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Social media in teaching: picking the right tool for the job

Now that we’ve examined the arguments for using social media in the classroom, and discussed some of the practical considerations, it’s time to talk about the tools themselves. There is a befuddling array of social media tools from which an instructor could choose. Even the more web-savvy among us can be intimidated by all the choices! How should we go about identifying and selecting the right tool for the job? To make this discussion a little more straightforward, we’ll limit it to include what we would consider our “Top Ten Tools”. These are user-friendly, well-supported, free, include opportunities for information-sharing/networking, and are commonly used.

First and foremost, we must consider our learning outcomes: we should not be choosing – or using – social media tools simply for the sake of using the tool. As with any assignment or other educational activity, a social media tool should be selected and applied because it will help address/achieve a specific learning outcome in your course.

Some things to ask yourself, then, might be: What learning outcome am I trying to address? What do I want my students to do/accomplish? Do I want them to work alone or in groups? How will I evaluate their success? These questions might get you pointed in the right direction.

Picking the right tool slide 1What do I want my students to do? Locate, assemble, sort and manage content (Curate)? Develop, design, produce original content (Create)? Network, share, communicate, reach out to others (Community)?

Slide 2Curating Content. The most popular curation tools available online are primarily used to manage (locate, sort/assemble, display) images, audio or video, web links, or other online files that you, or someone else, have created. YouTube is the gold standard for video files. Videos that have already been uploaded to YouTube can be found (using a built-in search engine) and added to “Playlists”, which can be named and saved for future use. For image files, there are more options. Flickr has a huge repository of diverse and often more “professional” images that can be found, added to albums and organized in different ways. Pinterest is a fun and visually engaging alternative: images (typically linked to websites with explanatory text) are “pinned” onto themed “boards” (think of the corkboard hanging over your desk). While images can be sourced from the existing Pinterest pool, the added advantage is that they can also be brought in from anywhere on the internet using their “Pin It” button. Tumblr is a fast-paced microblogging platform commonly used to assemble and share images of a particular theme.

The act of locating and assembling files in a meaningful way can allow students to practice important online research skills (using different search engines, asking questions like, “Does this image/file fit my needs? Is it from a reliable source?”) and can be used to produce innovative products to meet the objectives of different course assignments (some ideas: a field guide of local flowering plants; an analysis of buildings sharing a common architectural detail; case studies of dermatological conditions, a portfolio of design or art inspirations).

slide 3

Creating Content. Original content (audio, video, photographs, drawings, writing) can be created and shared using a variety of tools. Some, like flickr and YouTube, we’ve already discussed – you can upload original images or videos to these sites and edit the material using built-in tools. Podcasts (audio-only recordings) can be created, edited and uploaded as an alternative to in-class presentations – a nice option for you (they can be graded on your own time), and for your students (for those who are nervous about speaking in front of a class, and the files are available to students as study aids later). As for written material, there are many (many!) options. Blogs and blogging platforms (like WordPress) can be used to publish longer written works, such as essays, opinion pieces, literature reviews, etc. Wikis are collaborative web pages with multiple contributors, and can contain many types of written work. Microblogs like Tumblr and Twitter are meant for short (only 140 characters in Twitter!) and to-the-point written communications. Although there is certainly a fair bit of overlap, the most appropriate tool for the job will depend largely on a) whether you want students working independently or collaboratively, and b) on the length of the written product.


Creating a Community: while all social media tools have a built-in community/sharing element, it is more pronounced in some tools more than others. Some tools are very expressly designed to help develop and enhance social networks and communication between individuals and groups. You will need to decide if you want these communications to be in the public/global realm or held in a more private context. On and offsite tools are available for the latter option. MyCourses provides spaces for live chats as well as discussion forums, which can be set up with different levels of privacy. Private/closed Facebook groups and Twitter accounts can be used instead of personal accounts for students to discuss, chat, set up meetings, share content, etc. The true power of Twitter, however, is only truly unleashed if the rest of the world can peek in to the conversations. Students can tap into an enormous online community of people willing to engage, share, and provide advice – all in real time! LinkedIn provides opportunities for students to develop professional portfolios/online CVs and connect with experts in their field.

There are countless tools to try out, and these are just a few. It’s worth investing a little bit of time to explore them yourself and find out what they’re about: you may think of a novel application that you can put to good use in your own classroom! It can be overwhelming to undertake the task of getting familiar with new tools; to get you started, here is a list of how-to and FAQ articles for some of the more common tools you might be considering:

Social Media “How-To”
The next blog post in this series will feature some case studies highlighting the ways that different instructors at McGill and elsewhere are using some of these tools in their classes, so stay tuned for some inspiring ideas and examples!

Photo Credit for featured image: HTSABO

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Hakai postdoctoral scholar at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

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