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Incorporating Social Media in the Statistics Classroom

1 September 2013 3 Comments

EversonMichelle Everson is a senior lecturer in the quantitative methods in education track within the department of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. She is editor of the Journal of Statistics Education and the program chair for the 2014 Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics (eCOTS) through the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education (CAUSE).

For several years, I have enjoyed using Facebook, primarily because it has been a great way for me to meet, get to know, and collaborate with other statistics educators. I see social media as providing professionals with so many ways to connect and extend the discussions they might begin in professional settings such as conferences. My love of teaching, coupled with my fascination with the power of social media, led me to question how tools like Facebook and Twitter might be used for instructional purposes as well. I know my students are sometimes distracted by social media when they should be paying attention in the statistics classroom. Rather than try to compete with social media, I began to wonder if I could motivate and engage them by incorporating social media into the curriculum.

I have experimented with different ways to use Facebook and Twitter in my introductory statistics courses. My interest in this topic led to a roundtable discussion that I facilitated at the 2012 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM), titled “Using Social Media to Engage and Motivate the Modern Statistics Student.” Soon after JSM, I wrote an article with Ellen Gundlach and Jackie Miller, titled “Social Media and the Introductory Statistics Course,” which is now in press in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. The ideas and tips I am sharing here come from both the JSM roundtable and this article.

Much of what I have done in my own classroom has been informed by the work of others who have attempted to explore the role of social media in the college classroom. My use of social media began in the summer of 2009 and involved Twitter. I asked my students—as part of an optional, extra-credit project in a graduate-level introductory statistics course—to sign up for a Twitter account and use Twitter to share articles they found in the media that related to content they were learning in my course.

Because an individual is limited to 140 characters when using Twitter, I encouraged my students to be precise in their tweets, and I showed them how to use tools such as bit.ly and tinyurl.com to shorten the links to media articles. To receive credit for a tweet, my students needed to share a short question or critique about the media article, along with a link to the article and a hashtag (such as #epsy5261) that would allow me to easily search for and archive the tweets. To get them started, I shared some sample tweets, much like the following:

  • Pressure to have perfect body starts early. Subjects were from Canada. Can we generalize to U.S.? http://bit.ly/bOS8h #epsy5261
  • Tall people happier? I like that they are at least exploring possible confounding variables here. http://bit.ly/10ndD7 #epsy5261
  • This article begins with an interesting claim. How might we test which lasts longer—canned or boxed food? http://bit.ly/aQ6xr #epsy5261

It was exciting that summer to see how engaged students were when it came to using Twitter. Out of the 18 students in my class, 17 engaged in the extra-credit assignment, and the student who elected not to use Twitter was able to select an alternative extra-credit assignment to complete. Students could get up to 10 extra-credit points (one for each tweet), and I often came to class to find students talking about the assignment or searching online for links to articles they might be able to share.

Further Reading

Web resources
FERPA and social media
Pros and cons of social media
Tips for integrating social media into the classroom
Facebook in the classroom
Baran, B. 2010. Facebook as a formal instructional environment. British Journal of Educational Technology 41:146-149.

Billiot, T. 2011. In One Online Class, Twitter Brings Students Together. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Everson, M., E. Gundlach, and J. Miller. In press. Social media and the introductory statistics course. Computers in Human Behavior.

Green, T., and B. Bailey. 2010. Academic uses of Facebook: Endless possibilities or endless peril? TechTrends 54:20–22.

Holstead, C., and D. Ward. 2013. Using Facebook and Tumblr to engage students. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Moran, M., J. Seaman, and H. Tinti-Kane. 2011. Teaching, learning, and sharing: How today’s higher education faculty use social media. Pearson Learning Solutions and Babson Survey Research Group: Boston, MA.

Rodriguez, J. 2011. Social media use in higher education: Key areas to consider for educators. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.

Schwartz, H. L. 2010. Facebook: The new classroom commons? The Education Digest 75:39–42.

Tagtmeier, C. 2010. Facebook vs. Twitter: Battle of the social network stars. Computers in Libraries 30:6–10.

Young, J. R. 2009. Teaching with Twitter: Not for the faint of heart. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I tried the Twitter assignment again in the fall of 2009, this time with four larger courses (two graduate and two undergraduate). Roughly one-quarter to one-third of the students in each course elected to use Twitter.

I began to find it a little challenging to keep track of all the tweets, primarily because of changes in Twitter in terms of how long certain hashtags are active. Feedback from my students made me question if Facebook might be a better option for this kind of assignment. Not all students had Twitter accounts, but several said they would be more inclined to participate in an assignment of this nature were it to involve Facebook. I knew Facebook would allow students to write more about their chosen media articles, and I thought Facebook might also more easily allow students to reflect on and respond to the articles shared by their peers.

I now routinely incorporate an assignment in my graduate-level introductory statistics course in which students have the option to earn course credit by either critiquing a journal article from their field of study, creating a YouTube video to teach an important concept or topic to their peers, or share and discuss links to media reports in a private Facebook group I set up for the course. Each semester when I use this assignment, approximately one-fourth to one-third of my students choose to complete the assignment by joining and posting in our course Facebook group.

I have enjoyed seeing how engaged my students become in this assignment, but I also recognize that not all instructors feel as comfortable trying to incorporate social media into their courses. If I had to give advice to other instructors, I would share the following tips:

Tip #1: Don’t just use social media for the sake of using social media.

In 2011, an article from The Atlantic focused on the “slow slog” of social media into the ivory towers of academia. One particular quote from this article resonated with me: “As faculty, we’re always trying to engage our students better,” Smith-Robbins says. “If we see them using a tool like Facebook, there’s this huge temptation to say, ‘Well, I use Facebook in class,’ because that’s where they’re at. More times than not, it doesn’t work because it has to be a pedagogical decision first, rather than a technology decision. Plus, all these tools have their own culture and if you try to use them for something different, you’re more often than not going to make mistakes.”

Initially, my choice to use social media stemmed from my belief that it might motivate and engage my students. I wanted to provide my students with as many opportunities as possible to apply what they were learning in my classroom to news reports they were exposed to on a daily basis. I thought social media would be an excellent way for students to share resources and critique media reports, and I thought carefully of a meaningful assignment I could incorporate into my course that would involve the use of social media.

I could have easily set up a similar assignment using a learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle, and I did try to do this at one point by setting up a special discussion forum within an online course site for students to post links to media reports and discuss these links. For me, this didn’t work as well as Facebook. I liked that students could much more easily copy and paste links into Facebook, and these links would automatically become “clickable,” oftentimes with photos from the original article automatically appearing along with the first few sentences of that article.

When students used discussion forums within a learning management system to post links, they sometimes needed to do extra work to make sure others could click on the links and be led to specific websites, and the way in which this was done was not always intuitive for all students. I like the way Facebook looks, and I like that students can easily reply to particular posts and clearly see the string of responses to a given post. Students also can get a better sense of how many other students have viewed their posts, and using Facebook has been a great way to connect students who are enrolled in different sections of the same course.

As our own review of the literature revealed, there are many pros when it comes to using social media in the classroom, such as student familiarity with and comfort with social media tools; networking skills students might develop; the possibility of immediate feedback (by other students in class or the instructor); the ease in which questions, links to websites, and images can be posted; and the ready availability of social media. Certainly, however, instructors also need to consider several reported cons of using social media in the classroom, such as the possibility of it being a distraction, the potential for cyber bullying or cheating among students, the possibility that not all students will have easy access to social media or be comfortable using it, and issues related to privacy. A decision to use social media in the classroom should involve a careful weighing of the pros and cons.

Although I have used social media in a particular way in my classroom, there are many ways social media can be used. Our review of the literature revealed many interesting ways instructors in various fields are using social media in their classrooms. Instructors might set up a Facebook group as a way of sharing resources with students, making announcements, and answering student questions outside of class, for example. Twitter might be used in the classroom as a “backchannel,” where students can post questions during a lecture and receive answers from an instructor or teaching assistant who is able to monitor the Twitter feed during class.

Tip #2: Be aware of privacy settings within Facebook and privacy issues.

When I started using Facebook in my courses, I surveyed students to find out more about why some chose to use Facebook and some did not. One student who did not choose to use Facebook mentioned a concern about other students in the course finding out private information about her or being able to view her Facebook profile. This made me realize that not all students may know how to ensure certain Facebook privacy settings are turned on. I now make it a point to mention this to my students, and an instructor who has concerns about this can easily show students how to check privacy settings.

Any instructor who chooses to use social media in his or her classroom should consider how the use of social media will adhere to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In my classroom, I set up a private group for students that they have to request to join, and I never post any information in this forum related to student grades.

Tip #3: Don’t assume all students are tech savvy or comfortable with social media.

An instructor who wishes to use social media in his or her classroom may need to engage in direct instruction with students about how to use it or easily find and join a special group set up for the course. Although many students do have Facebook accounts, not all will be comfortable using Facebook for educational purposes.

I have had students over the years who have elected not to use Facebook because they fear mixing their personal lives with their educational lives. I never force my students to use social media if they do not want to, and I believe using social media should be a choice on the part of students. It’s for this reason that the use of social media is either extra credit in my courses or it’s one of several options for students to pursue to complete a particular assignment.

Instructors who are considering using social media in their classrooms should think carefully about alternative assignments they can create for students who do not have social media accounts or who are not comfortable using social media in the classroom. Further, an instructor who chooses to use something like Facebook to make announcements or share resources with students should consider ways to share that information with students who have not elected to be a part of the Facebook group.

Tip #4: Think carefully about “friending” students.

Fortunately, I have not had any problems in terms of students sending me Facebook “friend” requests while a course is under way. If you choose to use social media, it’s important that you think carefully about how you would handle such requests.

Interestingly, in our own review of the literature on social media use for educational purposes, we came upon many schools of thought on the issue. Some instructors believe they might be perceived as more approachable or credible if they can connect on a more personal level with their students, while others want to keep their personal lives private.

There is also the issue of the kind of information instructors become privy to if they are “friends” with their students. What if you become “friends” with a student who then starts complaining about your class all the time, or who behaves in a way you think could be harmful to that student or others? The decision about how to handle “friend” requests needs to be made in a thoughtful way, and it’s obviously a personal decision that each instructor will need to wrestle with.

Tip #5: Think carefully about how you will monitor and keep track of student work.

The ease with which it will be possible to track what students are doing and archive this information, especially if student grades are dependent on what they post using social media, is an important consideration. Each time a student posts a new message in my course Facebook group, I get an email message about this, and this is something I can easily save in a folder and come back to later if I need to. This is a helpful way for me to keep track of things. There are now ways you can “like” posts on Facebook, and I keep track of what I have read simply by making sure to “like” that post. I also make sure to set up a spreadsheet I can use during the semester to mark the number of media articles students post, in addition to the number of times students respond to what their peers have posted.

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  • KMC said:

    This doesn’t say as much about facebook and twitter as it does about Blackboard not being worth what schools pay for it. Encourage your schools to shop around and colleagues to be willing to migrate. There are several alternatives including a couple new ones.

  • SJF said:

    The good thing about using Facebook/Twitter as opposed to Blackboard or other similar alternatives is many students already use them. One would think that students are more likely to participate in an activity, such as sharing news articles, if they can do it in a manner that already fits into their technological routines. Using Blackboard requires students to engage in a “school assignment” (going to a specific, possibly unfamiliar site only for school purposes) instead of getting extra credit while going about their daily lives!