The Best Social Media Tool for the Classroom

What is the best social media tool for the classroom? Blog? Facebook? Wiki? Twitter? Chat? Surprise! It’s the discussion forum. Really? How can a discussion forum be best suited to the classroom, when newer social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter receive all of the hype? Let us look at the desirable features of a classroom setting and how they match up to social media tools.

Classrooms are democratic.

Students continue conversations started during class. They have an equal opportunity to raise their voice — one can speak without interruption in a discussion forum. Students who require more time to process ideas or formulate thoughtful responses have equal access to forum discussions, whereas face-to-face discussions reward quick thinkers and strong verbal processors.

Classrooms are collaborative.

A discussion thread is the combined product of everyone’s contributions. It is not “owned” by any one user. A community of learners work together to make decisions and achieve common goals. In a project-based class, a forum provides equal input to the decision-making process.

Classrooms are private.

Students deserve to take risks and express themselves within a small, trusted group of teachers and peers. While publishing to the world serves a specific pedagogical purpose, it is typically not the standard for all classroom activity. One can make any social media content private, but forums are often private by default.

Classroom work is topical.

In most classes, students engage with a series of topics or projects toward broader learning goals. Discussion forums are by default organized by topic. Any student may create a new topic, which becomes a discussion thread separate from the others. When students reply to each other, the discussions retains its topical organization. Forum tools allow for the creation of categories or multiple forums, allowing the teacher to further organize discussions by topic.

Classrooms are multi-modal.

Like other social media technologies, forums support multiple media: text, links, images, movies, documents, publications, and more.

Classroom activities are diverse.

The forum is an extremely versatile tool. I have seen it used as a news feed, peer review system, debate center, homework club, writing tool, and more.

Is something wrong with other social media tools?

Not at all! Each tool organizes group communication differently and has its place in the educational process. One may argue that new social media tools are better matched to new forms of learning, especially independent study. However, the communication environment of a forum most closely matches a typical classroom learning environment. Let us take a look at the qualities of other social media tools.

Blog

In a blog, author(s) write, and then individuals respond. Authors have greater implicit authority than commenters. A comment thread has the potential to become a discussion, but comments are often hidden behind a link, and page views typically far outnumber comments. Most readers just read and do not comment. Blogs are well-suited for the public or community presentation of well-developed work.

Wiki

In a wiki, participants have equal opportunity to contribute content and organize a shared information resource. A wiki is great for the co-construction of shared knowledge, such as a class review sheet or topical information resource. However, the process of negotiating ideas is hidden behind the “history” and “discussion” links. A wiki emphasizes the final product more than the discussion process.

Photo and Video Sites

Students may publish photos and videos for community feedback. Social media sites also serve as another information resource for research or project work.

Microblogging

I am not aware of strong student learning communities based in Twitter. Teachers have had some success using Twitter as an information source and learning collective.

Online Word Processors

Google Docs is terrific for small group collaborative work, such as when two students develop a paper or presentation together, or as a class document repository. Live, simultaneous editing of a single document does not scale well to a full class of students.

Social Networks

Students are on Facebook, but classrooms should not necessarily go there! The primary distinguishing feature of a social network — curating friend lists — has no place in a classroom.In a school, the learning groups are already defined. Facebook’s photo and video tools are very easy to use, and learning management systems would do well to improve theirs. While popular press about Facebook would have you believe that 100% of students have a Facebook account, in practice one finds that some students have opted out to avoid the distraction or the social scene. Finally, students deserve to have a private, social space separate from adults and classes.

Where can I get a forum for my classroom?

Most course website systems have a forum tool (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, Haiku). Many social media tools have it, too (e.g., Ning). Standalone forum software also exists, both self-installed and hosted (phpBB).

Versatility: Some Examples

Forum as class discussion

The teacher posts a prompt, and students posts replies, responding both to the original post and building on the comments of classmates.

Class Blog

In Moodle’s “social” site format, one forum is featured on the course site front page. This teacher has added news feeds to the left and right columns for information and inspiration.

Peer Review

Peer review is a key part of the writing process. The author posts her paper, and two peer reviewers write response papers. The original author posts a revision, and the process repeats again.


Single, Public Response

The teacher posts a prompt, but unlike the class discussion, students submit a single response on their own. This is like collecting an assignment but in a public space, so that students may see each others’ responses.

Class Warmup Activity

When students arrive to class, they log into the class site and independently complete the first activity of the day.

Professional Learning Community

Teachers discuss articles with each other in a dedicated forum, having discussions that might not otherwise take place among teachers from different divisions and departments.

5 comments

  1. nice summary and analysis, Richard. I couldn’t agree with you more. A large part of the decision as to what tool to use should be based upon learning goals. I can think of a really powerful project our film teacher did w/8th graders last year on the topic of “Persuasive Video.” She had small teams of students post their short (30 sec) persuasive video to facebook-the aim was to get people in their network to do something and then respond back with a comment (one of the groups created a video encouraging people to go play Free Rice and then report back in the comments). Many students received 20-30 comments back on their video–this type of feedback is highly unlikely in Moodle or some other VLE.

    The group learning design that she employed was highly sensitive to the students in her class who didn’t have a facebook account as well…the team only need one person in the group who was willing to post the video to their profile.

    The important lesson is for people of all ages to know when to leverage certain networks and platforms to achieve their goals. Most of the time it’s going to be the discussion board/threaded email conversation, but individuals and groups need to be given the chance to learn how to tap into the potential of other spaces as a way to assist in their scholarly endeavors as well.

  2. Richard says:

    Can you send the Facebook page for that project? We are doing something similar in fifth grade for the second year.

    Facebook is super for publicity and public presentation. I’m all for that as a tool to spread the word.

    Do you have an opinion on Haiku? For some, it’s the new favorite LMS.

    Richard

  3. Hey Richard,
    Here is a lesson write-up that I posted on my blog: http://middleschoolblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/persuasive-video-project-using-facebook.html

    To me this lesson represents the right reason for using facebook in a learning activity with students-no other platform would’ve allowed students to receive such quick feedback on their persuasive videos.

    Because one student in each team posted the video to her own profile, I don’t have a link to any of the project artifacts-that lesson write up link is the best I have to offer.

    Regarding Haiku: I turned on a demo of Haiku via the Google Apps marketplace in our google apps network a few weeks ago and wasn’t overly impressed. Outside of a a shinier UI, I found nothing in Haiku to be any more powerful or interesting than Moodle. It seems to come with the trappings of any other proprietary VLE like Blackboard, WebCT, etc…I’d hate to have our teaching faculty lock up their data in a space like that.

    Best,
    Matt

  4. I’ve been using discussion forums in my classes for just under two years, and completely agree with all of the reasons that you mention for using them. Additionally, in an end of semester survey, a student pointed out another reason that I had not really considered. The student wrote:

    “Moodle was a good resource […] and made it so that instead of using valuable class time to discuss things out loud, we were able to talk about it whenever we had time to. That left more time to work in class.”

    I was thrilled that we were having much more interesting discussions via an online forum than we ever had in class, because students could take the time to think about what they wanted to say. It did not even occur to me the amount of “class time” we were saving by holding the discussions asynchronously.

    I don’t think that the students begrudged the extra time outside of class because the were about to spend more time in class working on projects.

  5. Richard says:

    Lloyd, I appreciate your student’s addition to this discussion.