Last summer, Kingston Grammar School ICT teacher Matt Britland opened up the debate about the benefits and risks of using social media in teaching and learning in an article for the Guardian Teacher Network. Here, we look at how universities and colleges are tackling those issues and asks – do we really need to bother?
Matt surveyed a small sample of school teachers to uncover their attitudes to social networking as an educational tool and to identify concerns that were stopping more extensive use.
Their responses made it clear that, while more than half of the schools use Twitter and nearly a third use Facebook to reach out to students, senior managers had serious concerns focusing on the possibility of cyber bullying and potential invasion of personal space, as well as worries over whether staff had the technical ability to manage social media properly.
Those same concerns will be familiar to many managers in higher and further education and they continue to hamper more widespread use of social media as a tool to support teaching and learning.
But colleges and universities need to embrace social media because it is now one of the main ways that young adults communicate, along with texting and instant messaging. Matt argued in his article that forcing students down the email route because we think it makes our lives easier is likely to be a mistake and that, in his experience, institutions that use Facebook groups to communicate with students report that they pick up their Facebook messages far quicker than their emails.
At the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) the Information Team has been using Twitter for the last two years as a highly effective way to update students on exam timetables, grant information, housing benefits, opportunities and events.
Information team member Lee Hoskinson said:
“Twitter is such a fast way to get important information out to staff and students, even more so now that we’ve learned a few tricks such as how to schedule tweets in advance. There is lots of help available to users on the Twitter site and we’ve learned how to improve it as we have gone along.”
That’s not to say social media is always the best way to communicate – just that sometimes it could be. Matt believes it is worth asking students if they would like to have a way of communicating via social media and what platform they would prefer to use.
Setting ground rules
Concerns about how to ‘do it’ are certainly not insurmountable. Many people already know how to use Facebook and Twitter, and both are very easy to learn via helpful hints and tips on the sites themselves. Once you have decided on a strategy and set the wheels in motion, it’s unlikely that staff or students will need much of an induction to get them started. Matt comments:
“At its simplest, social media can be used to broadcast information. Using Twitter simply to push out information or to share links related to teaching and learning is the ‘safe’ first step for many, and if a broadcast account is linked to the department’s RSS feed, it reduces the need to keep tweeting news items.
"It can still be used for bespoke tweets when necessary – and if the profile states clearly that the account is for broadcasting information only, it will not look unprofessional or rude if you don’t respond to tweets.”
One important concern for staff, which Matt understands, is that using social networks could encroach on personal space. He feels that students worry less about this and are happier for their private and academic lives to merge, but for staff, the simple answer is not to use a personal profile for whichever social network you choose. Having a second, professional profile gives the staff members some space. It’s about setting up ground rules that everyone in the department or group is comfortable with.
Boosting staff and student engagement
Biting the bullet and using social media to engage staff and students is a great way to encourage feedback, both good and bad. Some of the world’s largest and most successful corporations are finding that social media is an increasingly popular way for customers to offer both praise and criticism, and universities and colleges can harness it in the same way. Social media specialist Charlie Pownall offers some useful pointers for turning criticism to your advantage.
His top 6 tips:
- Respond quickly (within hours)
- Be accurate
- Be flexible
- Be transparent
- Be sincere
- Be human
Case study: Shrewsbury College
Last academic year, when Shrewsbury College wanted to trial the use of Facebook in its sports department, information and learning technology and digital marketing developer Richard Booth set up the account in accordance with his own guidance documentation to ensure both efficiency and the safety of group members. His approach was to:
- Create a separate, dedicated account
- Manage the settings so that no-one outside the intended group members could become a friend
- Personally set up the groups
- Appoint two staff moderators to manage posts
- Make the groups private once the intended members had joined, so they were invisible to outsiders
The college’s sports pilot was so successful in bringing students back to the college’s Moodle site that Facebook and Twitter are now routinely used in marketing for around 34 groups across the curriculum and Richard says that there have been no cases of bullying via the college’s social media networks. The only negative issue to date, according to Richard, has been that:
“a handful of tutors report that it is causing distractions in lessons. This is, I think, a longer discussion about classroom management and course delivery. Overall social media is proving to be a great tool to keep the students engaged. My remit is to help staff and students to realise that these are valuable tools that are really easy for anyone to use.”
This article originally featured in issue 36 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).