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Best practices using Twitter and Facebook in teaching & higher education

Last week I found myself speaking to (and trying to convince) a small group of what some folks would consider VERY traditional academics. Our conversation centered around using social media to advance their research goals. One of them, the one who invited me, is a full professor whose work I respect a lot. Contrary to the situation of many academics I know who are now delving into social media, I have almost 6 years of experience using online tools. So what for them is somewhat frightening (“where in the world will I find the time to tweet/blog”, “what will I blog or tweet about”) for me is like riding a bike. It does help that I have a personal account, and a personal blog where I have tested the tools, and then applied to my work in higher education, research, teaching and learning.

In the past two years, I’ve taught a few seminars on how to use social media in academic settings. I find it extremely hard to convince scientists and professors to use social media (and I have to tell them: remember, I’m one of you, folks – not one of THEM, e.g. not one of the social media experts we find all the time). The question that I get asked the most when I give talks to professors on how to use social media is “what are your best practices on using Twitter and Facebook with your students?”

I would summarize my experience (and best practices) as follows:

  • I make it a requirement for my students (e.g. I grade their performance) to participate in discussions, online or offline. Participating online means (amongst other things, but not limited to) commenting on blog posts, sharing relevant news and information on Twitter or my Facebook Page wall.
  • I make it explicit to my students that a quick Twitter mention to my @raulpacheco account or a short comment on my Facebook page wall may get responded faster than using email to communicate with me. The brevity of Twitter enables them (and me) to learn how to synthesize large pieces of information in 140 character snippets.
  • I follow back EVERY SINGLE ONE of my students on Twitter. There is a level of privacy that I want them to have that I understand doesn’t apply with the @ reply mention or a Facebook wall comment. If they choose to send me a quick Direct Message, I always respond through the same channel.
  • I don’t add my students to my personal Facebook account, but I communicate through my Facebook page. There are various schools of thought on whether one should ‘Friend’ students or not. I find the Facebook page useful enough, because as I tell my students on my syllabus, I’m not your friend, I’m not your colleague. I’m your professor.
  • I have created specific hashtags for each of my courses: Public Policy (#POLI350A) and Global Environmental Politics (#POLI375A) and Environmental Politics and Policy (#POLI351). That way, my students can track whatever information I have shared or can indicate to me something that they think I need to pay attention to.
  • I share the Twitter ID of my colleagues when they are coming to a lecture. The best example is Dr. Janni Aragon from the University of Victoria, a good friend of mine who guest lectures often on topics of gender, global environmental politics and public policy in my courses. Her Twitter ID is @janniaragon, and I mention her whenever she is about to come to my class to guest-lecture. Coincidentally, we have co-presented at least once on our experiences Teaching with Social Media, this year at Social Media Camp Victoria 2011.
  • I have created Twitter lists for my students, for colleagues, for research topics, and monitor these lists. In particular, I monitor my My Students’ Twitter list because that way I can keep tabs on what my former and current students are doing. It’s a great way also for my own students to build a network of friends online as they are all graduates who have taken my courses.

These are just a few of the best practices I have implemented throughout the years I’ve been teaching at the university level. Hopefully they will be useful to other colleagues seeking to implement social media (specifically Twitter and Facebook) in the classroom.

For me, the underlying philosophy of why and how I use social media in teaching & higher education is pretty much the same philosophy that underlies my teaching: I seek to inspire my students, to connect them with real policy issues that need to be tackled and thought out, to build their skills and to provide them with a platform from where to launch their careers. Enabling them to be fluent in social media and gain confidence in their social media skills is just one of the ways in which I try to strengthen my student’s experience and educational outcomes.

I find it extremely rewarding when a former student of mine shares news about their current job or scholarly activities, when they find a nice read on global environmental politics that I must check out and when they simply just indicate how my work enables them or inspires them. It’s one of the best rewards of encouraging my students to use social media.

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Posted in social media for teaching, teaching.

One Response

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  1. Tad McIlwraith says

    Hi Raul – like you, I was an early adopter. I started blogging in 2005, for example, doing so before twitter as a way of collecting links on research-related news and sharing them with colleagues and students. I adopted many of the social media services for the reasons you identify in your recent post on using social media to advance your academic goals. I have always tried to keep my classes current and relevant with real-time news. I was teaching sessionally at 3 colleges – and adopted services like gmail as soon as they were available because I wanted my work in the cloud long before Dropbox was around.

    Further, and like you, I have spoken to colleagues about the use of social media in teaching and research. I’ve conducted sessions at our school. I’ve spoken to the senior profs you identify in your post. I have experienced what you describe. I see only the benefits.

    One of the responses that comes back to me – which I don’t see you addressing here directly – is that of intellectual property. I find that many faculty are concerned about who owns the content when students and course work are involved. My general position is that unless the institution is going to give me the platform to work on, then the work is mine. But, even then, the lines are blurry, aren’t they? What do we say to students who don’t want their work online on a site hosted by wordpress, even if the course includes a blogging requirement? What about the use of sites maintained outside of Canada? What about Facebook’s privacy policies? How about interacting with students on a Facebook fan page? Isn’t that like using a non-university email account for official and work-related business?

    Can you speak about some of these things, perhaps simply from the perspective of your UBC experiences?

    Thanks … I’m a big fan of your social media usage and insights.


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