Teaching intelligence: using social media to engage students

Clare Langford writes about her experience of creating social networks between learners and lecturers

September 29, 2019
Young women inside Instagram frame
Source: Getty

Looking at ways to improve student engagement is a constant focus from one academic year to the next. Success relies on a number of factors, one of which centres on connecting with and understanding the culture of our students.

After many years of teaching in higher education, the age gap between myself and students has inevitably widened, and like many of us who belong to Generation X, I now find myself teaching a cohort of Generation Z. Aside from making me feel old, this gap has led me to question the differences that exist and seek out opportunities to narrow the divide. As the saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Social media is one of those untapped opportunities: it is so embedded in the culture of our current students, yet somewhat overlooked in its potential for teaching and learning. Given how social media can work as a means for sharing and connecting with others, it makes sense to explore what it can offer in teaching.

With this in mind, I’ve been looking at ways to incorporate social media into my teaching practice over the past few years. Here, I share some of my experiences of using platforms such as YouTube and Instagram to enhance student engagement on the BA honours textile design course at Birmingham City University.

YouTube was one of the first social media platforms I incorporated. At the time it was one of the preferred social networking sites of the millennial student.

I designed a session around the subject of off-loom textile construction with an aim to improve students' technical knowledge, along with research and communication skills. As part of a flipped learning activity, students were asked to use YouTube as an online resource in their self-directed study time. With guidance, they were given a task to independently research, record and practise a new technical skill of their choosing.

On return to class, students took the role of both teacher and learner in a practical activity that encouraged knowledge transfer along a chain of students. By the end of class, they had repeatedly shared, practised, recorded and acquired a wide range of new skills through peer-to-peer learning.

What surprised me most was the level of engagement, both in students’ self-directed study time and in class, as a result of using YouTube. The video format had spoken their language – that of a visual learner. It had provided a highly engaging resource that offered students autonomy and a place to learn at their own pace. Using a popular social media site within an active learning session had resulted in a higher level of student motivation and participation; it had encouraged greater dialogue and made for a very inclusive learning environment.

Recently I’ve shifted towards Instagram in an effort to remain current and switched on to the preferences of Generation Z. Eager to show students that it isn’t just a place for selfies, my colleagues and I have been looking at ways to incorporate Instagram into the course.

Within set learning activities, students have been encouraged to use Instagram on their mobile devices as a place to capture, collate and share their inspirations, ideas, working practices and achievements. Over time this has become an integrated and intuitive tool for all, offering many benefits.

We have seen improvements in students’ self-promotion/branding, self-confidence, reflective practice, photography and digital skills, networking abilities, professionalism and much more. Through this connective and sharing platform they have successfully secured opportunities for collaboration, work experience and employment. On a programme level, a community of support has been created.

To be truly effective, teaching initiatives must benefit students and lecturers. I’m happy to report that Instagram has provided an opportunity for us to track student progress and engagement, create an instant teaching resource and provide a useful timeline of events and record of teaching practices. More importantly, using Instagram has created a community with, rather than for, the students.

Using social media in a well-designed teaching and learning session has had positive effects, but it needs to be approached with caution and balance. Students need to be taught to use social media in study responsibly and professionally, and teachers need to consider blended learning approaches for maximum effect.

I believe the key to success is connecting with our younger learners through an understanding of their culture and learning preferences. Social media can play its part, so “get connected” in the classroom if you haven’t already.

Clare Langford is lecturer in textile design at Birmingham City University

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Getting down with the kids has educational value

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