Teaching in HE needs all the innovation it can get

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screen grab of phone screen showing social media apps
By encouraging his students to have course discussions on Twitter, Lee Dunn from the University of Glasgow started integrating new technology into his teaching. He shares the practical reasons why he did it and reflects on how that’s worked out.

As a lecturer I have the opportunity to explore many new technologies and new pedagogies. Through my work, I’m able to visit primary and secondary schools throughout the country. There is one obvious and inescapable truth; our children and young people do not use these online networks in the same way that the older generation does. I know that’s a bit of a stereotype, but it’s generally true. Let me give you an example.

Before the world wide web, we would seek information by visiting a library or by speaking with a knowledgeable other. Today, many of us would turn to a search engine, seeking knowledge through Google, Bing and other browsers. In contrast, many young people prefer to seek information from streaming media and recorded broadcasters such as YouTube.
Taking a longer view, where the ancients would have stored their learning in great libraries around the world, they might be envious of the ease with which students share knowledge today.

And students are not just consuming, they are also creating their own content, producing streaming media and sharing their thoughts, experiences and knowledge with like-minded individuals.

How my social media journey began

As our virtual interaction grows exponentially, education is being slow to respond. We need to find a renewed purpose for social media, where it can be used effectively through all stages of learning. Let me give you an example of how I’ve used social media in higher education.

My journey begins in 2012, when an enthusiastic student approached me. He sought out more online social interaction with his peers and with academic staff. Together, we started a student network for sharing ideas related to our studies.

The idea grew and we soon found ourselves commended by the Higher Education Academy for staff and student partnership. I did not look back and I have been using various social networks for the last three or four years.

“Knowledge can reside in online nodes”

I do not do this just because I think it’s a good idea, but because there is a growing evidence base to suggest that it can actually improve the student learning experience. In an academic world driven by KPIs, metrics and student satisfaction, every ounce of innovation is worth pursuing. More recently, I have been exploring social media channels Snapchat and Instagram.

It’s essential that we provide our students with the experience and tools to fully understand the digital footprint that they create

I’m a firm believer that knowledge can reside in online nodes and I take my thinking here from theories of connectivity. Downes’ An Introduction to Connective Knowledge (2005) suggests that emerging web-based technologies bring with them new access routes to information. Although connectivism (Siemens, 2005) as a learning theory has been debated in recent years (Forster, 2007 and Kerr, 2007) the concept of information residing in specific virtual domains is sound, and that the premise would suggest that these pockets can be described as nodes.

As such, I have now integrated the use of social media into many of my courses. This allows my students to engage in meaningful conversation outwith the classroom, and to make connections to other education professionals and organisations around the world. I’ll provide an example. I use Twitter throughout all my year one honours level courses. It’s integrated into the weekly assignments and the students are expected to engage in conversation related to the themes of the week.

Likewise, they provide examples of online collaboration via social media within their summative assessments. Some opt out and that’s fine, as long as they can demonstrate other forms of online discussion. This, of course brings about many challenges, but feedback in general is supportive and positive.

“I really enjoyed the way the course ran. I liked having weekly tasks on Moodle [VLE] which could be completed then discussed with peers on social media.

I also enjoyed being assessed in groups where we had our own choice on how to present our work.

I learned so much from this course, met so many new people and now have different perspectives on education – my favourite course so far!”

Student X (Dunn, 2016)

Protecting our digital footprint

There is an aside to encouraging the use of social media amongst students. I lecture on the professional use of electronic communications. We see all too often in the press, examples of where things go wrong for people in positions of public interest. It’s essential that we provide our students with the experience and tools to fully understand the digital footprint that they create, whilst protecting their professional identity.

It is not only necessary that we do this, but it in some instances it is expected by accrediting bodies. In the past, social media has been taboo and has been generally avoided. In reality, it’s better to approach their use in a structured and meaningful way, regardless of whether it’s to simply push out information or to build a community for learning.

For more information on Lee’s techniques for engagement, see below. You can also follow him on Twitter: @leeandrewdunn

Dunn, L. (2016) Social media as a professional medium: an equilibrium of enthusiasm and protection for student teachers. Social Media for Learning in Higher Education 2015 Conference Proceedings, (doi:10.7190/SocMedHE/2015/2)
Dunn, L., Dickson, B., Trinder, J., Kerr, J., and Andrews, M. (2015) Analysis of Digital Media: Supporting University-Wide Online Learning via Moodle. Project Report. University of Glasgow, Glasgow.
Dunn, L. (2013) Using social media to enhance learning and teaching. In: Social Media 2013: 18th International Conference on Education and Technology, Hong Kong, China, 1-3 Aug 2013.

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Lee Dunn
Senior fellow and lecturer in education studies and technology