Hey, @students! #Letschat: Using Social Media to Facilitate Research and Public Engagement
Contributors: Jessie Miller, Shanna Gilkeson, and Lisa Pignotti
School Affiliations: Eastern Michigan University
Emails: firstname.lastname@example.org, sgilkeso at emich.edu, lfix at emich.edu
Date Published: 21 May 2015
Social media gives teachers an opportunity to engage students in questioning and learning outside the composition classroom. Given that most students never receive formal education in the best practices of writing digitally, composition instructors are often looking for a way to integrate that component into the classroom. In ENGL 121: Researching the Public Experience, the composition course we all teach, we wanted to engage our students in the practice of research and public engagement. We wanted to start our students on common ground, in writing spaces they were familiar with. As such, we chose to use social media to have our students engage in the larger contemporary conversations surrounding their research topics. In this webtext, we will share with you our design, execution, and outcomes of these assignments. Instructors can integrate these digital platforms into the classroom in varying degrees based on their own comfort level and the types of technologies available to them.
The move toward digital platforms for composition is an important shift we wanted to account for in our courses. Gina Maranto and Matt Barton (2010) argued that as composition instructors, we must account for "the opportunities for learning, for social and political engagement, that online networking affords" (p. 38). One of our main goals was to educate our students in social media literacy. We define social media differently from social networking because the two produce separate outcomes when assessing our students' performance. Alice Daer and Liza Potts (2014) defined social media as the "tools for communicating within and across networks" (p. 31), whereas social networking is concerned with building and maintaining digital communities. Daer and Potts wrote, "every social media user learns to use the tools in different ways for different purposes, which is why we emphasize the need for sustained, guided practice and reflection in lieu of emphasis on measureable outcomes" (p. 25). For our purposes, we used social media in our classrooms because our focus was on how to use it as a tool for research and engagement.
We also use social media due to the goals that Peggy Albers and Jennifer Sanders (2010) have argued for when discussing the importance of embracing 21st-century literacies in the language arts classrooms; they affirmed that educators should use new technology in their classrooms because “it allows for greater participation, collaboration, and distribution of knowledge that has not been possible with our previous uses of technology” (p.11). Technology like social media is intrinsically structured to facilitate these benefits. Furthermore, the literacies students use in their personal lives are often neglected in academia. According to Joan A. Rhodes and Valerie J. Robnolt (2009), teachers could reinforce the value of students' individual literacies and foster student engagement by bringing these “new literacy experiences” into their classrooms (p. 161).
Finally, we took up Collin Brooke's (2013) call to arms that instructors "join our students where, when, and how they write" (p. 188) by connecting with our students both in and outside of our classrooms. Our project showcases how we each used social media in different ways as an extension of the classroom to teach students research tactics and conventions, ultimately encouraging students to become informed participants in digital contexts. Jessie Miller had students create multimodal compositions using social media platforms, Shanna Gilkeson used Twitter to enhance the academic development of her students, and Lisa Pignotti used a Facebook group to develop classroom community and collaboration. We chose to apply different social media tactics in our classrooms because they each had various affordances and limitations (Daer & Potts, 2014, p. 27) that engage research practices in unique ways. Our study illustrates the different uses of social media in the composition classroom and explicates the results each medium offered.
As our research took shape, we asked the following questions:
- How can we effectively incorporate social media in first-year composition classrooms?
- How can we give educational goals a presence in social media? and
- How can we overcome potential student resistance?
In each of our respective classrooms, we tried different methods to answer these questions. In the sections below, we detail the process each of us went through as we implemented aspects of social media in composition classrooms.
Using Social Media to Facilitate Multimodal Composition (Jessie Miller)
In the first-year writing classes I teach, I integrate social media into our course projects as composition tools. My goal is always to get students to realize that digital composition has value and that, like their academic essays, they should also care about the quality of their writing when composing digitally. For this study, I thematized my ENGL 121: Researching the Public Experience course around social media. I have a goal of facilitating critical, social engagement. Jenny Edbauer Rice (2008) argued that instructors need to become involved with the digital aspect of writing so that students can actively engage in multigenre writing (p. 366). She wrote, “Though most of us work with technology in some way, and though many of us teach some form of digital writing, we may still be living (or teaching) with it without actually having anything to do with it. One of the reasons why the skills of equipment usage fuse with what we may call ‘social engagement’... is because it provides another way of caring for the world” (p. 379). I took Rice's suggestion and applied social media into my course not only because it is a digital technology I am comfortable with (and thus can help students navigate it), but also because it is the most common digital platform students use when they compose online. In fact, based on an in-class assignment early in the semester, I found that 100% of my students were engaged in some form of social media, whether it was Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, or some other platform. Like Rice suggested, I wanted to use social media because it provided new access to "social engagement" with my students.
In the class, students spend the bulk of the semester planning, researching, and writing an 8-10 page research paper (see Unit Two Assignment Sheet). I integrated the course theme into the assignment guidelines for the research paper. They had to: 1.) pick a social media and research its history; 2.) describe how the site negotiates privacy for its users; and 3.) pick one impact the site has had on society and argue how it has affected our lives (see Image 1 below).
After they completed their research essays, my students condensed their research projects by transforming them within a social media platform of their choice (see Unit Three Assignment Sheet). They had to fit the parameters of that platform while maintaining the integrity of their original essay (see Image 2 below). As such, they had to negotiate the affordances of such social media platforms. Beyond just condensing their essay to fit the constraints of their site, they also integrated technologies that were frequently used on the site: YouTube videos, gifs, images, etc. I also encouraged my students to interact with their peers and audiences of their created site. See Images 3 and 4 for student examples.
The students’ responses to my course theme and the projects I had them complete were overall positive. Based on my review of their writing completed for the course, I saw that they had become more aware of the importance of digital composition in their lives. For example, in their multimodal transformation, a few of my students tweeted at the authors of sources they used in their research essay and got a response from them. This created the platform for an extension of their essay; it became a social interaction, an environment where students’ learning could expand beyond the walls of the classroom.
By implementing this multimodal transformation project, I was able to teach them about rhetoric in practice; they learned more about “public audiences” and then put that knowledge into action as they gained followers on their creations and interacted with them. More than in their traditional essays, they saw how writing is a social experience, a realization that changed the way they framed digital composition in their minds. They began to critique the digital platforms they had once used without reserve. In a small way, my class helped them become better online authors.
That said, there were a few pitfalls throughout this process that are worth mentioning. To start, it became obvious early on that not all students actively engaged with social media and internet communities in meaningful ways; I found that some students (though only a select few) had social media profiles but refrained from using them on a daily basis. As such, my course’s theme had the propensity to alienate them at times. I met with these students individually to negotiate their interests so they could have higher stakes in the course curriculum. I believe this problem stemmed from the narrow focus I had set for the course and for their largest project. In the following semesters, I broadened my course theme to “new media” and allowed my students to select their own research focus within that theme. This has since corrected the original problem I had, as students who separate themselves from social media still have a stake in the discourse surrounding my class. They can form an argument around the drawbacks of such technologies, since we acknowledged in class that new technologies offer both new affordances and new constraints.
The other pitfall I experienced in that initial semester occurred during the multimodal transformation project. I had shaped the project broadly: I let my students select any social media platform of their choice. Since each medium they chose had different constraints, the students and I had to negotiate the expectations for the assignment. For example, students who used Twitter were limited to 140 characters per post, so we had to discuss how many tweets constituted "enough" content for the project. However, students who used Tumblr and other blog sites could essentially post large chunks of their writing on there, so "enough" content looked quite different to them. As a result of this negotiation with my students, I was able to engage them on the topic of new media genres: how we define them, what affordances they offer us, and what limitations they create. Even though I hadn't intended this when I initially set up this project, the byproduct was positive. I will say, though, that this project became quite time-intensive since I had to work one-on-one with many of my students. In future semesters, I selected a few platforms for them to decide upon, such as Wix, Weebly, and Wordpress. This still allowed us to discuss new media genres, but it also narrowed the deviation between student selections, making it a more manageable project not only for me, but for the students as well. Overall, using social media for multimodal composition in my class provided new avenues for engaging meaningfully with texts and research. This allowed my students to learn the tools to become active and educated participants in their online communities.
Using Twitter as a Research Tool and to Reach a New Audience (Shanna Gilkeson)
My own involvement with technology and social media inspired me to thematize my English 121: Researching the Public Experience class around "Our Digital World." According to a recent Pew Research Center report about teens and social media, 71% of teens surveyed use more than one social media site (Lenhart, 2015, p. 1). The report also found that 88% of teenagers surveyed have a smartphone or web-enabled cell phone on which they use social media (Lenhart, 2015, p.1), while 87% of teenagers have access to a desktop or laptop computer, and 58% of teens own or have access to a tablet (Lenhart, 2015, p.3). The teenagers surveyed were ages 13-17. Given that college is often the next stop for young people, as well as the influence of digital technologies on their personal lives, it made sense to me to use my own embeddedness in social media as a way to meet my students where they are and incorporate the literacies they bring with them from outside the classroom. A brief discussion with my students at the beginning of the semester revealed that they primarily used social media to keep up with friends and family, or to share photos of parties, cats, or what they had for dinner. All of my students were familiar with multiple social media platforms, consistent with the findings of the Pew report.
My personal immersion in Twitter has allowed me to communicate with people I would not have otherwise had access to, including celebrities and authors, as well as helping me find others with similar personal interests and professional goals. Exploring trending topics and following hashtags has often helped me get a handle on subjects I am researching and has led me to relevant articles and lesson plans. My goal for the class was to open that world up to my students by showing them the benefits of using Twitter for professional or scholarly purposes, and to demonstrate that hashtags had a use other than being the textual equivalent of muttering under one's breath.
The class was broken up into three scaffolded units. Unit One was devoted to invention and critical thinking, and it concluded in a research proposal for the project the students would work on for the balance of the semester. The second unit was devoted to learning research techniques, source credibility, and writing their research papers. Similar to Jessie Miller’s class, Unit Three addressed multimodal adaptations of their papers in order to reach a different audience. Each of my students was allowed to choose a social media platform among Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Instagram, or Tumblr and transform their research into postings of appropriate content and frequency for their chosen platform’s users. As an extra credit opportunity, students could earn points by sending me weekly reflective tweets about their progress through Units Two and Three.
Our use of Twitter in the classroom began in small, manageable steps during Unit One. First, students set up their accounts if they did not already have one they wanted to use. With privacy concerns in mind, I did not require students to follow me or each other on Twitter; rather, all course work would be facilitated by the #ENGL121 hashtag in relevant tweets. Their first assignment involving Twitter was to read “How Social Media Privacy Settings Could Affect Your Future” by Huffington Post College blogger Amanda Augustine, and to respond to it on Twitter with the inclusion of Augustine’s Twitter name (see Twitter Assignment Sheet). They were to make three tweets comprising any combination of something new they learned from the article, something they disagreed with in the reading, or questions that arose as they read. My goal with this assignment was to get everyone comfortable with using Twitter while giving them an opportunity to reflect on what they read and consider the ways social media could affect their futures. As an unanticipated benefit of the assignment, Amanda Augustine replied to several of the students, either with answers to their questions, clarifying remarks, or other follow-up commentary. Images 5 and 6 below show examples of this interaction. This was a first-hand demonstration to my students of social media’s power to connect them with influential people they do not know personally.
Subsequent assignments using Twitter involved students selecting accounts to follow and analyzing them to determine Twitter’s conventions and what makes a “good” or “successful” Twitter account. First, they selected and followed two school-related accounts they felt may be useful. Among their many options were accounts dedicated to EMU athletics, dining services, academics, and student organizations. Next, during an in-class writing, they described what they perceived to be the purpose of each account, what they thought was the intended audience, how long each account had been in existence, frequency of tweets, number of followers, and the content of tweets—did they largely consist of original text, photos, retweets, etc.? They also examined the content to determine if the accounts were meant to be informative, entertaining, or both. Students concluded the in-class writing with evaluating the accounts by explaining why they would or would not recommend either one to friends, what they found helpful about the accounts, and what they felt the managers of the accounts should change in order to make them more useful. The class did a similar exercise early in Unit Two with Twitter accounts relating to their chosen subject for their research paper, using their prior experience with EMU accounts to help determine which accounts seemed worthwhile to follow.
One of the research techniques I wanted to familiarize my students with was discourse analysis. To this end, studying an online community relating to their topic was a requirement for their research paper in Unit Two. We practiced this together in class by searching hashtags on Twitter and analyzing not just what tweeters were saying, but also the way they were saying it. We paid particular attention to tweets that generated back-and-forth dialogue between users. The objective of this exercise was to show students that while tweets in and of themselves are not scholarly, they can sometimes lead us to scholarly and popular sources relevant to our research as well as discussion groups of professionals in their chosen fields. Furthermore, I wanted them to see the value in studying their research topic in a non-scholarly environment. For example, gaps in the way the general public understands a subject versus the way the academic or professional worlds understand it can be fruitful in generating research questions. Also, discourse on social media can provide insights one may not glean from scholarly sources, because people are talking about what they feel is important and how it affects them personally. Several students chose Twitter hashtags and discussions for the discourse analysis piece of their research papers; others used comment sections from blogs or news service articles or threaded discussions from Facebook posts or online discussion forums.
For Unit Three, students were permitted to choose whichever social media platform they felt was most appropriate and relevant to their research topic’s non-academic audience (see Unit Three Assignment Sheet). For example, a student studying leaks of credit card information from major retailers may prefer to set up a business and finance blog aimed at college-aged readers, whereas a student looking at sexting among teens may feel Tumblr or Instagram are more appropriate platforms because those services are widely used by young people in their teens and twenties. While several continued using Twitter for this phase of their projects, others who chose different platforms relied on their Twitter experience to analyze the new platform of their choice in order to tailor their research to social media. Students were encouraged to think about what they could do with a social media account that they cannot do with a research paper, such as including music, videos, and memes that make a point through humor or irony.
While integrating social media technology in my ENGL 121 class, I did encounter some challenges and obstacles. One challenge I had to negotiate was student resistance to social media, particularly one student’s insistence that Twitter was “stupid” and “a waste of time.” As her objections were not rooted in culture, religion, privacy concerns, or parental consent, I was reluctant to offer her an alternate assignment. Before it came to that, I asked her if she would be willing to give the assignment a try since we would be using Twitter in a way that was different from her previous experience, reminding her that tools are only as “good” as the way we use them. She agreed, but her resistance and lack of interest led to her having difficulty finding an appropriate topic and research question in the proposal phase of Unit One. While conferencing with her individually, I suggested she investigate Twitter’s role in the Arab Spring, focusing on why Twitter in particular was useful for that political revolution. That Twitter’s use in the Arab Spring was radically different from her experience, and that its use led to the potential for profound social and political change in the Arab world, was the rationale behind my suggestion. My student agreed to this project, though at the conclusion of the course she told me she still did not like Twitter. I praised her for her willingness to put aside her personal opinions and try to see Twitter from another point of view, and I let her know that I was still satisfied with the outcome because of her efforts.
Another obstacle I encountered was more logistical in nature. The third unit felt extremely rushed, and some students expressed that they wished they had more time to devote to cultivating an audience for their social media pages. Part of this could not be helped because of campus closures due to extreme weather, which accounted for schedule adjustments that led to the rushed nature of the unit. Another contributing factor was my miscalculation of how long they would need to work on the transformation phase of their project. I have since compensated by adjusting the schedule for future semesters. For several weeks, students will be working on Unit Two and Unit Three concurrently. It occurred to me that the students do not need to have a completed paper in order to start tweeting, blogging, or posting about what they’re learning. Conversely, the due date of the research paper is later in the semester in order to compensate for the fact that they will be giving some of their time to social media while working on their papers.
Overall, response to the class and the assignments was generally positive. Most students expressed in their reflective writings that they enjoyed the technology theme of the class and appreciated being able to choose an aspect of technology to study that mattered to their lives or future careers. Many said they felt the inclusion of social media broke up the monotony they expected to encounter in an English class. Furthermore, a few expressed that they would be keeping their Twitter accounts in the future for the scholarly and networking benefits. Image 7 below shows examples of the extra credit tweets that reflect what many students later told me in reflection letters. I consider the social media aspect of the class a success, and I have continued using it with small modifications that correspond to other changes I’ve made to the course since.
Extending Classroom Conversations through Facebook (Lisa Pignotti)
In order to engage with composition students in a space they frequent outside the classroom, I decided to create a Facebook group devoted to extending in-class conversations in my ENGL 121: Researching the Public Experience course. I wanted to use social media as a means to improve student collaboration with each other, to communicate with me as their instructor, and to enter into contemporary conversations related to their research topics. My approach was different than Jessie and Shanna in that I did not make social media the focus of my assignments. Rather, I threaded social media throughout the backdrop of my class to add another dimension to my students' learning experience. Since the majority of my students were already using Facebook and I was comfortable using it, it seemed to be an appropriate digital environment to accomplish my goals. By using a digital space that students interact with daily, I hoped to produce a classroom community where students would develop further investment in their learning and find academic value in their “nonacademic” literacies.
Facebook’s group feature is designed to build community and collaboration. It allows members to post to the page, “like” and comment on posts, and upload documents to share with group members without having to “friend” each other. To encourage participation, I divided my class into six groups of four and assigned each group a week during the semester in which each member would post an article, video, or discussion question related to research topics or the research process. The remaining class members were required to write at least one comment per week in response to the post of their choosing (see Image 8 below).
By requiring them to post to the Facebook group, students not only had to engage in understanding the contemporary conversations surrounding their research topics, but they also had to consider how to frame their findings for their audience. Discussing their research in-progress with their classmates led to a better understanding of the text and topic. Rhodes and Robnolt (2009) pointed out that an "important part of students’ connecting to any type of text is for them to respond to it, which in turn, can enhance comprehension. Allowing students to discuss what they are reading can be motivating for them” (p. 163). Through student-initiated discussion, the Facebook group was an additional space to help students construct knowledge on their research topics and processes. Many students took advantage of sharing the various articles they discovered during their research with their peers. In many ways, students used the space to demonstrate what they were learning and to promote the various causes they were developing interests in and, for some, even passions for. Their posts were a practice in negotiating how to effectively communicate to a public audience in a digital environment, and audience uptake could be measured in comments and "likes."
The posts on the group page opened up in-class discussions as well. I thematized my class around environmentalist Annie Leonard's (2007) video The Story of Stuff, which illustrates the cycle of "stuff" from extraction to disposal, and one of my students posted a video on the Facebook group page that refuted each argument Leonard made. The sponsor of the rebuttal video was a private, conservative research institute that promotes capitalism and limited government. While I attempted to use the Facebook group to open up discussion about the video and the potential motives behind it, only a few students responded. However, it became an opportunity to discuss examining ethos and bias in sources during class time. Not only did we discuss the video as a class, but we also examined ethos in other sources—web sources in particular. The lesson aimed to demonstrate digital literacy about researching (online) source credibility. The activity on the Facebook group page was the perfect lead-in to the lesson.
In addition to their required participation, students were welcome to post whatever curiosities or questions that arose outside of class. Unexpectedly, students began posting questions about assignments and would work through them together (see Image 9 below). Shyer students were less reluctant to participate than they were inside the classroom, and students passionate about their topics worked to enlighten their classmates whenever they stumbled upon new and exciting information to share. Classroom community and knowledge-building grew through these online discussions.
The space also became a venue for students to publish their work for an audience beyond their instructor. Their culminating assignment was to transform their research projects into digital iterations, including videos, digital posters, or digital comic strips (see videos 1 and 2 below). The tools they used could be linked or posted to the Facebook group, and before submitting their final projects, students posted their digital creations to the group for a “virtual gallery walk,” which took place in class using program laptops (see Image 10 below). While usually limited to reviewing one or two of their peers’ works, students were able to view the breadth of creativity and variety of their classmates' work. Students enjoyed seeing each other’s work and were engrossed in posting questions, connections, and positive feedback for their classmates throughout the class period. In past peer response sessions, students never demonstrated the enthusiasm and interest that they did during the virtual gallery walk.
Though I had several students actively participating and posting beyond the requirement throughout the semester, most of my students stuck to the minimum one-time-per-week post. Some students stopped posting after the first few weeks though they were still checking the group page (each post shows what group members have seen it). I attribute part of this disengagement to how I structured the participation requirement. I would continue to give students agency in posting research-related items. However, rather than allowing them to respond freely to posts, I would give them more stringent guidelines and comment categories beyond “I agree with this” so that their participation would work to move the discussion forward. In addition, I would incorporate more assignments into the Facebook group, such as activities like brainstorming research topics via a “virtual” group idea bounce, practicing design testing to evaluate sources as a group, or using the Facebook group’s polling feature for students to perform primary research. By using the "social" in social media, such activities would not only increase group participation, but also involve students in collaboration that helps to build collective knowledge and better understanding of the research process.
There are limitations to consider when using a Facebook group in the classroom. A major constraint is that it is difficult to interact with the public sphere. While public interaction is possible, it is challenging to achieve it through a Facebook group devoted to a specific course. Students are limited to communicating with other Facebook group members (i.e., their classmates) and therefore, participating in the public discourse surrounding their topics is not as rich as it could be with other social media platforms, such as Twitter. While the Facebook group can be set to "public," participation from outsiders is not as natural to the medium.
Overall, the majority of my students found some benefit in using the Facebook group. Even if they were uninterested in some of the discussions and posts, they found it helpful for assignment clarification and appreciated receiving class announcements in that space (which they seemed more likely to check than email). Throughout the semester, I observed the class community grow as students seemed more comfortable participating in class discussions and talking with each other about their research. I think the growth of the classroom community can be attributed to the Facebook group.
After the conclusion of our semester, we reflected on the affordances and limitations of integrating social media in the first-year composition classroom. First, we found that social media platforms provided more effective ways to communicate with our students. They extended the classroom learning, giving our classroom lectures a real-life application. In the traditional classroom, a lot of interactions revolve around the instructor. That said, when using social media, our students would interact with one another to answer questions about assignments before turning them into their instructors. They also sought out the interactions of scholars in the field of rhetoric as well as other interested parties.
Our recommendations for effectively integrating social media into the composition classroom is for instructors to choose a platform they are comfortable with or to become acclimated to the platform ahead of time. Otherwise, instructors may find themselves spending a great deal of time negotiating the affordances and limitations of those platforms, detracting from the real purpose they set for using those tools. While social media may at first appear to lack an educational framework, we found that it actually enhanced our students' education, giving them another angle to approach their composition experience. Instead of limiting our students to student-to-teacher interactions, our students were able to form a discourse community within the classroom that focused on each of their respective research projects. This ultimately gave them a rich experience in research practices that allowed them to test out the skills we had established during classroom lectures.
However, these platforms had certain limitations. Though we did interact with our students on these platforms, certain types of interactions were difficult to have. For example, engaging students in higher-order discussions was harder to foster online. Often, higher-order concerns require a thorough explanation followed by practice in which a student can implement those strategies. Social media platforms do not always have the space for such interactions, suggesting they still work best when in-person with students. For example, when teaching students the distinctions between higher-order and lower-order concerns, such conversations work best in class. In these cases, students could practice such skills and receive immediate guidance through in-class activities. Such activities work best when we are all situated in the classroom together at the same time, allowing all of our students to receive the same formal education experience.
Beyond this, we were each met with resistant students, who did not like the requirements of using social media in the composition classroom. Some felt it was an infringement on their private life, since social media has typically been considered separate from their academic lives. To account for this, we allowed students to create new profiles or to use a hashtag so that we could track responses without being “friends” with or followers of one another online. This alleviated the tensions and by the end of the semester, most of our students saw the benefits of the work we had them complete online.
The largest limitation of our study was the time constraint. We conducted this study over the course of one semester. While this allowed us the time to test out our course themes and assignments, we did not have the time to apply the feedback we had gotten from our students. That said, we have a few ideas about how we would like to continue our research. First, we plan to rework our project for future classes. One way to do so would be to create “videograms” and podcasts in response to student inquiries. For instance, we could have students tweet us questions they have about the course or writing in general, after which we could collect the inquiries and respond to them digitally on a shared platform that all of our students could access. Likewise, we could create a collaborative Wiki in which students can publish and link to their research projects. Lastly, we could use Tumblr as a space for students to develop research journals.
Based on our collaborative project, we see the value of integrating social media into the composition classroom. Not only does it give us a chance to teach our students the best practices for applying research methods in digital spaces, but it also provides the opportunity to extend classroom learning into digital contexts that offer new opportunities for our students.
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