Photo illustration showing students working on laptops and tablets, with social media icons hovering over them.

Required Homework: Tweet, Post To Facebook And Update Your Blog

By Kathleen Poe Ross

Social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are notorious for distracting students of all ages from their work, sometimes during class.

But in the world of higher education, many instructors are embracing social media by finding ways to harness the productive potential of these applications and requiring their students to stay connected.

One of the most common ways Georgia State University professors use social media for their courses is as a discussion forum. Online learning portals such as Desire2Learn have discussion board functions, but Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Leah Daigle has found it’s better to meet students where many of them already spend a lot of time: on Facebook.

For her courses on corrections, victimology, and ethical issues and criminal justice, Daigle requires that her students join private Facebook groups, where they must post something meaningful several times a week as part of their class participation.

“It’s worked out that they’ve carried on class discussions throughout the week,” Daigle says. “[And] the students who maybe aren’t that vocal in class are very vocal online.”

Jacobus Boers, a lecturer in the Institute of International Business, uses a similar approach to foster discussion and critical thinking among his students. He encourages them to post to a public Facebook page he has created for his courses or to tweet using a specific hashtag, which is a method that links topics of conversation on Twitter. He then evaluates the students’ contributions based on their social media value and relevance to the course.

Beth Cianfrone stands next to a student in her graduate-level Sport Communication and Media course as they review his social media work.

Beth Cianfrone requires students in her graduate-level Sport Communication and Media course to create social media accounts for fantasy teams. Photo by Steve Thackston

The ability to simulate workplace scenarios is another reason for the increase in social media use in the classroom.

In the College of Education, Assistant Professor Beth Cianfrone requires each student in her graduate-level Sport Communication and Media course to create a fantasy football team — complete with name, logo, mascot and Twitter account — and act as its media relations director for the semester, based on what happens with the real-life players on their roster.

“They take it seriously, which is exciting,” Cianfrone says. “For those who are brand new to [Twitter and other social media], I think they’re learning a lot by following other [real-life] teams.”

The fantasy football project is the centerpiece of the class, but Cianfrone’s students also spend time analyzing real sports teams’ social media efforts on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms.

A recent study by Pearson Learning Solutions and the Babson Survey Research Group found that use of social media as a teaching tool is clearly on the rise, though blogs and wikis, web applications that allow a group of users to share an edit content, are the most commonly used.

Skype is another 21st-century tool that has become popular in the classroom, especially for coursework that spans time zones and national borders. The Global Partners MBA program in the Robinson College of Business, for example, would be significantly less global were it not for the free Internet phone and videoconferencing service.

In Associate Professor Leigh Ann Liu’s international business class, MBA students from Georgia State team up with students in Israel, Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Hong Kong for a multiweek, cross-cultural group project. Most of these meetings take place over Skype — and with the aid of several world clock, time zone and scheduling apps.

“English is not the first language of everyone, but the students always communicate well and they always find we’re actually more similar than we think,” Liu says. “The interpersonal contact, even in virtual ways, actually takes down cultural barriers.”

Some instructors say requiring use of popular technologies for coursework almost guarantees students will remain engaged with the material beyond class time. Rather than diluting focus and distracting from schoolwork, social media tools can connect students in new ways, enabling lively discussion and enhancing learning.

So professors and parents, the next time you see a student wasting time on Facebook or fantasy football, think again. They just might be doing their homework.