(Photos from EDUCAUSE 2017 presentation 'Learning in Bursts: Microlearning with Social Media')

At Northeastern University (NU) in Boston, Mass., Professor of Journalism John Wihbey uses Twitter in his classroom to develop a community among his students and experts in the field.

Using the hashtag #digiNU, he and his students have conversations socially 24/7. Some homework assignments are also shared via Twitter and Instagram, like when he asked students in January to create a social graphic representing a current event.

socialOne student shared a graphic about a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority fare hike proposal that would increase Student T Pass fares from $26 to $32 per month. The graphic showed that the proposal would hurt monthly pass users more than those who pay single fares, and the Huffington Post picked up the story (Read: In Boston, Student MBTA Passes Are an Equity Issue)!

The #digiNU caught on like wildfire, and now the entire School of Journalism is using it to communicate with each other and the public and promote their work to professionals in the field.

Two instructional technologists from NU, Clair Waterbury and Lindsey Sudbury, presented at EDUCAUSE 2017 last week in Philadelphia, Pa. about the value of incorporating social media into the classroom. Their presentation, “Learning in Bursts: Microlearning with Social Media,” highlighted how short, focused bursts of learning that take place frequently in a digital social environment can connect students and faculty to a more expansive learning goal. The two have been researching social microlearning at NU for the past few years.

Students are checking social media quickly and often

Students are really interested in using social media and are bewildered why faculty aren’t taking advantage of it more, they said. It’s an opportunity to create a community within the classroom, the colleges and the broader institutions. Social channels allow students to connect with experts in the field and find internship opportunities starting during their very first year of undergraduate school. They’re more engaged, and information retention improves.

As the use of video in the classroom also continues to increase, social media becomes the perfect vehicle to share all of that valuable content (that is OK for public viewing) being created.

“The beautiful thing about social media is it’s short engagement several times a day,” Waterbury said.

(Image from EDUCAUSE presentation) A 2016 Pew study found that 23 percent of Twitter users and 35 percent of Instagram users checked the platform several times a day.

“We’re checking it quickly and often,” Sudbury said.

So why not teach with it?

People tend to be overcautious about privacy

Understandably, faculty need to use caution when incorporating social media into their instruction, because privacy is a concern. Definitely seriously consider the ease of access to students’ private information, and don’t post grades, they said. But there’s sometimes a misconception about privacy issues, and people tend to be overcautious.

If someone isn’t comfortable using his or her personal account, they could create an anonymous persona for their pet, for example, to use in the classroom.

Several English faculty use this idea as an interesting social assignment. They ask students to put themselves in famous novelists’ shoes like Jane Austen, create accounts for them and tweet as them.

A few examples of social assignments that Waterbury and Sudbury shared include:

  • SnapChat Takeovers
    • NU urges students in Boston and all over the world to show and describe where they are in quick videos.
  • Marketing Fun
    • Marketing Professor Paul Fombelle created a course hashtag #funbelle for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, urging students to post interesting articles and reflection. It’s very informal and extends the classroom. After class hours, it’s more likely students will read an article about marketing that they see on social media than it is that they’ll open a textbook.
  • Job Interview Question Response Video
    • Facebook and LinkedIn allow threaded commenting, making them great platforms for practicing community-building skills. They also allow for closed, private discussions. Ask students to post a 60-second or less video answering a job interview question. Then, students could watch and respond to their peers’ videos, helping students to improve their communication skills.
  • Engaging Art Classes
    • Ask students to take pictures that show a location in a new light or from a different perspective and have them talk about that perspective or location in the context of their studies.
  • Learning Foreign Language with SnapChat
    • SnapChat allows for only a single viewing of the videos. Language instructors can send short videos for students to listen to once and then reply with a translation or response.
    • Students in a French course, for example, could take pictures of things and label them in French or record themselves speaking throughout the day and post to My Story.

There’s a lot of buzz around social learning, and Waterbury and Sudbury are now trying to measure its value and impact. Learn more about this research in the EDUCAUSE Review article, “Learning in Bursts: Microlearning with Social Media,” written by Waterbury, Sudbury and Stephanie Trowbridge.