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From cave paintings to tweets: The evolution of social media

October 18, 2010
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The term “social media” has become the buzzword of the hour. What does it mean? How can Gallaudet use it to enhance teaching and learning? Where will it go from here?

These are some of the questions even experienced Facebook and Twitter users may ask. And they are questions that Cherisse Gardner, coordinator of program development and evaluations in the College of Professional Studies and Outreach, is in an advantageous position to address.

Gardner graduated from the former School of Educational Technology at Gallaudet in 1993, then went on to create the first web-based course offered by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), which has since become one of the world’s premier virtual universities. As an e-learning professional experienced in the design, development, and management of online instructional content, she has returned to the University to support its goal of delivering online courses and programs to anyone, anywhere.

On the Green recently asked Gardner about the role of social media in today’s teaching and learning environment.

On the Green: What does the term “social media” mean?

Cherisse Gardner: Social media is but another step down the same road that started millions of years ago with the first cave painting. The term itself has taken on several meanings.  One person may say that it is any content that is created with the intent of being openly shared and distributed (personal webpages, blogs/miniblogs, wikis, games, videos, etc.), while another may answer in terms of the many types of tools and applications that facilitate those sorts of exchanges (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare, etc.). Just try an Internet search for the term “social media” and you will see from the many different definitions you get that the distinction between content and technology is quite blurred.  It has taken on the same characteristics as the term “network,” which can be either a thing (a connected set of computers and servers) or something one does (purposefully interacting with others).

At the outset, the web was little more than a billboard with a one-way stream of content controlled by those who had “privileged” access, soon followed by limited commercial interactions supporting the online sale of goods. This was the purview of professional programmers and database managers, but now we see more user-friendly web-based tools allowing the average user to create, share, and manage their own content, contacts, and interactions. The result of these abilities is what is now known as the Web 2.0. Once it was realized that people were sharing information and opinions about products, venues, etc., social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and FourSquare are increasingly being used as business and marketing tools. I believe the definition is evolving still.

OTG:  Some suggest that social media is just the latest fad, that users will eventually become bored with it and drop it for the next best thing. Do you agree?

CG: I can’t imagine that. Facebook doesn’t sell a thing you can put in a box and it’s worth $8 billion! Anyone taking a good honest look around will note that almost everyone they see in work, school, and social settings is using social media networks–on computers and smartphones–in support of their social and professional lives. 

For instance, I no longer have to contact each friend I’d like to invite to a night out and provide them with directions and details of a gathering or event. I just have to post that information to a social media site from my mobile phone. Because my friends are connected via social media “apps,” they will be able to find out everything they need to know about what’s going on, where it is happening, how to get there, and who else of their friends might be there. They can even read online reviews of the chosen meeting place. That’s how social media works.

So no, I do not think social media is a fad. In fact, it has been said that email will soon be passé because social media provides a much richer form of interaction, especially considering its geolocating capabilities.

All of these apps I have mentioned are but a few of the most popular free geolocating social media apps many are now using. It makes connecting to friends, family, work, businesses, and all kinds of resources easy and personally relevant. I just don’t see that kind of rich, convenient connection to the world around us going away anytime soon.  Newer devices and capabilities facilitating these kinds of connections will continue to emerge and evolve.

Are there are times when I really would like to turn it all off, slip out of network range, sit down to a dinner party with friends with no smartphones allowed? Sure, but I think we need to distinguish disinterest from burn out. I may choose to get away from all that on some far away retreat sometime, but come Monday morning I can’t imagine facing traffic, weather, and what’s going on at work and in my social life without first checking in.

OTG:  How is social media used to enhance the teaching and learning experiences of faculty and students?

CG: Social media can help us organize and share our study topics or research findings in live, real-time interactions with our classes. We can follow some situation or project collectively with our other classmates in a Facebook group. We can “tweet” links to interesting and relevant information and resources we happen upon to our study group. We can even personalize the initial act of introducing ourselves to our fellow classmates by sharing pictures and videos, stories, interests, etc.  All of this can help enhance the building of a learning community at Gallaudet.

OTG:  How do you suggest faculty begin incorporating the use of social media in their courses?

CG: I think it is important for faculty to become familiar with some of these devices themselves and consider their possible use as tools for facilitating learning. I think because we sometimes (okay, often) let these devices become distractions, we tend to regard them only as such. However, studies show that even mobile phones can be purposefully incorporated into classroom learning activities with the result that instances of  malicious use (cheating) and distracted use (following the celebrity du jour) significantly decrease.  

We also have to realize that students are already using mobile technology to learn about the world around them and that we have to meet them where they are. This is an important feature of their world and will be an important feature of their workplaces. It has been said that 80 to 90 percent of employers are more interested in your LinkedIn profile than your resume, so on that note we owe it to our students to model productive applications of social media in the classroom to prepare them for life after graduation.

I suggest faculty build upon their skills gradually–perhaps begin by signing up to receive their favorite news outlet’s Twitter updates. They don’t have to be technogeeks. Check out some of the polling apps available. Some allow students to use their laptops or mobile phones to respond to, say, questions about sensitive or subjective topics anonymously. This is a good way for a teacher to figure out how to approach misunderstandings or knowledge gaps while students get to save face for not knowing answers or having certain opinions. It is also beneficial to the shy student sitting at the very back of the room who may be too embarrassed to speak up on his or her own.

There are a lot of articles, “how-to” guides, and case studies to help faculty get started. And there are profiles of teachers who are already using social media quite effectively, many of whom are happy to offer tips and suggestions.  The Chronicle of Higher Education and several newsletters from MagnaPubs (Faculty Focus, Distance Education Report, Online Cl@ssroom) offer many samples, tips, and suggestions. Building a profile on LinkedIn gives you access to several e-learning communities that offer free and low- cost workshops and webinars. Indeed, social media and online learning is so prevalent you can hardly turn on the computer anymore without finding something on the topic. And, of course, I am willing to work with faculty who want to give it a try themselves.

OTG Are there any drawbacks associated with the use of social media in a classroom setting?

CG: There are. As with just about anything, if the device becomes the point, then it becomes a distraction. Social media is about connections between people and  information–not just what a particular device can do. You don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest release of  “SmartypantsPhone2.whatever” to get the point across. You can still do a lot with older model mobile phones.

Privacy and the institutional duty to protect it is also a concern. The institution is responsible for providing and protecting official student email accounts, profiles and communications. If the student prefers to integrate class communications with his/her personal profile and contact information, then it is up to that student to make the connection to the school by forwarding their official connection to their private one.

The benefits of social media in the classroom are many.  Might we have some growing pains as we integrate these new devices? Sure. But in the end, I believe this integration can lead to a richer, more engaging learning experience for students,  faculty, and staff. 

Cherisse Gardner may be reached at cherisse.gardner@gallaudet.edu.

18 October 2010

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