Social Media in Academia: Facebook in First Year Seminars

Last semester I used Facebook in my First Year Seminar (FYS) on a modern history of stereotypes about Asia and “the West.” Generally speaking, the class Facebook page became a community discussion board about campus events that related to the FYS’s broader themes of History, Asia, globalization, cultural studies, Orientalism, race, ethnicity, and social justice. Using the course Facebook page, students and I posted announcements about upcoming events, and then in turn, a good many of the students who attended the events posted their reactions along with a visual image or artifact from their experience.


Why did they use the page? For one, as a requirement in my FYS, each student was expected to attend at least one campus event before the end of the semester. To get credit for attending the event, they had to either a) send me an essay privately by e-mail of 200-300 words in which they reacted to the event, or b) write a short Facebook post in which they briefly described the event and posted a visual artifact. About 2/3 of the students opted to fulfill this requirement by posting on Facebook

How did it work? At the beginning of the semester, all students joined the course “Group Page” that I made. All of my students, except one, already had Facebook accounts, used them regularly, and knew how it worked. I chose to create a Group Facebook page instead of a personal or community page because this format is private; in order to view the page, one has to be invited and then added as a “member.” As the page administrator, I was able to control who joined the “group” and if necessary, edit the posts. Other advantages this format held were that members could not easily see the private posts of other group members (unless they were to “friend” each other on their private personal Facebook pages) and it indicates how many people view the posts (see image above). Based on this format, I learned that the vast majority of students had “seen” each others pictures and comments within no more than a week of their posting. Generally speaking there was a new post roughly once a week from a different student in the class.

Student Facebook post

Even though I was clear that our class group page was private, I had discussions with the students about digital footprints at the beginning of the semester. I encouraged students to create separate Facebook aliases from the ones they had used in high school (using their new ConnColl e-mail addresses) if they were concerned about protecting their privacy further. None of the students opted to do this.

The success of the page was in its low start-up costs, and in its ability to transmit important news about our first year and college communities.  It also allowed me to model that I care about and embrace campus engagement and dialogue. In contrast to Moodle, where students found formal assignments, uploaded homework, and downloaded readings, the Facebook page was used in a more informal way. It usually focused on social and co-curricular events organized outside of class and sometimes operated as a last minute message board if students had questions. Above all, the page became a medium through which students felt more connected with their classmates as well as the rest college community.

Literacy, Technology, and a 21st Century Curriculum

In my last post, I discussed some of my ideas for flipping the classroom  in the Social Sciences/Humanities. In this post I turn to a different theme – literacy – which has surfaced as an important and recurring topic in the Technology Fellows Program (TFP) meetings. In fact, the topic has come up so often, that this past summer, I participated on a conference panel about digital technologies, metaliteracy, and faculty-library collaborations at the Connecticut Information Literacy Conference (CILC). Joining me on the panel were my colleagues in Information Services, Laura Little, Instructional Designer/Developer, and Jessica McCullough, Instructional Design Librarian.

Click on image to view presentation slides

One major  theme of our panel was that the TFP has become a welcome yet unanticipated venue where faculty, instructional technologists and librarians are collaborating on student literacies.  We, the Technology Fellows, have found ourselves devoting a significant amount of time to discussing the links between teaching, digital technologies, and literacy-building. We have also found ourselves relying extensively on the expert knowledge that our colleagues in Information Services bring to the table as we think about revising some of our courses for spring 2015.

This topic emerged unexpectedly  during a conversation about the ways in which digital technologies can support the delivery of course content. Examples spanned the gamut from showing YouTube videos in class, creating and embedding video in Moodle web pages, and developing original media for interactive digital textbooks.  While the possibilities were intriguing, our conversation soon segued into a different discussion on how multimedia – e.g. online video, interactive web sites, or user-created Wiki pages – can facilitate so-called “higher cognitive levels of learning” as suggested by Bloom’s taxonomy of pedagogical objectives.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Digital technologies can certainly help students to better “remember” and “understand” course content. Moreover, they can also teach them to “analyze,” “evaluate,” and eventually “create” knowledge in relevant ways. Online videos are not only useful for sharing information, but they can also foster student thinking about the purposes, target audience, goals, biases, and historical contexts of  both analog and digital sources. Likewise, in using prominent user-created sites (e.g. Wikipedia), rich discussions can ensue on the benefits and dangers of open-source sharing and democratic knowledge production. As Historian and American Studies expert Jeffrey McClurken has commented, digital technologies can “create opportunities for students to become ‘critical practitioners’ of digital media rather than passive consumers or users.” An important rationale for using digital media, he argues, is the “notion of students creating and writing for a public audience … which has clear benefits for the students, the teacher and the institution” and “open[s] up the traditional, closed system of knowledge production” (Teaching and Learning with Omeka: Discomfort, Play, and Creating Public, Online, Digital Collections).

Upon further deliberation, the Technology Fellows have come to the consensus that the value in using digital technologies extends well beyond simply exposing students to new information or technological tools.  Indeed, current scholarship shows that digitized curricula can offer new opportunities for developing a sophisticated range of information literacies, including information technological fluency, and digital, visual, and media literacies. Library and information scientists, Thomas P. Mackey and Trudi E. Jacobson (the keynote speakers at CILC) developed the term “metaliteracy” to draw attention to  “multiple literacy types.” As knowledge becomes “increasingly participatory” and “takes many forms online,” they suggest, the consumption, sharing, and production of knowledge requires an increasingly “comprehensive” approach and reflexive “understanding of information.” (Reframing Information Literacy as a Metaliteracy).

Personally, I have found this notion of metaliteracy especially compelling as the College moves forward to revise General Education requirements and debates the types of “knowledge” or “competencies” that are relevant to the liberal arts curriculum in the 21st century. The framework of metaliteracy allows us to articulate and embrace the multiple modes of knowledge production that students will certainly have to navigate in order to participate in increasingly digitized and networked information environments. At a minimum, teaching students to consume and produce knowledge accurately, creatively, collaboratively, and responsibly will require a new awareness of the ways in which new networked modalities – online media, platforms, and tools – are changing knowledge formation in our respective disciplines.


“Flipping” the Classroom with Web 2.0 and Social Inquiry

This is a guest post written by Technology Fellow, Ann Marie Davis, Assistant Professor of History.

davis-annOne of the areas that I have been exploring as a Tech Fellow draws on the practice of sociality in academic inquiry. To put it simply, good scholarship often depends on good social interface. Trying out new ideas, drawing inspiration, and refining arguments, for instance, often require active and engaged participation in social settings. In pursuing these endeavors, scholars must not only read and write, but they must also network, collaborate, and share ideas. Indeed, embedded in the practice of scholarly inquiry are certain mandatory – and welcome – opportunities to bond and build communities with colleagues.

Using the framework of Web 2.0, I have been trying to replicate some of the practices of social scholarship in my first year seminars and intro level history courses. In the broadest sense, I take from Web 2.0 the idea that sharing information online is user-centered, user-focused, and user-generated. The tools and platforms of Web 2.0 allow participants to shape and circulate knowledge via social networking sites, podcasts, blogs, video sharing, and Wikis. The users of Web 2.0 are not just passive viewers of static web pages, but rather they are the creators of their own dynamic and user-defined content. Fundamentally, the social media platforms of Web 2.0 are tailored to encourage user participation in the creation of information synergies via open online communities.


More concretely, I have been seeking ways to adapt social media to encourage more active participation in and outside of the history classroom. In my intro level classes, I often ask students to discuss complicated theories in live chat rooms and then send me their transcripts. I also ask them to create and post online multimedia presentations in which they analyze primary sources and develop new arguments. Once they have uploaded their findings on video sharing sites such as YouTube or Vimeo, they next exchange peer feedback and questions on social networking sites such as Facebook or Blogger. As a Tech Fellow, I have been working on better streamlining these activities and assessing their implications.


One major outcome of these assignments has been the showcasing of student questions, ideas, and discoveries as the heart of the history classroom. Online networking tools have allowed students to publicize their work, connect with peers, and engage course themes via familiar and potentially empowering online platforms. Given the user-centered context of Web 2.0, the students’ work rises to the fore, while instructor mediation fades into the background. Often, the public aspect of social networking also motivates students to publish “peer-worthy” work in anticipation of sharing online feedback and constructive criticism.

In this sense, emphasizing the sociality of scholarly inquiry has begun to “flip” my former classes. The dynamic synergism of collaborative knowledge-building offers a distinct contrast to the passive processes of listening and note-taking during lectures. More importantly, social media platforms allow students to experiment, share, and critique each another’s progress before setting foot inside the classroom. In this context, online tools operate as virtual laboratories where students present and assess digital evidence and field online questions about their findings. In turn, our class meetings become an opportunity to continue these interrogations with greater enthusiasm and depth. In sum, the generative aspects of online collaboration ideally “flips” the more passive modes of scholarly inquiry into a more dynamic and authentic experience for history newcomers.


Images taken with permission from former students in FYS 172 “Butterflies and Barbarian” Representing ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Popular Culture” and featured on Professor Davis’s web site on The Virtual Past.