Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Something to tweet about

At the most recent meeting of the Graduate Teaching Community we discussed the role of social media in the classroom. We used three published articles to inspire the discussion (the citations are at the end of this post). We addressed three separate questions:

1. What is social media?

Social media is primarily an internet based way for people to share information about themselves. It is a way to establish relationships and create and maintain conversations. Some popular social media sites today include Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, blogs, topic specific public forums, and many, many more! The literature refers to these spaces and the conversations that ensue as “computer mediated communication.” The articles that we discussed focused on the use of Facebook in the classroom, specifically, as a way to improve classroom community and make professors “feel” more accessible to students. While we did not restrict our conversation to Facebook, it was the platform that we spent the most time discussing (perhaps because every single person in the room had their own Facebook profile).

2. How can social media serve as a teaching tool?

We began by discussing the purpose of social media in the classroom. Social media may serve to improve communication between an instructor and the students. If students are not actively checking their email they may miss out on announcements from the instructor. However, by using alternative forms of communication this may improve. Communication may also increase between students if social media, such as a chat room, is used as a forum for studying and answering questions. Finally, depending on how much personal information an instructor chooses to divulge, social media may make the instructor more personally and emotionally accessible to the students. It may make the instructor appear more “human.”

Concern was expressed for how social media may only be accessible to those who have the means to use it (personal computers and time). Does social media actually impede live communication with peers? Does it promote isolation behind computers rather than foster the living, breathing community of the classroom? Also, at what point does “communication” just become spam and therefore white noise? These were questions we discussed, but were unable to settle on any one conclusion.

It was suggested that social media can foster classroom community. By sharing personal details an instructor is no longer seen as a cold authority figure, but rather someone who shares certain interests with their students. Similarly, instructors may gain additional insight into who their students are. For example, in a live-body office hours an instructor may only interact with students who are vocal and/or have the physical capabilities (i.e. time) to attend office hours. A virtual office hours via Twitter, Facebook or a chat room would allow more students to access a tutorial session and allow them all to have an equal voice.

Concerns about privacy were raised. There was general agreed reluctance to share personal profile information with students. However, creating academic profiles appeared to be a satisfactory option. There was also concern, however, about the legality of sharing private information from within a University setting. Instructors should be well aware of their legal and ethical rights and the legal requirements of their institution. The need to protect both the instructor and the student is paramount. We were challenged in our discussion to assess if the use of privately owned (for profit) media platforms are really appropriate for a classroom. We briefly debated the benefits of using open source media platforms or creating our own versus using available sources. Ultimately, it may depend on the individual and their own objectives for using social media in the classroom.

Finally, social media may serve to increase student and instructor motivation and connect classrooms. There was concern that instructors would spend too much time “tweeting” and not enough time preparing for lecture! We discussed, however, that instructors who are consciously posting interesting articles relevant to topics they research, or teach about, to their Facebook page should strive to connect these posts to lecture topics and make references to them in the classroom. This could add a new, stimulating side to teaching and help instructors keep their material relevant.

How does social media help students become life-long learners? At what point do the tweets and news feeds stop being about giving information to students and instead encourage them to analyze the gaps in their knowledge and fill those gaps critically and responsibly? Having a safe space to discuss new ideas is a crucial part of learning, and social media may provide a new venue.

3. How and why might you use social media in your classroom?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 22) highlighted a conference in which a social media workshop was packed. Social media has the potential to change how we teach, learn and interact with each other. So how do you, or would you, implement social media in your classroom?

Several of us are considering starting a teaching-only Facebook profile for ourselves and inviting students to “friend” us. We were excited about the possibility of having our own discipline and teaching interests appear in our students’ news feeds. Would they read them? Would they spark additional classroom discussion? Would it stimulate “wall” discussions? These are some of the questions we hope to address.

The use of blogs as pedagogical tools was not fully explored at our meeting, but many of us might consider using them in the future. If nothing else, blogs may serve as a public record of our styles and teaching philosophies. This may be a useful and interactive teaching portfolio.

Hopefully, at a future GTC meeting, we can revisit this topic and learn more about open source social media. Those who proposed trying social media, or want to become more adept at using campus media services should share their outcomes. Feel to leave a comment, too, telling us how social media has (or hasn't) worked for you. If you say it on Twitter in 140 characters you should also come tell us at GTC!!


Cloete, Sonja et al. 2009. "Facebook as an academic tool for ICT lecturers".

Hewitt, A and A. Forte. 2006. "Crossing boundaries: identity management and student/faculty relationships on the Facebook".

Mazer, J.P. et al. 2007. "I'll see you on Facebook: the effects of computer-mediated teacher self-disclosure on student motivation, affective learning and classroom climate."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Negative Individual Effects on Groups and What WE can do about it

Last Monday the GTC met to discuss how individuals can affect group dynamics using Felps et al's (2006, see full citation below) paper on bad apple individuals. Felps et al use the bad apple analogy in reference to the old saying, "all it takes is one bad apple to spoil the barrel."

As a group we discussed how three types of negative individuals - generically called slackers, downers, and jerks - can affect group dynamics, productivity, and learning ability. There was some discussion on whether negative individuals could actually have a strong effect, which types of negative people have the largest effect, what the group as a whole can do in response, and how one positive person can balance negative individuals. We also identified one method, as teachers, that we could use to ensure our students are fairly graded in groups. That is to allow group members to evaluate each other and to take those evaluations into consideration during our assignments of grades.

Mara Evans has had experience using group member evaluations and did notice that it was beneficial. The class she taught then a step further and allowed students to choose to be graded as a group or individually. Most students chose to be graded as a group, but the "non-bad apple" members of dysfunctional groups benefited from having their grades removed from bad apple grads.

W. Felps, T. Mitchell, E. Byington, How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups. Research in Organizational Behavior 27, 175 (2006).

Monday, July 5, 2010

Summer GTC: Effectiveness of different tutorial recitation teaching methods and its implications for TA training

Our first meeting of summer GTC reading club was a success! We had roughly a dozen participants show up, and saw quite a few new faces. To all who are traveling this summer but want to make sure you can also participate in the readings, you are welcome to leave your comments after each each post, and of course this invitation is extended to those who are present at meetings as well.

Last Monday we discussed this article:

K. M. Koenig, R. J. Endorf, G. A. Braun, Effectiveness of different tutorial recitation teaching methods and its implications for TA training. Physical Review Special Topics Physics Education 3, 104+ (2007).

The paper discussed a study where students attended one of four different recitations, each taught in a different style:
1) Lecture
2) Students working independently
3) Students working in groups and able to check their answers at checkpoints with TAs
4) Students working in groups and able to engage in dialogue with TAs

The paper found that method #4 was the most successful at improving student achievement on a post-test. (The classes preformed similarly on the pre-test.)

During our discussion we talked quite a bit about 'socratic dialogue,' which was one of the techniques used by the TAs teaching recitation style #4. (This site has some information on socratic dialogue for those of you unfamiliar with it, or wanting clarification. This is by no means the final word on it... many discipline use parts of this technique and blanket it under the term 'socratic method'. If you have other socratic dialogue resources please share!)

Many of us were reluctant to take the point of the paper as being that you need to use the socratic method in your classrooms to be successful educators, however, I believe that we were close to consensus on the idea that successful educators are those that engage with their students in some way. In short, it's important to get an idea of what our students are thinking, and talk to them at a level and in a manner in which they can understand.

We seemed a little split on whether or not educators should be thought of as 'keepers' of information. Some of the GTC felt that in order to establish a safe environment where students would freely discuss their thinking processes without worrying if they were 'correct' or not, it was important to break down the authoritative teacher-student hierarchy. One way this could be done is by emphasizing (admitting?) that the TA doesn't just know the answer, that they have to think about it (albeit faster than the student), and that there are certain questions or thought processes that they go through each time they approach a situation. Other members of the GTC felt that sometimes situations call for a strong hierarchy, (for example when an educator feels as though they need to prove their intellectual status to the students in order to gain credibility) and that in these situations it's important to emphasize a strong familiarity with the material.

There were several other questions raised, here are the ones I can remember:
1) How do you decide how much material to put into a quarter (or semester) long course?
2) How can TAs be trained to use socratic methods?
3) What are some ways that you can get your students engage in critical thinking?
4) When is it appropriate to explain (or lecture) to your students?

Please let me know if I've misrepresented any opinions, and continue the conversation below in the comments section.

Next Monday (July 12th) Ann will be discussing the following paper with us:
W. Felps, T. Mitchell, E. Byington, How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoil the Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups. Research in Organizational Behavior 27, 175 (2006).

See you then!