are not subject matter experts, they may be social media or technology experts and they may have the interest and energy to support and extend creative learning activities introduced by the instructor. To this end, instructors can involve learners in the activity design and facilitation process, allowing learners to share their technological expertise and integrate their personal interests.
  8. Discuss authorship and intellectual property: When teaching and learning in online environments, authorship and intellectual property rights are omnipresent issues that are probably under-discussed. Everything we consume and share online is someone else’s. And everything we compose is ours. And we don’t just consume and compose, but we also mix together and share. In many instances, people are freely contributing to and building on to each other’s online intellectual property, and it becomes difficult at times to separate authors from their influencers. Incorporating the social media environment into educational settings invites — and really requires — discussion of how intellectual property is involved and might be appropriately communicated and protected from both a consumer and author perspective.
  9. Track activity: Most social media tools incorporate tracking and analytic tools. The data is all there, under the surface, anyway. The tools now make it easy for end users to request reports and view diagrams of how many people viewed or shared particular social media artifacts.

    Tracking data (aka analytics) can be very useful. For instructors, analytics provide information about how active students and others were during the social media learning activity. These data points may be used to help support statements of teaching effectiveness and provide evidence of the types of instructional activities that people ave developed. Learners also may be interested in these data points, using them to learn about how information travels in online forums and the different ways that they can use social media to communicate with specific audiences. Learning how to access and use this kind of data may prove useful on the job (tacit learning objective for some, perhaps?).

For my AECT presentation, I ended with this ninth tip. I had nine tips in part because I had ten minutes for my talk and I estimated that I’d want a minute to talk about each tip and one more minute to split between the introduction and conclusion. However, as I wrote up these ideas in this document I realized that there were a few more tips that I really wanted to add to the list. In brief:

  • Leave time to learn how to use the tool: Part of the discomfort learners may experience is related to a lack of familiarity with a tool — or with how it will be used in a course. When we ask learners to simultaneously learn how to use a tool and learn course content, we’re splitting their cognitive load between those tasks. In other words, “tool use” takes away from “content learning.” This situation is not ideal, and can result in unnecessary anxiety. By providing learners with the opportunity to practice tool use with familiar content, they can focus on one kind of learning and then shift to the next.
  • Archive and create legacy documents: Classes who use social media tools to support learning may create some pretty amazing things — mashups, curated collections, documented conversations with embedded multimedia resources. It would be a shame to let those artifacts die out at the end of a class. With student permission, they can be archived for use by future classes. In fact, a final reflective exercise for one class might be creating a selective or curated archive of their work to be shared with the next class, giving themselves credit or sharing anonymously as they all see fit.
  • Have fun with it! How could I have forgotten this last tip in my presentation? While I don’t believe that social media use will inherently motivate students (and any novelty effects that surface will surely fade away pretty quickly), I do believe that social media-based learning experiences, when appropriately designed to engage learners, offer an opportunity to really enjoy the learning process.

What do you think? Any other points you would add?