My notes on a webinar I was at by Howard Rheingold on 29/03/2011.
Twitter hashtag: #smuni

About Howard Rheingold
Howard is an expert in social media. He initially began teaching social media issues by using social media because there wasn’t much theorising about it going at the university he worked for.
Twitter: @hrheingold
Video Blog:

Howard began teaching using social media in 2006. He used wikis, an e-forum, Drupal blogs and lots of different apps to teach. Using a number of different applications to do something is a very Web 2.0 way of doing things, no single program does everything.
From the initial teaching, feedback complained about the multiple logons and passwords to do anything, and the need to mix and match the media to accomplish tasks.
Howard experimented with Drupal to see if he could design a uniform interface for the products. He entered a competition from HASTAC and won a cash award to pay a Drupal programmer to develop a social media classroom that was free and open source. From this came The Social Media Classroom (

The Social Media Classroom
The website contains information on how to download and install the Social Media Classroom (which includes a Drupal installation), how to get a hosted installation and instructions on how to use it.
The website links to a number of participatory media lesson plans. Howard attempted to document his teaching so other educators could introduce what he had. His idea for lessons is to build a conversation around topics, not just teach at them during class and then force them to regurgitate during tests.

For teaching using the Social Media Classroom, things like the syllabus and learning expectations are placed into a wiki. This wiki is enhanced by staff.
In 2008 a page was created with chat services for student feedback. Nowadays, twitter is used and chat is considered archaic. The chat page was replaced with a page on mind maps.
The most exciting part of the project was that students were telling each other what was happening with them, and thus they collaborated more. Because of this, there were more opportunities for inquiry and collaborative learning.
Student-centric ideas are not new; there has been a lot of theory around this in the past. Social media has made it much easier to put this theory into practice.
The teaching centres around students inquiring about the facts, rather than just acquiring them.

After asking for feedback on his teaching methods, students said they’d rather do presentations towards the start of semester instead of at the end. Students were deemed ‘co-teachers’ for that lesson. Themes were written up at the start of the course and students were asked to cluster around a particular theme that attracted them. These groups became the ‘co-teaching groups’. He explained that 99% of the course was about cooperation and 1% was about competition.
Each tean was asked to do a 5 minute media presentation that utilised anything except MS Powerpoint.
Co-teaching teams would then make a mindmap of their presentation and this would be presented at the beginning of the next session.
The co-teaching teams would then identify words/phrases in the readings. These would be put into the classroom’s wiki during the class. During the week, everyone was required to fill in the definitions using the wiki. Students were not used to this, as there was no one name on the work. Instead, Howard encouraged the students to look at the discussion and changes pages so that everyone can see what work has been done by whom.
His initial forays into the work were not very successful as he was requiring students to learn and present all the material. Ensuring that students concentrated presentations on one area of learning but contributed to the other areas helped.
The class is not designed to give students a body of knowledge, instead it aims for them to see social media in a number of different ways.
The syllabus is presented on the wiki, as well as in a content map and also as a Presi presentation. Each student has a different way of accessing material and Howard wished them to find their own way to access, understand and use things.
Tests are open to what the student has learnt during the course. All tests are ‘open book’ and computers and the internet are allowed. Each student then writes one of several narratives using as many terms from the wiki and use their own definitions in context.

Problems and issues

  • Although each student had a laptop and all could send an SMS without looking at the phone, that doesn’t mean they are well versed in web technologies and social media. Although they could text and used some social media sites like Facebook, a high proportion didn’t know what a wiki was or about blogs.
  • Students have limited credibility detection skills. They don’t know if something they view online is from a credible source and it needs to be taught early. All could get an answer to a question, few could verify if that answer was correct, and fewer still knew to find the author and search about them to check if they’re any kind of source.
    • The blog post Crap Detection 101 is a good introduction to the issues
  • The teacher needs to be as interesting as the entire internet to keep the student’s attention. On the other hand, students need to learn mindfulness about what they’re doing.
    • Howard conducted an experiment whilst teaching one day. He placed a camera at the back of the classroom to record what students were doing.
    • One student watched a video on YouTube that was being presented at the front of the class. He’d rather watch it there than look up at the front. He then switched to looking at Howard’s website, then read his email. This student got very high marks in the class.
    • Multi-tasking research says most people cannot multi-task well, but some students can do this and shouldn’t be excluded because they don’t appear to be concentrating.
  • Social media literacies are taught before/after class, not in the classroom.
  • Students need to learn about collaboration. Social media relies on collaboration to work effectively.
  • We have moved into an age where people carry the internet around with them in cheap devices. Students are learning the different aspects/problems of living in a networked world accidentally (power/reputation/identity/presentation of self). This isn’t being taught well in classes, and people are learning it when things go wrong.
    • e.g. Awareness of privacy implications in Facebook differs greatly in users.
  • The technological divide is changing from the have/havenots to the know/knownots. Most can afford a mobile internet device, but not everyone can utilise it to find the information that others can.
  • Assessment is difficult to implement but still be easy for a teacher to mark within a timeframe. This is an ongoing problem for Howard, assessment should be about learning. He currently asks students to reflect through an e-portfolio in the Social Media Classroom. This portfolio amalgamates the bookmarks, posts, edits, blog posts, wiki edits and discussion posts into one. Students set a learning goal at the start of the semester and this is analysed to see if it has been achieved.
      Cathy Davidson has done a lot of work on peer assessment. Peer assessment can be work, especially as students will be honest.

    • Contract Grading + Peer Review: Here’s how it works
    • Students are used to the ‘banking’ model where they pay attention to stuff that will be on the test and ignore the rest. They need to wake up from this.
  • There can be barriers at an institutional level to using non-sanctioned software. There is a natural department between IT departments and innovators. IT are charged with security and support of products.
  • Students are not media-savy enough for social networking tools in teaching. Don’t friend students on Facebook until they are ex-students. Boundaries are important.
  • Accessibility issues haven’t been a problem for Howard.
  • Students think they know everything because they know how to use the devices/programs/technology. But students can write by the time they are 10 years old, that doesn’t mean they don’t have more to learn.

Not every teacher in every subject needs to use social media. Teaching with social media takes a lot of time and causes more work. But it is exciting. It can ignite a student’s enthusiasm, and this is a huge payoff for a teacher.

Further sites
Part of Howard’s presentation (with captions)

Social media in and out of the university classroom

2 thoughts on “Social media in and out of the university classroom

  • April 12, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Oh, nice. Must forward this to my office mate who is building an online course called “Learning for Life Online” for the patrons of Boston Public Library! Great resource.

  • April 13, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Howard’s a good speaker, even if he does look like my dad.
    I’m planning to put notes from sessions I attend on here. The next one will probably be on Australian copyright legislation…I bet you can’t wait for that!


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