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Social Media and Distance Education

Joanna (Xuan) Zhang
Instructional Support Specialist Center for Support of Instruction
Published: January-February2010

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Category: Online-pedagogy Emergingtechnologies

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"Social media" is probably not a new term to you if you are a distance educator. To me, I heard of social media, social networking technologies, social learning, and other similar terms at various educator's conferences, educational technology Webinars, Web 2.0 training sessions, and more. Presenters normally name some examples when talking about social mediasuch as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Docs. However, I found that my understanding of the concept of social media was still vague.This article attempts to clarify the concept and help yougain ideas on how you can use social media tools to enhance youronline teaching.

What Is Social Media?

"Social" refers to the interactions among people, and "media" refers to the Web-based technologies that store and transfer electronic data or information. Combined together, social media can be definedas Web-based technologies that facilitate information sharing and user interaction. Web-based technologies have been developing and growing for years, and they are becoming more mature. It is the social element that differentiates social media from conventional media technologies. Social media efficiently bridges connections among users. It offers platforms for online users to find others who share the same interests and build virtual communities based on those shared interests. Users no longer review content in a passive or isolated way. Instead, they can easily create, share, and publish content, and they can review and comment on other users' products. With the prevalence of social media technologies and services, content sharing and user interaction has become relatively easy and efficient.

Typical Social Media Tools

There are hundreds of social media tools on the Web, and more are emerging every day. Social media tools take various forms, such as blogging, social networking, social bookmarking and multimedia sharing. Here are some of the most popular and well-known examples of social media tools: 1. 2. 3. 4. Blogging/micro-blogging - Blogger, WordPress, Twitter Social networking - Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Ning Social bookmarking - Delicious, Diggo Collaborative authoring - Wikipedia, Google Docs, Zoho Office Suite 5. Multimedia sharing - Flickr, YouTube, Qik 6. Web conferencing - WebEx, GoToMeeting, DimDim Most people connected to the Internet today have used or come acrossa social media tool orservice.

Features of Social Media

Social media services encourage user contributions and participation, and the services are more user oriented instead of content oriented. The services allow users to participate in online activities in a proactive way. With social media services, users easily share information, vote,comment, and even modify other user-created content. The open atmosphere greatly encourages content sharing and allows users to get feedback on content they have created. Compared to traditional media, social media promotes two-way communication among users. Social media also facilitates community building for users of similar interests. In a user group community, users can stay focused on relevant content and topics that everyone is interested in, and with the connections to other users, they can easily keep up on what is happening in a particular field. All of these features not only benefit professionals and computer geeks, but they are also valuable to distance educators and learners.

Implications for Learning

When appropriately integrated into the online classroom, social media can offer innovative learning experiences and enhanced learner engagement. With the prevalence of various social media tools, faculty can design creative online learning activities by asking students to use one or more tools to work on their learning tasks and achieve their learning objectives. Online collaboration becomes much easier when it is facilitated by social media technologies. For instance, students can collaborate on team project documents. Students in the same study group can co-draft documents, spreadsheets, presentation slides, andmore

with Google Docs. Each study group can also create a presentation through a Web conferencing tool such as Wimba. With the popularity of blogging and micro-blogging, it is not uncommon for faculty to use blogs as additional teaching/learning resources. Faculty may publish academic journals or articles on his/her own blog and students may post discussion comments on them in the threaded comments area. Many professors use Twitter to have students "tweet" all their academic-related activities. The word limits in micro-blogginghelp students stay focused on a topicin a concise way when they are tweeting. Discussions can become an extension of learning in theonlineclassroom, andthey can help students keep up with what is happening in the real world. Some faculty have even used Twitter to remind students of homework, upcoming events, and other important items. Students can immediately receive these reminders through their mobile phones if they have the correct setup in their Twitter accounts. Academic research can also benefit from using social media tools. In particular, social bookmarking is extremely useful for literature reviews and collaborative research. Many professors teaching graduate-level classes found that Diggo, a research tool and knowledge-sharing community,is an attractive tool to assist students with their own research projects.By using the highlighting and sticky notes features of Diggo, online reading becomes much easier. Students can review and respond to the reading notes from their classmates and the instructor. As a result, reflective thinking and collaborative learning are highly encouraged with this tool. Diggo also allows studentsto build or join communities to connect with people who share the same academic interests,leading them toeasily share and locate more resources that are relevant to their research topics. Itcan also be a good idea to use more than one social media tools in a class. At Duke University, a professor incorporated a few social media tools into his online teaching of an introductory film class. The professor asked students to watch relevant video clips, tweet lecture topics for discussion, make weekly postings on blogs, and comment on each other's work. With creative integration of social media tools in a class like this, students can participate more and be more engaged in the learning process. In addition to online teaching, many universities use social media to showcase their educational projects. For instance, Stanford University showcases faculty and student projects on its Facebook page by publishing videos, pictures, and other relevant information. Current

students can search, access, and gain inspiration from these posted projects for their own work.

In summary, there are clear advantages to using social media in distance education. With social media services, online teachers and learners can experience new and better types of communication and interaction, and they canbe more connected to each other than ever before. Social media tools help online learners feel less isolated. With social media technologies advancing, distance education will continuously evolve with the trend. NOTE: This article mentions only a few examples of social media technologies. These references should not be taken as an endorsement of any particular tool, technology, or company. If you are thinking of implementing any of these tools into your course, check with your academic administrator for suitability. CSI team members are available for consultation on the use of some of these tools if you have questions or concerns.

Best Online Universities LLC. (2009, August 11). 13 enlightening case studies of social media in the classroom.Message posted to Mayfield, A. (2008). What is social media? Retrieved December 20, 2009, from . Michigan State University Center for Teaching and Learning. (2009, April 16). Social media in the classroom. Message posted to Social media. (2009, June 12). Retrieved December 23, 2009, from

About the Author(s)

Joanna Zhang is an Instructional Support Specialist in the Center for Support of Instruction, where she helps faculty and students use a variety of computer-based and Web-based applications to enhance their distance teaching and learning. Her professional background focuses on instructional design, e-learning development, quality assurance, and training.

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