In and Out of the Classroom: Using Social Media in Ways that Matter

Because so many students use social media tools – and because so many faculty use the same tools in their personal or professional lives – it can be tempting to bring social media into the classroom almost by default, on the assumption either that social media technologies are needed to engage students or that they will boost student engagement simply by their use. But social media technologies aren’t silver bullets – they are tools that can support efforts to address common pedagogical challenges.

Here’s an example.


Perennial challenges in traditional (non-immersive) foreign language courses include a) how to best encourage student practice outside the classroom, where students have limited access to conversation in the new language, and b) how to aid students in moving beyond language “exercises” toward conversational fluency while within a classroom environment. In an intermediate Italian course at Montclair State University, Enza Antenos-Conforti had her students tweet to each other, in and out of the classroom, in 140-character strings of Italian. Antenos-Conforti then invited native Italian speakers she knows to join the tweeting, in effect adding an element of immersion to the language course.

In her paper on the subject, Antenos-Conforti documented the results of this pedagogical innovation:

  • 90 percent of the students reported that posting tweets boosted their confidence in writing Italian, and 79 percent reported that tweeting and conversing online with native speakers and with their peers boosted their motivation to learn the language
  • While conversing in tweets, students corrected one another’s Italian, leveraging their peers to boost the speed with which they acquired proficiency in the language

Antenos-Conforti’s example illustrates the efficacy of a well-planned application of a social media tool to address specific challenges in teaching and learning:

  • Extending the learning outside of class sessions
  • Creating opportunities for more immersive learning to increase the speed of acquiring proficiency in the course’s subject matter
  • Enabling the instructor and students to provide each other with real-time feedback

Ray Schroeder, professor emeritus and director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service (COLRS, formerly OTEL) at the University of Illinois Springfield, and Norm Vaughan, assistant professor in the Department of Education, Faculty of Teaching and Learning at Mount Royal University and co-author of the book Blended Learning in Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2008), suggest coaching faculty on the pedagogical affordances of social media tools. Assist faculty in defining their learning objectives and identifying the tools (whether social media or other) that will best help meet the objectives. If a faculty member is contemplating using Google+ in class, for instance, several questions have to be asked at the outset:

  • What teaching and learning challenges are likely to be most critical to address for this course to help students be successful? (For instance, is there a need to increase the instructor's social presence in an online or blended course? Is there a need to create a more interactive learning environment? Foster collaborative study?)
  • In what ways will this specific tool (or other, alternative tools) aid a larger pedagogical strategy for meeting those challenges?

Here are several examples of courses at varied institutions that have piloted specific uses of social media to address specific teaching and learning challenges.

Challenge A: Increasing Student Participation and Engagement in Large Classes

Verbal class discussion is often limited to a handful of students, and the participation issue is exacerbated in larger class settings. Teaching 90-student history courses at the University of Texas at Dallas in 2009, Monica Rankin decided to draw more students into discussion of the course content by starting the discussion (in real time) in written rather than verbal form. She used a Twitter backchannel to get students discussing the content; displaying the backchannel on a projected screen made it possible for both faculty and students to respond verbally to the discussion as it developed. Commenting on the example, Ray Schroeder notes:

  • In the time it takes for one student to raise a hand and be called on by the instructor, multiple students can be tweeting back and forth on the class channel in earnest discussion of a point
  • Those students who are often either too shy or too introspective to participate significantly in a live class discussion often feel less shy about tweeting their questions and thoughts
  • A backchannel can be reviewed by the students and instructor even after the session has ended; besides recording a lively class discussion, the instructor can also review the backchannel to identify and highlight teachable moments

As more of the students interacted on the backchannel, this use of the social media platform increased the in-class opportunities for collaborative learning. This video reviews Rankin's experiment.


Besides encouraging students in large lecture halls to engage in animated (digital) discussion, Twitter can also be applied to help address the challenge of getting an instructor timely feedback on the lesson from a large number of students. Ray Schroeder suggests this use of Twitter: during a lecture attended by a large body of students, open a Twitter backchannel and invite students to tweet the points in the lecture that leave them confused. In this adaptation of the popular "muddy point" assessment exercise, the instructor can monitor the live feed, noting what points in the material require elaboration or clarification and responding in real time.

Challenge B: Boosting Information Literacy

As research on gaps in college preparedness continues to emerge, fueling debates in both academic and public forums, most postsecondary institutions have taken some measures to assist undergraduates in developing a higher degree of information and digital literacy, and to prepare students better for conducting academic research.

Norm Vaughan suggests using social bookmarking tools as part of structured assignments that encourage students to share, assess, and comment on one another’s research. For example, he cites one case in which a course assignment required two groups of students to collect resources related to a particular issue. Groups A and B collected and shared their resources via social bookmarking, then the groups were charged with preparing for an in-class debate in which Group A would argue from Group B’s point of view using Group B’s bookmarked resources, and vice versa.

Frequently, colleges and universities have sought to prepare students to conduct informed research by adopting various strategies for embedding a librarian in first-year courses. Baylor University recently piloted embedding a librarian into a class via a Twitter channel. The librarian, functioning as an "information concierge," responded to student ideas and questions during the class, suggesting reference materials, online links, or other resources where students can look to pursue the answers they need. While Gardner Campbell and Ellen Hampton Filgo, who collaborated on the pilot project, noted its potential for improving students' academic performance, questions remain about how to scale a project that requires a substantial time commitment from the reference librarian.


To review some forward-thinking strategies for encouraging information literacy, read our October 2011 article “Information Literacy and the First-Year Student.”

Challenge C: Extending Learning Outside the Class Session

"The key is to encourage metacognition – help students learn how to learn, help them co-create knowledge and take ownership of their learning. When students are creating and contributing to knowledge, learning becomes more than just checking off boxes on the way to graduation."
Norm Vaughan, Mount Royal University

The NSSE research has documented how much learning takes place outside the classroom – not merely in private study but in social settings, where students have opportunity to compare notes, “test-drive” their ideas or positions before a familiar audience, and solicit input and feedback from their peers. You can leverage social media technologies in targeted ways to engage students in learning and knowledge creation as social acts.

Norm Vaughan offers these suggestions:

  • Use Google Docs to support collaborative work outside of class. A student working in Google Docs can choose who they share the document with (not just classmates, but potentially others on campus or at other institutions or even the general public) and can invite both critique and editing. "Writing is challenging to begin with," Vaughan notes, "and often students spend the majority of their academic years writing for an audience of one. They write for the instructor, and they write what they feel they need to write in order to go through the hoops and get the grade. Consider the power of giving them a larger audience. Students are empowered when they realize that writing can be a social action, not just an assigned task."
  • Use wikis and other collaborative writing tools to have students write their own textbook over the course of the term; have them add new content, dispute, and revise
  • Use Wikipedia to encourage students to act both as critical readers of the resources available to them and as active contributors to public knowledge; for example, the University of Rhode Island's graduate school of oceanography is engaged in updating dozens of Wikipedia entries on oceanography
  • Use YouTube to have students publish and share online videos – such as interviews, student documentaries, dramatic readings, or even student-created tutorials on math or science

In This Issue

Social Media: From Tactics to Strategy

A Letter from Amit Mrig, President, Academic Impressions

Social Media: Not a Brave New World

Social Media and Student Recruitment

In and Out of the Classroom: Using Social Media in Ways that Matter

Social Media and Alumni/Donor Engagement

Providing Central Guidelines and Support for Social Media