While plenty of their parents might see using social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs as a leisure time activity, students today know better: These days, those web portals can be some of the best places to find information on the subjects they’re covering in school. In fact, professors have been integrating these tools into their curriculum with positive results. Elizabeth Hilts, an adjunct professor at Fairfield University, is a fan of using a class blog for her freshman and advanced English classes. “I set up class blogs ... these are designed to help students develop their 'writer’s voice' while providing them with an additional outlet for developing their opinions about complex topics in conversation with others,” Hilts says.


Dr. Nicholas David Bowman, assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University, teaches classes like Social Media in the Workplace and seminars on New Media and Society, as well as others that concentrate on how to use social media in a business setting at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He uses Facebook and Twitter in his classes for out-of-class communications, and says his students “like that they can get in touch with me for questions — it gives them a space where they know that I am just a tweet or wall post away.” Not only do these social media sites give him more space and time with students (not to mention individual attention), but it also allows them to continue discussions from class with each other. “Oftentimes on our class Facebook walls, students interact with each other faster than I interact with them. I move to more of a 'guide on the side' than a 'sage on the stage' and that brings me closer to their level (to borrow an old teaching adage). This is a good thing, as it fosters a trust environment conducive to learning,” says Bowman.


While there has been some backlash against using social media in schools (some have outlawed it because of the threat of bullying among students), more teachers are embracing these sites — which in turn also means that the function of the sites is less about pure socializing (where bullying can occur) and more about learning and topical discussion. According to The Guardian's social media guide for schools, “Teachers have been setting up subject or class Twitter accounts that students can follow. The teacher then tweets information related to their class. Some even set homework via Twitter.” Twitter can also be a great place for students of journalism to keep up with the news (a common way for students to keep apace of topics or breaking news is to subscribe to national and international news Twitter feeds so they don’t have to go to each site every day, which allows a greater diversity of news sources).


Even Pinterest, the photo-sharing creative site, can be a boon for teachers. Matt Britland, who authored the above-mentioned Guardian Teacher’s Guide, has a pinboard called “Tutorials,” for example, which instructs students or followers on how to do use Photoshop features, how to create a QR code, and other tech-related subjects. Art teachers love Pinterest to show students more examples of artists’ work (especially if they are less commonly known), and naturally, fashion and design instructors can expand upon ideas taught in their classes via pinboards.


Of course, like any electronic media, e-safety rules for using social sites for communication between students and teacher should be implemented, especially for younger students. But, as Alan MacKenzie writes in The Guardian, many of the perceived risks of using social media in schools come down to a lack of understanding by parents and school administrators about how the sites work. While everything we do, from driving to school, to eating our lunch, entails some risk, social media has some that need to be mitigated.


“Social networking has all the same risks as the traditional online safety risks. Many of the e-safety reasons cited for not using social networking in school are understandable because the risks are simply not fully understood. This is because of a lack of awareness, which in some cases will be down to scaremongering. This then culminates in the inability to risk assess because some schools don't know what to risk assess against, and how to mitigate those risks,” Mackenzie writes.


So while no teacher should jump into social media without addressing parents’ concerns (for younger students), and administrative questions (for all levels), social media can be a valuable teaching tool when used alongside traditional teaching methods. A huge plus is that students generally love it, not only because it might not be expected, but because they get to understand what previously might have been seen as “toys” to play with after school can be learning tools. Students start seeing social media sites as a way to learn about topics they love outside of class, and may even be encouraged to start their own topical blog, Twitter stream, Pinterest page or Facebook group.


While some professors are still getting used to using social media in their classes, students may be more comfortable with it than their teachers. Says Hilts, “Most of [the students] are completely comfortable with using technology in learning; in some cases, they’ve been doing this far longer than I have been.”


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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

How teachers use social media in the classroom to beef up instruction
Classroom management gets social with sites like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest helping teachers and students communicate and share knowledge.