Following up from NYU seminar

Last week I sat down with about 25 NYU professors and TAs for NYU’s MAP program (the freshman required curriculum) to discuss using social media in the classroom.  The purpose of the seminar was to introduce them to some of the tools I thought would be most useful – classroom chat, poll questions, long form answers, in-class small group discussion, video office hours and online homework sets.  (All the specific tools are laid out in this post on using social media in the classroom).

As part of the small group work and long form response, I asked the teachers what they were most concerned about with introducing social media to the classroom.  Here’s what three different groups said:

Group 1: We came up with three issues:

1) How to make it effective and meaningful

2) How to prevent students from using it as a diversion

3) How to ensure infrastructure can sustain technology

Group 2: CONCERNS

1. Access to online tools – public or private?

2. Privacy issue with online conversations. What is the conversation turns ugly and the conversation becomes public?

3. Students who are uncomfortable with the subject matter may be reluctant to post comments online if the comments are public.

4. Scalability issue…something that works for 40 students doesn’t always work for 80 students.

5. Setting up, reading, and commenting on blogs takes extra time and professors are already busy with course prep.

Group 3: 

Our primary concerns are a) how to preserve and centralize student work and information generated by or for social media so that teachers and students can refer to it or go back to it later. Would building hashtags into assignments or weeks on the syllabus be a potential solution? An even bigger concern is how to deal with the Pandora’s box of student distraction with increased internet use in the classroom. Perhaps make designated time periods in specific classes “laptop” times for social media exercises and engagement? Is this too heavy-handed or does it discourage further social media-related creativity?

I’ve grouped these ideas together and will address them individually.

Making social media effective and meaningful

Social media is a communications tool.  As such, using the tools in and of themselves is not the end goal.  For the university professor, the end goal is to have your students learn and engage with the curriculum.  There are many ways to use social media effectively and I hope we get to look at some interesting case studies as the semester progresses.

Social media and the internet as a diversion/distraction

I take an extreme position on this topic.  I think it is the professor’s job to engage students and keep them interested in the course material.  Students were bored and distracted in class long before the internet came along.  I think the goal should be to make class as interesting and lively as possible, so the students choose to stay focused.  And these communication tools allow the students, even in very large classrooms, to be active participants in the classroom conversation.  Many students are used to lectures where it is easy to tune out what is going on.  Small group conversations where students talk directly to each other under the supervision of the professor and the TAs should be much more engaging.

All this doesn’t mean that the internet isn’t a very powerful distractor.  It certainly is.  And the professor should definitely make sure to call a student’s attention back to the classroom if it is clear the student has checked out and is browsing youtube, etc.  However, I consider some of the distractions a student can find on the internet to be quite beneficial to the classroom.  I sat in recently on a class that covered law, business and culture and the students were struggling with the original text of an old courtroom decision.  One student did a quick google search and found a website that broke down the key points of the case that made it easier to handle.  That student quickly shared this site, the other students scanned it, and conversation picked back up as the students were able to understand the course material better.

Infrastructure and scalability

I think there are two sides to this question: the hardware and the software.  The hardware is both easy and hard: if the school invests in having a strong internet connection available in classrooms, probably through wifi, then the physical infrastructure is easy.  As I found out at NYU, the physical infrastructure was shaky, and half the teachers couldn’t get online during the seminar. In which case it’s hard!  But mostly out of the control of any individual professor.

However, the physical infrastructure should only continue to improve as schools upgrade their facilities.  The software infrastructure can readily handle the number of students in a class – from 10 to 500.  Classes are being taught online now to tens of thousands of students!  Lectures are delivered via video, questions and discussions happen in forums, and quizzes are administered online.  All the functions of a classroom are being handled over the internet for very large numbers of students.

One really interesting aspect of moving online is that the professor and the TAs don’t have to the exact center of the classroom.  Instead, students can connect directly with one another to talk about what happened in class and answer each others questions.

Public vs. Private (including privacy issues)

The simple answer to the privacy question is to use a private site like CourseKit.com.  Then none of the conversations or posts your students make are immediately accessible to the public.  Of course, anything that lives online can be copied from one place to another.  This problem can be most readily solved with an honor code.  I don’t know but I would imagine most universities already have an honor code that their students agree to abide by that covers this type of situation.

I think the most important step to take is to set the students expectations for their behavior online.  They should understand that online conversations are extensions of offline conversations and should be treated with respect.  Since all online conversations can be attributed to a specific author/student, each student can be held responsible for what they say and do online.

This stuff takes more time!

I agree that there is a learning curve for using social media tools, the same as there is for learning to use any other tool.  Ultimately, I think that using these tools can save the teacher time and effort.  For example, video office hours don’t have to take any more of the teacher’s time than regular office hours, but make the teacher much more accessible.  Having students chat with each other in small groups in class and then post long form comments to a blog doesn’t take any more time than having a regular conversation in class and allows each student to be more actively engaged.  The same for polls.   I think the bottom line is that social media tools allow students to have a deeper engagement with the professor and the curriculum, without much added time.

Preserving student work for later reference (Hashtags?)

Everything written online can be saved in one form or another.  With Twitter, for example, an export of a feed that contains all the students handles, or a conversation that uses the same hashtag, can be saved offline or posted to a blog for later perusal.  If a private tool like coursekit.com is used then coursekit itself saves the conversations.  If you are using Google Forms for weekly quizzes or homework assignments then Google Docs will save all the student responses.  The same goes for blog posts and blog comments.  A bigger issue than saving or preserving student work will be the amount of data that is gathered!  It could easily and quickly get to the point where the professor and the TA can’t consume or digest all of the information being produced by a classroom of 100 students.  This is a challenge that every company today is currently dealing with and is a large part of my work at IBM.  Thankfully for the professor, that will be a good problem to have!

Posted in Class follow-up, Education, Social Media

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