Welcoming Social Media in the Classroom

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Like most professors, I struggle to anchor my students to course content amid the deluge of mobile phones, laptops, Kindles, Nooks, tablets, smart watches, Android Wear, Google Glasses, and who knows what else. I first attempted to silence these devices in fall 2002 with a simple request necessitating, or so I thought, no further elaboration: “Please do not talk on your cell phones.” How woefully naïve! No other stipulation in my syllabi was so resoundingly ignored. Undeterred, I redoubled my efforts each semester—adding bold font and italics, then threats and penalties. I pleaded, cajoled, and all but wept with exasperation. I often felt like the astronaut Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, futilely asking HAL to “open the pod bay doors.” But the myriad machines that flicker, beep, hum, warble, and otherwise mesmerize my students seemed only to respond, channeling HAL, “I’m sorry Eric, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

But then, at a symposium on “Social Media for Teaching and Learning” in 2012 convened by Pearson Learning Solutions, I experienced an e-epiphany and immediately reversed course—in mid-semester. Rather than challenge HAL, I joined him. No longer do I prohibit mobile devices in the classroom, a Sisyphean effort at best. I now welcome them. Facebook? Fine. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest? No worries. My students may now utilize any social media during class. They can post, tweet, pin, reblog, and gram; check email, the weather, their bank balance. But once students do so, they agree to follow a brief set of guidelines aimed at harnessing personal technology to enhance learning. In my classroom, mobile devices transform teaching into a collaborative quest that embraces intellectual spontaneity, depth, and honesty. Here’s how.

First, I insist on moderation. Students may momentarily “check out” through the use of social media. Who doesn’t sometimes drift during class? The absence of mobile devices, as many of us will recall from our own pre-digital college days, hardly correlates with heightened classroom engagement. But if any of my students become ‘lost’ to social media, I try privately to strategize with them on improving focus and involvement. And I can always resort to professorial authority: class participation is a sizable component of my final grades. I also insist that devices must never disrupt others: quiet the noises, dim the LEDs.

Second, student use of social media and digital devices never substitutes for mastery of course content and discussions. Students must learn to use social media not only respectfully but also wisely. And there are times when I ask the class to abstain. In a world of omnipresent digital connections, students—indeed, all of us—need to learn how to balance talking and texting, face time and screen time, being present and virtual being.

Third, and most importantly, students who enjoy social media during class must agree to use their devices to enrich the classroom. This is the whole purpose behind my experiment. Mobile devices literally put the world at students’ fingertips. Surely we can harness this remarkable technology to deepen learning. I encourage students during class to discover new concepts and examples, thus lending them agency and responsibility for contributing to the intellectual content of the course. Look up information! Add something new to the topic! Google something of relevance! And, above all else, share what you discover—post it, even, to the class Facebook page, group Twitter account, or Moodle discussion forum, all of which allow students ample opportunities outside the classroom to make connections between course content and their everyday lives.

Finally, I ask students to maintain written logs of how they use devices in the classroom, which I periodically check. In sum, I respect students’ maturity to moderate their classroom use of social media and mobile devices—and they agree to respect the intellectual integrity of the classroom by using their devices to enlarge the scope of our scholarly endeavors.

Is this a digital equivalent of a Faustian bargain? Perhaps. But the results are quite favorable. A recent study by Pearson and a group at Babson College found that 40% of faculty members now use social media for teaching. In my classroom, no longer do I perform the role of virtual policeman, constantly on the prowl for unauthorized texting. My students and I have moved well past the cat-and-mouse game that often besieged learning. There is simply no need for any furtive YouTubing under the table. The classroom now seems more honest. Moreover, mobile devices are globally ubiquitous. To bar them at the door is needlessly anachronistic, a repudiation of the very globalization that many of my classes study. We need to teach what the International Society for Technology in Education calls, in its Standards for Students, “digital citizenship.”

By transforming a former distraction into an integral component of teaching and learning, students and I both focus better on the material. Indeed, we use mobile devices to explore unexpected trajectories, clarify points, share extemporaneous case-studies, propose new lines of inquiry, and seek ideas for essays. Mobile devices allow for effortless transitions between course topics and students’ interests, thus increasingly class participation. My students seem more engaged in the material. In my own version of the classic sci-fi film, which I dub “2014: A Classroom Odyssey,” the proverbial pod bay doors have opened. Join us.

Eric Silverman is a professor and department chair at Wheelock College in Boston. Follow him on twitter @EKSilverman.