Guest author Victoria Shropshire, Instructor of English at Elon University
Clicking “Like” is not selling out. Joining a movement you can’t beat is not defeatist; it’s honestly embracing a tech tool in order to better engage and educate your students. What’s not to Like about that?
Social media is an undeniable part of students’ lives; encouraging them to engage in responsible discourse in digital spaces is a part of the modern writing professor’s job title, whether they label it as such or not. But more importantly, it can be used in any course that encourages researched-supported arguments, collaboration, and thoughtful writing.
Many professors dismiss social media tools (like Facebook and Twitter) as nothing more than high tech toys and high order distractions, which they absolutely can be if not harnessed properly. Some of you reading now may cringe at the use of that verb, harness, but I like it for many reasons. A harness is not ultimate control; it’s a guidance tool that keeps us (more or less) on a given path. You can have a simple leather strap or you can dress it up with sleigh bells, but the big picture, the ultimate flow of learning, is forward moving. Using a harness, there is room for freedom in creative and critical thinking, as well as for pre-determined goals and outcomes, which is very much how the social pedagogy of teaching in my classroom looks most days. It can be messy and seem tangential, but there is freedom to pursue new ideas in attempts to connect them to our central goal or thesis.
So how do I “harness” Facebook as a classroom resource?
I usually begin by creating a class page, which sets clear parameters and terms with which students are already familiar. There are a variety of ways you can construct a class space in FB (and TLT can help you with this!) but I simply create a group and invite the students to join, making it private once all the students have joined. You do NOT have to friend your students. (I tell mine with some measure of snark that I am their instructor, and therefore by definition not necessarily their friend. When they graduate, they can ask to friend me on FB and if I accept, they’ll know whether or not I actually liked them. They think this is funny.)
I use the space first and foremost as a forum in which students are comfortable sharing ideas and even research methods, later in the term. Often, it’s a great outlet for the shy student to join study groups or discover activities on campus, even internship opportunities, through their student networking (another real world skill social media can help students learn to use!) and other campus organizations they can find on FB. I make the first assignments interactive, offering, for instance, extra credit points for students who post photos they’ve snapped at jobs fairs or other campus-sponsored events.
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As the semester progresses, I often use it for announcements (they receive these faster than those pushed to email via Moodle, as FB apps are ubiquitous on the college student phone) and then for a few graded assignments as well. I have them locate unique sources for research projects, for example, and post not only photos or links, but annotated bibliographies of the sources as well. In surveys, students admit that these reminders and ideas posted in FB about their research projects have helped them stay on track with their work and manage their time better, resulting in papers that are not the product of a 3 a.m. assembly. Amazing. While we can instruct, advise, even attempt to enforce organization, research, composition, and editing skills, at the end of a semester, students will credit their friends’ posts on Facebook as an effective time management and accountability measure.
I also make a point to use posts during in-class conversations, to reinforce not only the idea that academic discourses should be on-going (not restructured to the allotted time in a student’s weekly schedule) but that these conversations can (and should) pervade other areas of their lives. I pointedly start debates about tone, context, and language of the variety of online discourses in which students participate. In essence, I use social media to begin conversations about social media, encouraging (sometimes requiring) research, thought, and thoughtful writing. Indeed, one of the most consistent complaints from students about integrating social media into their coursework is this idea that they don’t WANT to think about Facebook; they want it to remain a frivolous, mindless entertainment and not really think about what they are posting there and who is reading it. To this I reply, too bad.
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Of course, only a professor can make these decisions. Your teaching style, pedagogies, focus, additional materials, and course objectives are all carefully sculpted for your students; why wouldn’t this be, too? But these tools aren’t fads, any more than gaming or intuitive computing, and it behooves us to encourage if not instruct the future leaders of our world to pursue the ethical and responsible use of them.
And I Like that very much.