Social Media (Networking) Activity and Enhancing Learning (Part 4)

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Practical suggestions for implementation of social media activities

Having surveyed theories of social media activity applications in the learning environment, it would be helpful to conclude by offering some practical implementation tips rooted in the literature. The first implementation tip is that instructors should incorporate social media into the classroom only to the extent that they are comfortable with the technology. Because interactivity is a major requirement of successful social media in the classroom, teachers must be willing and able to use the medium to interact with students. Therefore, if teachers are more familiar with wikis than with Facebook, they should use the wiki rather than being persuaded to use Facebook.

The second implementation tip is that teachers should take the time and effort to re-visualize their curricular and lesson plans in an online format. Teachers should not be under the impression that converting a traditional lecture or lesson plan into its online analogue is a trivial task. Several weeks or even months may be required to complete a process of transferring materials to an online environment, especially if the teacher takes every opportunity to add links, possibilities for interaction and critique, and rich media to the online materials. If teachers bring energy and creativity to this process of transformation, it is more likely to succeed.

The third implementation tip is that teachers should start small and know why they are deploying specific social media technologies. A college class that goes from being completely traditional to a format in which wikis, blogs, discussion forums, and Facebook all become part of the picture may not succeed, as the instructor will not be able to provide quality guidance in each of these formats at the same time. Starting in a small and targeted fashion allows the professor to be in charge and to court success. For example, a college instructor who wishes to use a wiki solely as a means of enabling better and faster peer editing and critique will be likely to obtain the maximum benefit from this form of social media, because it is targeted and manageable.

Conclusion

The social media revolution has transformed the face of global communications and entertainment. Social media, whose roots can be traced to the late 1990s, now claims several million global users collectively. It has a reach comparable, or in some cases superior, to that of television, radio, film, or the telephone. Unfortunately, a digital divide still exists between those who can afford Internet access and the necessary devices to connect to the world-wide-web and those less fortunate (Gourova, Hermann, Leitjen & Clemens, 2001; Trend, 2001).  This divide threatens opportunities for social media activity beyond the traditional school setting and requires renewed efforts to find solutions.

For educators, social media represents both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is that social media’s rich functionality for human interconnection can be transformed into superior learning by means of interactivity, social cognitive modeling, low cognitive load knowledge transfer, and the other mechanisms discussed in this study. The challenge is that social media’s undeniably powerful capacity for distraction and sheer time-wasting will overcome the high expectations that educators have for this medium. The strategies outlined in this paper are designed to help educators remain on the right side of this balance by targeting social media use within the college classroom.

The concept of targeting is very important. Social media is, by its nature, a diffuse technology. It can be used to almost any end. Such a blunt tool cannot be unleashed in the college classroom without carefully defining learning goals and appropriate applications of social media activity. As long as educators know precisely why they are deploying social media in the classroom, there is less danger of mission creep; if, on the other hand, educators do not really know why they are using social media in the classroom, students will not use the technology for its intended purpose. Therefore, social media activity in the classroom has to be assimilated into lesson plans and learning design; it cannot be appended to the classroom experience in an ill-conceived attempt to make a course more modern, relevant, or interesting. The danger in this regard is that, as the hype around social networking grows, educators will be eager to jump on the classroom bandwagon of social media without having given careful thought to pedagogy and planning. For this reason, it is very important that educators consult published research on social media, pedagogy, and learning design and also interact with other educators who have successfully incorporated social media into their classrooms.

While technology continues to influence academic environments and provide additional opportunities for educational activity, it becomes incumbent upon us as educators to be reminded of the human element: students and learning. If social media activity in the college classroom is deployed effectively, there will be the potential for two forms of intellectual stimulation: Subject matter learning (cognition) and medium-based (or extended cognition) learning. Students will not only engage in their lessons but also learn how to exploit social media activity for the purpose of absorbing, critiquing, and internalizing content and academic processes. This process is analogous to a media literacy class in which students will not only learn the subject matter of communications theory (the discipline) but also become proficient in the use of media creation tools (the technique).

Because the future of human cognition is likely to be tightly integrated with technology-enhanced learning environments (Clarke, Dede & Dieterle, in press), this aspect of social learning should be considered an advantage over traditional classroom-based education.  Our present day presents a unique opportunity for college-level educators and learners alike with readily available user-friendly resources and near ubiquity of social media activity. A hybrid learning environment utilizing social media activity and the traditional brick and mortar classroom affords the best academic opportunities offered by face-to-face contact and asynchronous communications.

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Dr. John Weidert is an independent educator, communicator, and practitioner of educational and organizational leadership, communication, and media studies.