Using social media in education, Part 2: Tools, support, and technical issues

Social media offers the potential for educators and institutions to engage with students and other stakeholders in new ways. In this article we will explore the typical functions of tools such as blogs, instant messaging, and status broadcasting platforms, and examine their use.

Nicola Osborne (nkl.osborne@gmail.com), Social Media Officer, EDINA

Nicola Osborne photoNicola Osborne is the Social Media Officer at EDINA, a JISC National Data Centre based at the University of Edinburgh, where she advises and supports over 30 projects and services on the use of social media and new communications technology and is the author of the EDINA Social Media Guidelines. Nicola regularly presents and advises on opportunities, technologies, and strategies for the use of social media and is the author of "Amplification and Analysis of Academic Events Through Social Media: a Case Study of the 2009 Beyond the Repository Fringe Event" in "Higher Education Administration with Social Media: Including Applications in Student Affairs, Enrollment Management, Alumni Relations and Career Centres" edited by Charles Wankel and Laura Wankel (Emerald, 2011). Nicola studied engineering and reviewed film before moving into the library and information world. Currently, she is completing an MSc in e-Learning dissertation on informal professional development in social media spaces. Nicola blogs at http://nicolaosborne.blogs.edina.ac.uk and can be found on Twitter at @suchprettyeyes.



10 January 2012

Social media tools in education

Social media tools are changing the education landscape. These tools tend to fall into two broad categories: those primarily intended for social networking, such as Facebook or Twitter, and those that are designed for sharing user-generated content such as blogs, YouTube, or Flickr. It is the mixture of informality and ease of updating that makes social media approaches so appealing, whether mainstream tools are used, or whether niche or local social media tools are installed or developed.

Social media tools have dramatically improved communication among professionals in education. This has occurred in the form of intense dialog through blog comment streams, as contributions to virtual gatherings like #lrnchat on Twitter, or via closed and tightly managed spaces such as Glow, the Scottish national intranet for schools that includes social media-like functionality (see Resources).

Students are also keen to build their own personal networks online, and they are some of the most creative and prolific users of mainstream social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube. This gives educators and institutions a real opportunity for connecting creative enjoyable social activities with educational activities, particularly group work. Social media also provides opportunities to support students with their independent research where easy-to-access but infrequent support is required.

There are several distinct types of social media tools, although there is an increasing convergence of functionality, particularly as the largest social media sites now provide authentication and sign-up routes for an ecosystem of smaller sites. Let's consider the most relevant tools.


Blogs

Blogs are used for news or personal updates, opinion, progress tracking and similar updates. They are the most established and best understood of the social media tools, but they remain important. They are used in education for public engagement, for recording personal development through a course or degree program, for graded work, formal course delivery, or for tracking progress on research projects.

Different styles of blogs tend to bring different types of interactions. An institutional presence sharing key news items, events on campus and research press releases (such as the Princeton University Press Blog) is unlikely to receive many comments or other interaction, although readers are likely to separately take actions such as contacting the institution, attending an event or looking at further related information. By contrast, the blog of a specific academic group or individual that shares research updates or opinion in a specialist field (such as the Oxford Internet Institute Editor's Blog) is much more likely to receive comments and provoke ongoing dialog between the author and readers. Readers will return and engage with a blog far more frequently when that blog is of personal and specific interest for them. It is also worth noting that regularly updated content and specialist content, often including quotes, references to key literature, personal names, and technical terms, are more likely to be found via search engines (see Resources for links).

The choice of a blogging tool can also influence the type and level of interaction that takes place: use of any of the bigger web-hosted social media tools such as WordPress.com, Blogger, Typepad or Tumblr tends to make a blog more visible and implicitly part of a global community. This visibility can mean a wider audience is attracted, although a blog can of course easily be lost among a profusion of others. Locally hosted blogs built with tools such as WordPress or IBM Connections, tend to be part of a smaller explicit institutional or expert community of bloggers with more transparent associations with an organization. This can lend them both a greater air of authority and a sense of being more formal. Some of these blogs will receive rich interactions from their community, which is often more closely associated with the author, however other blogs of this type can be less visible or, indeed, deliberately restricted to the institutional community. Both types of blog will face the challenge of dealing with unwanted "spam" comments and both can initiate the beneficial dialog, potential for learning, and collaboration that blogging can bring about (see Resources for links).


Real-time chat and instant messaging

Synchronous communication tools including instant messaging (IM) and real-time text or video chat offers a more personal, usually more private space for discussion in an educational setting. Instant messaging allows users to push short text-based updates to each other through desktop, web, or mobile clients. Real-time chat tools are designed for more involved engagement, with participants entering a shared online space for perhaps a longer but usually more detailed exchange.

Tools such as Adobe Connect, IBM LotusLive, or Blackboard Collaborate (previously Elluminate and Wimba) use the real-time chat concept to enable rich online seminars, workshops, tutorials, and discussion sessions. Because they provide virtual tuition spaces for elearning or for remote attendance of training or professional events use of these tools has grown. Many of these tools require installation or browser plugins, and will enable streaming video and presentation sharing and real-time chat for participants. They often allow virtual distribution of related materials, buttons that indicate a raised hand or new query, and replays for watching later (see Resources).

Real-time video or audio chat tools such as Skype or Google+ Hangouts offer interesting alternatives for tutorials, supervisor meetings, or streaming short talks. These tools can feel more natural to participants as they are embodied by their own voice or video and share common functionality with the tools discussed above. They are free to use and many people are familiar with them. However, leading educational activities in such spaces can be challenging, since allowing all participants to engage through audio or video may be disruptive. Participants may also feel excluded if they experience issues with bandwidth or unreliable video connections (see Resources).

Instant messaging tools offer less rich pedagogical opportunities, but can enable live commentary or group discussion on an educational activity. Many collaborative editing environments include messaging and commenting tools. Familiar tools that feel low risk to students such as such as MSN Instant Messenger or Facebook Chat can facilitate pastoral care. However, the mobile use of these IM tools, mobile IM tools (BlackBerry Messenger, Apple iMessage) and text messaging can be disruptive and distracting in the physical classroom.


Status broadcasting

Status broadcasting is the sharing of mini updates on what an individual is doing, where they are located, or what they are thinking. Updates can include images, URLs, or geographic information, but brief text comments are the usual form of an update. Status broadcast enables casual interactions, although these may remain brief and ephemeral or can become far more substantive exchanges.

Twitter is the best recognized of these tools, but status-updating functionality is also a core part of the appeal of Facebook. Many status sharing tools provide RSS feeds or API-driven distribution tools that enable status updates to feed into other locations (for example, Hootsuite or Posterous) or into aggregated profiles (for example, FriendFeed). Blogs and websites can be made more relevant and timely through direct status updates feeds. Technical support teams can use status update tools to distribute urgent alerts and messages. For example, the University of Edinburgh Polopoly team uses a Twitter account, @uni_ed_polopoly, to feed key issues into their support page (see Resources).

Similarly, event pages can be updated with live streams of status updates, comments, reports, and organizational messages. For example, the annual Institutional Web Managers Workshops website aggregates live video streams, blogging, tweets, and presentation content to provide a hub of live activity for those taking part remotely. This idea can be applied in the classroom: Kim Muñoz, a middle school teacher, uses the live blogging and aggregation tool CoverItLive for class live blogging discussions to accompany group viewings of presidential speeches and TED talks (see Resources).

Students in the class view a selected video together in real time and make comments into the CoverItLive tool as they watch. This parallels the type of online commenting that many people already engage in, but, in this context, it allows teaching moments to occur naturally as students ask about particular words, ideas, or issues raised in the video and can share their opinions as they are formed. The teacher can respond or provide specific questions to shape discussions in real time or follow up on important comments in later classroom activities. Previous discussions and upcoming event listings are discussed on Kim Muñoz's blog. Looking at how those events have worked in a Middle School context it is clear that there is potential for using this technique with students at higher levels (see Resources).

In addition to traditional status updates, using location-based status broadcasts is an increasing trend. Location-based status broadcasts enable a user to indicate where they are, what they are doing, and, in the process of updating, allow that user to see who else is present in a physical space. FourSquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places are the most popular location-based status sharing tools at present. A great example of their use in education is the use of foursquare on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus (see Figure 1). Staff and students have added the locations of key student support areas along with tips such as where to find computing kiosks in a building. A series of lists act as tours around campus that new students can follow to provide a self-led introduction to important buildings and services. This helps students to meet people as they see who else is self-touring when checking in as they move around the campus (see Resources).

Figure 1. The Wisconsin University foursquare presence
The Wisconsin University foursquare presence

Image, audio, and video sharing

Images, audio, and video can be extremely engaging for learners and very effective for communicating with professional colleagues. In an often text-based environment such materials stand out and appeal to users. There is a huge and complex ecosystem of social media sites for photo, video, and audio sharing, partly because these sites are useful with or without social features, and partly because the cost of storing and delivering image, video, or audio data means they are more likely to run on "freemium" models (where free and premium versions are both available with additional features such as more storage space in the premium variety).

Images are widely used and easy to deliver. This is one of the areas of social media where educational organizations often provide their own local services in successful competition with commercial sites such as Flickr or Picassa web albums. However, large social media communities can be more effective in enabling discovery, discussion, and use of image collections. Many organizations will share lower resolution images (for example, archive content on Flickr) but will also host higher resolution copies on the organization's own servers. For example, the London School of Economics shares images from its archive collections through a Flickr Commons presence. In addition to boosting awareness of collections, these shared images are themselves formidable resources for creating teaching and learning materials.

There is also the widespread use of Facebook and tools associated with Twitter (TwitPic and yfrog, for example) for sharing images, particularly those taken on smartphones at events. A good example of this is the School of Visual Arts in New York, which uses an extremely active Facebook page to share exhibition images and artwork by students while giving users an opportunity to discuss the artwork shown.

Audio is a less high profile but highly valued area of activity, with particular importance in lecture replay for students and professional development for staff. Users can easily listen to audio podcasts especially during commutes. Many educational organizations provide their own hosting facilities with a feed of these materials often also fed into iTunes to enable easy subscription in a familiar environment. Yale University makes their Environmental Politics and Law course available as lectures in iTunes U. Shorter form audio tools for mobile, such as audioBoo, are also enabling the innovative use of audio such as the British Library, audioBoo, and NoiseFuturesNetwork project to create The UK Sound Map, a soundscape and research collection of the sounds of Britain in 2010/ and 2011 collected through user contributions (see Resources).

Video can be much more expensive to stream or provide locally because of the file size and bandwidth involved so many universities choose to use Vimeo, UStream, YouTube, or YouTube EDU, which is a dedicated area of YouTube where educational organizations can share longer videos and build a more richly customized presence (see Resources).

There is a diverse range of video content that may be shared from recorded lectures to specially created learning resources through to organizational content. The University of California Television Channel on YouTube EDU provides video of various on and off campus events, curriculum related features, and materials that help anyone interested in the university explore their wider selection of YouTube EDU content such as the UCDavis Channel or UC Berkeley Search Engines: Technology, Society, and Business lectures (see Resources).


Document and file sharing

Collaborative working with changes tracked, commenting, and chat tools form an important part of the appeal of document and file sharing tools because they enable instant responses or decisions rather than requiring long exchanges through email.

An increased comfort with social media tools and cloud-based tools has enabled remote working through laptops or handheld devices with tools such as Google Docs, Lotus Symphony, and Microsoft® Office 365, allowing easy connection between desktop software and online editing or sharing. In some cases these tools connect to major social networks or networking profiles so that sharing with regular contacts or connections is made particularly straightforward (see Resources).

These sites also provide innovative potential for public engagement where large databases, research data, or other sharable data where interested parties communally share, work, or experiment. For example the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) data is regularly shared and analyzed through the IBM Many Eyes tool following a collaborative project for the OECD World Forum on Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies in 2007. The Guardian Data Blog uses Google Docs to transparently publish data used by the Guardian's journalists in their work and to share interesting openly available data sets (see Resources).

These tools and resources provide a variety of teaching opportunities, whether through interpreting and commenting on the data, providing an opportunity for teaching statistical skills using shared data sets, or provoking the debate of topical issues.


Wikis

Wikis are websites that can be edited by multiple users and are designed to be dynamic, changing online presences. The pages are usually edited through a web browser using either a simple word-like WYSIWYG interface or html-like "wiki mark up". Comments and discussion allow wiki software to be used as reference spaces, as blogs, and so on. Their use is well established in education whether in the context of teaching, as spaces for group work and assignments (where tracking of activity is of significant usefulness), or as spaces for accessing support information. It can be beneficial to host these types of content locally (using software such as Mediawiki or Confluence) as it may be sensitive. Locally hosted tools allow potential use of existing authentication systems, branding, automated archiving, and mirroring of the service to ensure stability of access.

Wikis provide more challenging cultural than technical support issues as many colleagues and students are uncomfortable with editing or adding to others' texts. Those familiar with desktop word processing software may find the interface quite alien and issues with layout particularly hard to cope with, particularly as many wiki systems restrict advanced functionality to the wiki mark up view. Those familiar with editing HTML may find it frustrating to work within the limitations of the vastly simplified wiki mark up.


Social games

Games offer educators new ways to engage students through the "gamification" of learning experiences (see Resources). By adding challenges, peer competition, and achievements, students can be motivated to learn in a fun playful experience. Social games, those played with or against friends or fellow students, also provide a space where peer support can take place with learners helping each other through educational challenges.

Educational social gaming environments include virtual environments with curriculum-driven exploratory activities such as Second Life, Atlantis Remixed/Quest Atlantis, which is aimed at 9-16 year olds, and the more assessment-driven competitive learning space Grockit (see Resources).

There are many opportunities for learning in mainstream games and social gaming spaces too. A particularly interesting example is the reflective educational Alice and Kev project, an attempt to document the story of two homeless characters created and played in the Sims 3. Although the game play was not itself social, the process of recording and discussing the experiment through a dedicated blog provided opportunities for learning, reflection, and discussion. The characters have been made available for download and can be replayed by anyone with Sims 3.

Figure 2. Image of the character Alice from the "Rejected" post, part 9 of the 60 part Alice & Kev by Robin Burkinshaw
Image of the character Alice from the Rejected post, part 9 of the 60 part Alice and Kev by Robin Burkinshaw

Social games may require better graphics facilities and custom browser plugins than many of the other social media tools mentioned here but they can be very useful and engaging for teaching, crowd-sourcing (for example, FoldIt), and creating a lively online learner community. Nicola Whitton's book "Learning with Digital Games" and James Paul Gee's "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" are both excellent sources for further information on the role of games in education (see Resources).


Challenges and benefits of using social media in education

Many social media sites are provided as software as a service (SaaS) tools — that is, software that runs on the web rather than on individual desktop machines. This offers some obvious advantages over traditional local installations, for example software can be updated instantly to fix issues and introduce new features as they are ready to deploy rather than through occasional updates or patches. In addition, work can be accessed across many machines and devices through the browser. Local storage and data processing is less important, since data is handled in the cloud (computing power and storage in remote data centers that allow services to quickly scale to meet user demand). Some universities have moved to using cloud-hosted email and software in preference to locally managing either function.

One of the main benefits of the simple user interfaces and contextual support that many social media tools provide is that users are less likely to approach technical support teams with common problems. The large communities that students and staff members access through social networking sites may empower them to find their own solutions even to complex technical questions. These connected users may also help raise awareness of common problems, bugs, and unexpected outages, helping to amplify messages from central support teams to the wider community.

Social media tools, however, can present both technical and cultural challenges for an institution in supporting its users. The SaaS model can introduce risks: use of social media tools takes software away from desktop management processes, which can make it difficult to predict and support the problems that students and staff may encounter. This can be complicated further by the fact that members of the organization may use a hugely diverse range of tools under a mixture of personal and professional accounts. And social media sites may be located in other geographic areas, which can mean any site maintenance or downtime takes place during core teaching or working hours. Many social media sites require non-standard software (plugins, programs, scripts) to be present on local machines, which can cause problems when those local machines are updated or replaced. Also, many sites are not fully accessible to those with visual impairments or special educational needs, so their use in core teaching may necessitate parallel provision of accessible alternatives and delivery of the same content across multiple spaces. Most importantly, data held in other jurisdictions can be subject to local data protection and intellectual property rights laws that may create legal and technical challenges in terms of access, use, reuse, and long-term storage or deletion of data. These factors should all be considered when adopting social media tools in education. You may decide to offer a preferred locally hosted social media software option.

However, locally hosted social software does require far more substantial staffing and commitment to provide support. The use of particular selected software for blogs, wikis, or similar functionality may help reduce the range of support enquiries and justify providing dedicated software-specific training. Local installations, though, may risk falling behind third-party competitors and losing credibility with users who may expect that any offering instantly support the latest social media functionality.

Social and cultural experience and technical confidence and expertise play a factor in social media preference. The most stable software may not be the most usable, so a balance must be struck to find a practical compromise considering what social media software is used. Historically, such decisions have been made by IT management, but the ready availability of social media tools has increasingly meant that individual members of teaching and research staff choose their own blend of local and web-hosted social software.


Conclusion

Social media can be both an effective set of tools for teaching and research and for communicating that work. Because social software is usually accessed over the web, it can reduce the need for updating local software or providing local services for specific tools or technologies. Users and learners are empowered to support each other around their own learning and on these and other technologies, which can mean that requests for support are less frequent, more specific, and better informed.

Although most social media is easy to get started with, mastering many of the most useful features requires more in-depth knowledge of that social media tool and often that of other tools, technologies, or specialist software. Therefore, social media presents an opportunity to educate motivated users in a diverse array of software and techniques. Although it can be challenging to ensure support is present (whether centrally provided or as a peer-learning space) for all levels of expertise from beginners to skilled experienced producers, support and training can help staff and students make the best of social media.

Resources

Learn

Get products and technologies

  • WordPress, Blogger, Typepad and Tumblr are popular blogging tools.
  • LotusLive, Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate are some real-time chat clients.
  • Real-time video or audio chat tools such as Skype and Google+ Hangouts offer interesting alternatives for tutorials, supervisor meetings, or streaming short talks.
  • Hootsuite or Posterous are examples of status sharing tools that also provide RSS feeds or API-driven distribution tools which enable status updates to feed into other locations.
  • FriendFeed is an example of a status sharing tool that provides RSS feeds or API-driven distribution tools that enable status updates to feed into an aggregated profile.
  • Many universities choose to use video tools such as Vimeo, UStream or YouTube.
  • FourSquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places are the most popular location based status sharing tools at present.
  • CoverItLive is a live-blogging and aggregation tool.
  • Google Docs, Lotus Symphony, and Microsoft Office 365 allow easy connection between desktop software's and online editing or sharing.
  • Many Eyes is an experimental social computing tool by IBM Research and the IBM Cognos software group.
  • Flickr and Picassa web albums are two popular commercial image sharing sites.
  • Second Life and Grockit are examples of educational social gaming environments.
  • IBM Connections is social software for business that lets you access everyone in your professional network, including your colleagues, customers, and partners.
  • Innovate your next open source development project with IBM trial software, available for download or on DVD.

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