The seminar and social media: Guest post by Samantha Cooke

As part of our guest post series, this piece by Samantha Cooke (Surrey) considers how to incorporate Twitter into seminar classes.

In 2014, I undertook a research project examining the use of social media in Higher Education, following experiences with lecturer and student engagement within a Security Studies module on which I was running seminars.

As someone who only had a Twitter account to keep up to date with the news, the regular use of Twitter alone was new to me. In this respect, the classroom served as a great environment for a newcomer to this social media platform as it provided a framework within which I was able to learn how everything worked. The findings of this project have since been published in Education and Information Technologies.

At the time I conducted this research, I was a PhD student and new to teaching and the use of Twitter served as a good tool to ease me into this new role. It provided a means by which I was able to share articles and news with students without sending mass emails, as well as encouraging students to think about how threats are perceived.

An example of this was when they were encouraged by the module leader to think about which posed the greatest security threat – North Korea or antibiotics resistance – through a combination of my tweets and those of the students. Another example was the sharing of information about the Boston Marathon bombings which happened while I was teaching on this module.

Moreover, the module convenor’s rigorous engagement with Twitter through the dissemination of information pertaining to the weekly topics which often had strong overlaps with their research interests, served to strongly embed Twitter as a tool for learning and teaching within the classroom. At the same time, I was teaching the same cohort for another module and sought to transfer this tool to another topic.

The enthusiasm and level of engagement from students on these modules was high to begin with, but was further exemplified by the use of Twitter as a tool for learning and teaching. Following the success of social media in the classroom, I sought to continue this the following year in different modules. Interestingly, the cohort which followed used social media, but decided against using it for academic purposes; and they did not engage with it for weekly topics despite my posting and using the module code as a hashtag.

Following this, I chose to examine the use of social media as a tool for learning and teaching in Higher Education, engaging with Chickering and Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education. Due to the difference in cohort engagement, I focused exclusively on undergraduate students within the department in which I was teaching. The first observation which emerged was that the majority of students actively engaged with social media, with the most popular site being Facebook and then Twitter.

The project adopted a mixed-methods approach, with survey responses forming the quantitative element and a small focus group making a qualitative contribution.

The survey was distributed to 93 undergraduate students, with 66 of them completing it. The survey consisted of closed questions and a Likert scale so that a larger number of responses could be coded and SPSS used to provided descriptive statistical analysis. The questions were focused themes relating to (personal) usage, experiences with, and impact of social media within an educational environment. At the end of the survey, respondents were asked to provide their contact information if they were interested in taking part in a focus group.

Of the 66 who completed the survey, 30 provided their email addresses for information about the focus groups, with 1 person later withdrawing. Arranging these groups then became dependent on student timetabling, and only 10 students indicated their availability (Cooke, 2017: 260). The combination of timetabling and assessment deadlines resulted in 1 focus group being formed and only 4 students being able to attend. Focus group participants were however, from across all undergraduate year groups when reflecting on social media’s usage within an educational environment they said it been both beneficial and detrimental.

The participants were asked the same questions as had been presented on the survey with the difference being that they were open ended and as such, answers could be elaborated on. They said that the benefits of social media being used for module topics was that more information was being disseminated amongst the class and it served as a supplement to the core readings. Survey respondents also indicated that social media had increased motivation to prepare and participate for class, with 44 and 48 students reflecting this respectively.

When asked about achieving goals however, more students indicated that social media had not impacted them in this way. When asked about motivation to complete things to the highest possible standard, focus group respondents agreed with survey responses and added that motivation was primarily due to their decision to go to university (Cooke, 2017: 262).

Despite being a source of additional information, students also noted that it had become a way to engage with the topic without undertaking the required reading and had resulted in lazier students. Additionally, over time it had become more of a distraction than an effective tool.

Another reason provided by the focus group participants for a lack of engagement with social media, and therefore it having less of an effect on first years, was that it is widely recognised that this year does not count towards their overall degree classification and thus, there was more of a tendency to avoid work until it came to the assessments. Competition between students also emerged in responses, however, it was suggested that this was more of a private element of wanting to do well and was thus not as prominent as personal want to perform well (Cooke, 2017: 262).

Since that first cohort of students who actively utilised Twitter for module related discussions, engagement with social media appears to have adopted a more personal purpose, including political engagement for personal reasons. Following this research, students seem to echo the initial perspectives that if social media was incorporated more into module activities then they would be required to engage with it, thus removing the ‘social’ element. Moreover, there have been fluctuations in the number of students choosing not to engage with social media for any reason.

This in itself becomes interesting and further research into rationales for (not) engaging with social media and if this is reflected in preferences of teaching methods becomes a possibility. It is because of these different levels of personal and academic engagement that students’ perspectives on integrating these platforms into the higher education environment becomes increasingly interesting.