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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 May 19 - 12:00 am

1. Whither Twitter?

Whither Twitter?

Colleges So Far Are Cool To Leveraging the
Hot Social Networking Site As a Learning Tool

By Paul Bradley

To community colleges already squeezed between skyrocketing enrollments and shrinking resources, social networking sites might reek of information overload for professors and administrators already immersed in websites, blogs and e-mail.

But as the Internet continues has migrated to Web 2.0 — characterized by mobile computing devices, two-way communication, information sharing, collaboration and interoperability — social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are getting a closer look by educators curious to see whether and where they fit into the instructional landscape.

Mesa Community College, for example, is surveying students, instructors and other stakeholders about their social media habits and perceptions. The survey is designed to expand and deepen the college’s awareness of how students are using social media.

“This survey is a unique opportunity for the college to engage in a conversation with our most important stakeholders,” said Sonia Filan, director of the college’s office of institutional advancement. “We hope to better understand how they use social media sites and how they are influenced by them.”

Social networking — which allows users to post their own content online and build online communities of people with shared interests and activities — is even becoming part of the curriculum at some colleges.

Using a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the Rochester Institute of Technology developed a course around social computing. The course looks at how at how college students use social networking and whether it can enhance learning by bringing outside experts into the classroom via technology. The University of Michigan offers a master’s degree that specifically focuses on social computing, the first of its kind in the country at the master’s level.

Connecting in New Ways

In a presentation last year at the Library of Congress — a video of which has been viewed more than a million times on Facebook — Michael Wesch, a renowned professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, said social networking is about much more than using technology.

“It’s not just about information,” Wesch said. “It’s about linking people in ways that we have never been linked before, and in ways we can’t predict. Every six months there is a new tool that connects us in new ways.”

The latest new thing is Twitter, the microblogging site that is taking the Internet by storm, quickly amassing 19 million members in just a couple of years. Twitter allows users to post small blogs of not more than 140 characters.

While entities ranging from the White House to the U.S. Army post “tweets” – the term for posts on the Twitter website, higher education so far has been wary in its approach to the technology.

“Colleges are a little late coming to the party,” said Heather Mansfield, a writer who owns DIOSA Communications and who has written extensively about the utility of social networking sites. “I think there is a fear factor. The age of some administrators plays a huge role. Some in the older generation don’t understand it. As you go up the chain of command, you’re likely to encounter someone who has never heard of Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s where all of their students are living and breathing,” she added. “If you are not on these sites, you are not on their radar. Colleges really need to jump on this. Every department should have an account.”

That’s not to say colleges have turned their back on social networking. Some faculty use Facebook groups to foster peer-to-peer learning and conduct group projects. Blackboard, which is in use at hundreds of colleges around the country, plans to soon add a Twitter-like messaging tool to its course management system.

But whether Twitter will ever catch on like email, blogs and podcasts and become a widely used instructional tool remains in question. Though lots of community college professors and administrators have joined Twitter, the technology is so new that relatively few utilize it for teaching. The work is being done ad hoc; there is no overall strategy for using the technology for instruction.

A review of Twitter institutional users shows that colleges are posting news and announcements, but are not yet trying to engage users in two-way communications.

Enhancing Learning

Still, some observers believe that Twitter can enhance learning in several ways.

For professors, it can be a virtual faculty lounge, allowing them to build professional networks, collaborate on-line and gather advice on improving their teaching. It can provide immediate feedback on the relevance of a class. Teachers can post tips of the day, questions, writing assignments and other prompts to keep learning going.

Jane Hart, a social media and learning consultant, told the American Society for Training and Development that Twitter and other microblogs can support collaboration and learning.

“The point of social media is to turn learning into a more participatory activity,” she said.

Twitter also can break down classroom barriers. Students who otherwise might be reluctant to speak up in class can use the services to ask questions and exchange ideas. Students can easily see what other students are talking about, bolstering their learning experience with additional content, questions, comments and critiques. Twitter also has been widely praised as an easy-to-use utility with powerful search tools, allowing students to find information easily.

Perhaps most importantly, it can be another tool in increasing student engagement in their educations — a critical issue for community colleges and their legions of non-traditional learners. For distance learners, it can help overcome the isolation of the virtual classroom and promote interaction.

Studies have consistently shown that the more a student in engaged in their own academic career, the more likely they are to complete school and earn a degree or certificate.

“We have been actively ‘tweeting’ since the first of the year,” said Laurie Means, web developer at Clark State Community College in Ohio. “We really are trying to reach all segments of our community. We want our students to be more engaged. We think that the more they are engaged, the more they are likely to stay in school and get a degree.”

Still, the use of social networking sites by community colleges currently is limited primarily to public relations or admissions offices.

But Stephanie Bulger, vice chancellor for distance education and learning technology at Wayne County Community College in Michigan, said there is good reason for community colleges to dive deeper into the social networking pool.

“I think community colleges can build their credibility by using these tools,” she said. “Social networking allows colleges to interact with their stakeholders much more frequently.”

The Virginia Community College System is one of the few systems that has been aggressively utilizing social networking tools. The VCCS and Chancellor Glenn DuBois both have Twitter accounts, said Assistant Vice Chancellor Jeffrey J. Krauss, who oversees the multi-media effort.

A Larger Purpose

Though the system’s presence on the sites is a useful marketing tool, it also serves a larger purpose, Krauss said. Many of the posts are aimed at driving web traffic to the Virginia Education Wizard (vawizard.org), the system’s new interactive website where users can explore potential careers, learn about financial aid and apply to college.

The Wizard guides users in applying for financial aid and prompts action, such as meeting registration deadlines for the semester’s classes, all aimed at increasing student engagement and improving success.

“We really think the Wizard is a game changer as far as how people interact with higher education,” he said. “We view the Wizard as the front door. We really think it will help people understand the value of a community college education.”

Krauss said that social networking is best used in fostering a dialogue.

“We started because we wanted to be part of the conversation. But at the end of the day, you have to get people to join in,” he said.

Onandaga Community College in New York opened accounts on Twitter and Facebook a couple of months ago, said Amy Kremenek, the college’s chief public affairs officer. It’s intended to smooth two-way communications with students and other stakeholders.

“With traditional communication, the old media, it is very hard to get two-way communication going,” she said. “Its takes some resources, but social networking allows that kind of communication.”

Kremenek said it’s a matter of reaching a younger generation  that doesn’t read newspapers or listen to the radio the way their elders do.

“With the younger students, really, they expect communications to be available 24-7,” she said. “There are all kinds of possibilities. I am not sure how academia is adjusting to that.”

There are potential problems with Twitter, however.

Posts can be mundane, trivial and worse. Twitter can be time-consuming. Studies have shown that numerous users of Twitter stop using the service after as little as six months.

Twitter posts are public and thus insecure. And students who consider social networking sites to be just that – social – may resist using it for education purposes.

Colleges also face the challenge of re-training professionals well-versed in the old media to use the new.

But as they try to boost student outcomes, some educators are viewing social networking as another tool with potential to enhance the learning experience for students both in classrooms and in distance learning environments.

Mansfield, for one, believes social networking is not just a passing media fancy, but is here to stay.

“Colleges have to understand that it’s not about marketing, it’s about community building,” she said. “Only a handful of higher education institutions understand how much the Web has changed over the past two years. The thing that people have to understand is this is not a fad. It’s a new way of communicating.”


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