Lessons From the Field: Using Social Media with My Students

I’m doing a conference presentation next week for a mostly higher ed audience on how I use social media in my courses. I’m taking a “five tips” approach, and I’ll do a more extensive outline here later but for now, I’m just thinking out loud as I head into week four of the semester. I am teaching two sections of an ed tech for admins course in which I require students to participate in Twitter as part of a semester-long Professional Learning Network assignment.

It is highly scaffolded in terms of getting started: we review vocabulary, share ideas for who to follow, and brainstorm things we could do with Twitter.

There is no quantitative aspect to the assignment (ie, you must tweet five times a day). Instead, it is all qualitative: there are several reflections during the semester and then a report at the end about what and how you learned. I should also point out that they are also required to set up a Feedly account as well and they blog in class so Twitter isn’t their only foray into social media and PLNs.

I always have a few students who whine: they have managed to get this far in their professional lives without having to resort to Twitter. One student’s Twitter handle is something like “because I have to to graduate.” Others revive accounts they created as part of professional development or when they were in college. (Yes, my friends, some of them are THAT young.)

After a few weeks, it’s interesting to see the various paths the students take towards fulfilling the assignment. At least one student already had an active account (he tweets more than I do), so the list I created was initially all his tweets. It didn’t bother me as he provided some nice modeling as to what others might do. Now, the list is more diverse: students are sharing resources, commenting on articles, and just generally connecting. The “I’m doing this to graduate” students pops in now and then and posts a flurry of tweets and then is gone again. But they are good tweets and she is following some great people. Some begin taking on the world, replying and retweeting with the larger community. Others are still figuring it out and their tweets tend to be of the “I can’t believe I’m tweeting” variety.

There are a few that will need some prodding in the next week…I give them time to settle in and then send some gentle reminders that, while there isn’t a quantitative assignment, it will be hard to reflect qualitatively if you haven’t done anything. Plus, I can’t “see” lurking.

I know that many of them will abandon Twitter the moment the assignment is done. But each semester, at least a few continue to drop by. I’ll get the occasional DM with questions or get a mention when they post something they know I’d like. There is also the somewhat astonished post about how they didn’t realize all this was going on in Twitter! I love the small celebrations when one of their tweets get retweeted or favorited by someone outside our circle, maybe even someone famous.

And, it’s a great assignment for me, too. I tend to drift in and out of Twitter but each spring, when my students work on this assignment, I get more engaged as well. In stopping by to check on them, I always find something for myself and, in modeling engagement, I tend to tweet more myself. It helps connect us outside of class and lets them know that I value this assignment because I’m willing to be part of it myself.

This coming week, I’m asking them to be part of the #edchat tweetchat which means I’ll be there, too, and I’m really looking forward to it.

This notion of how to use social media seems to be getting some play. Marie Owens has some good ideas in Faculty Focus, and she links to an article by Laura Devaney about using social media in the classroom.

For me, the real objective of this assignment is to help my students connect to the larger world. Despite all, I think schools still tend to be isolated. And the principal can be the most isolated with little opportunity to connect to other instructional leaders during the school day. I want to help them see that they can break that isolation and be part of a larger network of learners. They must not forget about their own learning and development. This article from 2002 makes a nice foundational argument for my ultimate objective.

Meanwhile, if you are interested, here’s my list for the semester.

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