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Social Media in the College Classroom: Professor Corinne Weisgerber Talks About the Educational Value of New Media

Today's college students are true 'Millennials' - people who grew up as comfortable with computers as a pen and paper. Although educational technology has been slow to catch up, more and more professors have found innovative ways to bring new media into the classroom. This is part one in a three-part interview series with educators at the forefront of the social media movement.

Dr. Corinne Weisgerber

Dr. Corinne Weisgerber is a Communication Professor at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. She teaches a course on Social Media for Public Relations and recently co-edited a special issue of the ''Electronic Journal of Communication'' on 'Communication Pedagogy in an Age of Social Media.'

Study.com recently caught up with Dr. Weisgerber to talk about the use of social media in higher education and what tools and techniques she feels are most effective.

St Edward

Study.com: A lot of professors say that using social media in the classroom is necessary to keep students engaged. Do you feel that social media has become an essential part of the modern college classroom? Why - or why not?

Dr. Corinne Weisgerber: I'm not sure that at this point it has become an essential part of the modern college classroom, but I am convinced that it should! I also think it all depends on how you use these new technologies. There's a new study out this week which suggests that 52% of college professors are using social media such as videos, podcasts, blogs and wikis as part of their teaching and that they are doing so in part because it allows them to talk to students in their own language. What is interesting to me about those survey results is that when you look at active uses of social media, such as requiring students to create their own content or comment on others' content, those numbers drop to 10 to 12%. This means that the vast majority of professors who use social media in the classroom use it for passive activities such as watching a YouTube video or listening to a podcast. Incorporating those kinds of activities into the classroom is certainly one way to keep students engaged, but I don't think it allows us to reap the full pedagogical benefits of the social web. After all, there's really nothing social about educators and students passively consuming YouTube videos in class.

In order to truly engage students, we need to move beyond a mere social media consumption model and embrace more of a content creation model. That means encouraging students to use new tools to express ideas in new ways, get them to share the results online and help them enter into a conversation about that content with peers as well as people outside the immediate classroom. It is this increased level of participation and the conversations that ensue that make this a truly social experience and, at least to me, define the modern college classroom.

One of the reasons for the lack of a more widespread adoption of active uses of social media may be tied to the traditionally cloistered academic environment in which many college professors have operated for years, and which students have come to expect. I do think that this environment may have instilled a fair amount of skepticism toward ideas of sharing and public pedagogy in many professors. The idea of tearing down the physical walls of the classroom, teaching in the open and inviting outsiders to participate, may be so far removed from what we have been doing for years that it seems scary to some.

E-P: Can you elaborate on other pedagogical roles that social media can play?

CW: To me the key pedagogical benefits of social media lie in their ability to connect learners to one another and to valuable information. I'm a strong believer in the power of personal learning networks (PLNs) - deliberately formed networks of experts capable of guiding one's independent learning goals. This is why I teach my students how to use various social media platforms (such as Twitter, blogs and social bookmarks) to identify experts who regularly share high quality information, how to subscribe to that information and how to use it to inform their learning and stay abreast of changes in their area of study. For an example of a student-created PLN, check out this wonderful presentation from one of the students in my social media for PR class.

If I can get my students to understand how to use social media strategically to build such a network, I have come a long way in preparing them for today's highly competitive and rapidly changing workplace. Knowledge today has such a short shelf life that I truly believe one of the most important skills I can teach my students is to become an independent learner.

I don't think we should limit the discussion of the pedagogical benefits of social media to students though. Faculty have just as much to gain from using social media as a learning and professional development tool. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Delicious have connected me to literally hundreds of peers - professionals I normally wouldn't have met or stayed in contact with, but who now form my very own personal learning network. Most of the course material I use in my classes these days comes to me via my PLN, be it in the form of tweets, social bookmarks, or blog posts. Instead of me trying to find information, the information now finds me - filtered by my network and delivered to my feed reader.

E-P: What social media tools have you personally used in your teaching practice? Which did you find most effective? Were there any that you've discarded?

CW: I have used blogging assignments in various classes, have had students share course-related content using social bookmarks, and have designed Web video and podcasting projects. I've also used wikis to crowdsource my social media syllabus and as a collaboration tool for student teams in my PR campaigns class. Beyond that, I have asked my public relations class to develop an interactive timeline of the history of the PR profession using a Web application called Dipity and have coordinated virtual guest lectures using Tweetchat.

This year, I introduced a formal personal learning network assignment and tried to incorporate Google Wave into my social media for PR class. Except for Google Wave (for which I couldn't find a good course use), I still use all of the other social media applications in my various communication classes.

I also use SlideShare quite a bit to share some of my presentations and class activities with the public. Embedding them on my course blog has worked well to grow my audience and keep them coming back to the blog.

E-P: You spoke on 'the effects of technology on interpersonal relationships' at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2010. How has the use of social media tools affected your relationship with your students?

CW: I think it has helped me extend my classes beyond the physical classroom and to carry on conversations even after class is over. For instance, a lot of my students follow me on Twitter and use Twitter as an alternative way to get in touch with me. I've seen them use it to ask questions about exam reviews, forward me links and information, or wish me a happy birthday.

From an interpersonal perspective, I think reading my tweets, blog posts and status updates help them get to know me a little better. Every time I share a piece of information online, I present a part of my self to the public. Although most people may not think much about the bits of private information they share online, those pieces of information, once aggregated, can tell us a lot about a person. I think the students do use some of that information to find out more about their professor and to see them as real persons outside their professor role.

E-P: Finally, do you have any tips for professors just starting to bring social media into their classrooms?

CW: Just have fun with it and don't be afraid of failing. Technologies are changing so rapidly that we can't wait for them to become well established before incorporating them into the classroom. As educators we need to be innovative and take risks. I will continue to do so, even if that means a few projects will bomb along the way (and believe me, it's happened a few times).

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