Social Media and the 21st Century College Classroom

Guest Author - Nick Bowman (@bowmanspartan)   |   July 20, 2017

When it comes to Millennials and classroom engagement, the generation is heavily maligned – denounced (albeit, with a shimmer of home) by Time magazine as the “me me me generation”  -- and most critically, constantly rebuked for their love of social media and smartphones: over 98% of Millennials own a smartphone, according to Nielsen Research.


These observations have led to claims that Millennials have lost the ability to socialize with each other, and perhaps critically for education, their obsession with social media competes with the attention their willing to give their studies. These concerns have led some professors to ban social media and other communication technologies in their classrooms, in attempt to cut off access to what some consider to be weapons of mass distraction.


Such technology abstinence policies are no doubt successful in removing some distractions from the classroom, but they always struck me as a bit severe – or at least, myopic to the very real possibilities that social media technologies could be used to both enhance learning in the classroom as well as sustain learning outside of class. That is, with a bit of technology literacy as well as a clear set of expectations for both students and teachers, there seems to be little reason to believe that social media can’t be as influential to the classroom as the video cassette recorder or even, the very invention of writing: both technologies that were challenged in their day, either by the US Supreme Court (the former) or by Socrates himself (the latter).


As part of the classroom, social media technologies such as Twitter can allow for students to engage with both course content and fellow classmates in a real-time format – research has shown that Twitter can be used to bring students in large classrooms closer to each other and to course content, critical given that large lectures are often lambasted for being so impersonal, perhaps encouraging passive and shallow learning by design. Using Twitter for guest speakers and out-of-class guests can be particularly useful when low-tech alternative to a more elaborate video-conferencing calls, and the use of course-specific hashtags can help organize participation. For example, users of the book Introduction to Mediated Communication – a textbook used for teaching many undergraduate mass media, media studies and communication technology courses – are encouraged to use the hashtag #MediaAsTools when working through discussion prompts offered by the authors (disclosure: I’m one of the three authors of that book, and I’m at @bowmanspartan if you ever want to chat about it!). Education scholars have found that Twitter as a purposeful classroom too can not only engage students (in particular, students who might not otherwise participate in face-to-face situations) but also help encourage faculty to take a participatory role in the education process – the transition of the faculty member from a more singular and reverent Sage on the Stage who stands in front of students and lectures, to a more egalitarian and peer Guide on the Side.


Another critical use of social media is for out-of-class communication: those communications between student and teacher that happen beyond the confines of scheduled instruction time. As is often the case, most out-of-class communication is restricted to rather formal channels: faculty office hours and asynchronous emails chief among them. While both are useful for some scenarios, neither is optimal for all scenarios. In our own research, we found that using a Facebook group as a supplemental space for learning in mass lecture resulted in creating a persistent community of learners – students engaged each other to discuss course content, including both in-class material and related material from other sources (such as mass media or personal experience). Students would often reply directly when faculty initiated discussion, but every faculty-initiated post lead to an average of four posts by students, often to each other as part of continued conversation. Moreover, while a causal claim couldn’t be supported, students who used the Facebook group scored over six percent higher on their exams. Follow-up research found that students engaging class Facebook groups saw greater value in the course content.


Perhaps as an exercise in rational capitulation or perhaps as a recognition of emerging data suggesting social media to benefit the classroom, the number of college faculty using social media in their classroom is small but growing. Groups from the National Education Association to the International Dialogues on Education have offered guidance, and social media pedagogy is a growing topic of discussion at SxSWedu and other conferences, with several guides also published.


For my own teaching, social media has allowed me to connect with my students in myriad ways: sometimes as their problem-solver, sometimes as their opinion leader, and sometimes as their peer learner. Indeed, two of my most cherished student-professor interactions took place via social media: one in which students engaging our Introduction to Mass Media Facebook page morphed their final exam discussion into a glowing tribute of their class, and the other was a scenario in which a student posted about their first major career move (being hired at a large social media firm) and detailing how her class assignments helped her get the job – none of these behaviors were instigated by anything more than a student’s motivation to engage their peers, their professor, and perhaps most importantly: their content.


Successful learning is often thought of as when students can be brought closer to concepts, rather than concepts being fed to students. Social media, used strategically and purposefully, allows students to see critical class concepts as part of their natural and existing social network. I see it every day via Facebook and Twitter, and I’m eager to see my peers do the same.


Also? If you make it on Reddit, students will absolutely think that you’re cool. =)


Biography Nick Bowman (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at West Virginia University, where he heads up the Interaction Lab (#ixlab). His research broadly considers the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and social demands of interactive media, such as social media and video games. He has published research in over 100 peer-reviewed journals and books, and is one of the co-authors of Introduction to Mediated Communication, Social Media and Beyond (Kendall-Hunt). He is the current editor of Communication Research Reports and is one of the associate editors of Journal of Media Psychology.