1 hour, 43 minutes. Per day. In the United States, ~10% of a person’s waking hours are spent on social media. And, you’d be hard pressed to find a college student who doesn’t use social media as 90% of adults between 18-29 years old use some form of it. It’s a tremendous online environment in which people spend considerable amounts of time – a promising place for educators to expand their repertoire for teaching.
Now, some may consider it “crazy” that social media influences the way people think (about politics, for example), but it certainly has the power to affect the way we feel (for good or ill). It also seems to increase student interest in a subject near and dear to my heart – physiology.
So, earlier this year, I experimented with social media during my block of a large (~330 undergraduate students), upper-division course on integrative cellular physiology. This class was principally lecture-based with the online portal for the course only used for distributing slides/notes, administering quizzes, and tracking grades.
Browsing through the science education literature, I found a number of articles evaluating the benefits and burdens of using social media in the classroom. After some reading, I decided I needed to test the waters myself and get a better sense of how to use social media as a tool to improve learning.
But, why even bother with social media?
- Location, location, location. I wanted to go where the students were (digitally).
- Beyond the lecture hall. By extending the learning environment past the walls of the classroom, I hoped to get students thinking more about physiology outside the isolated microcosm of the lecture (whether they’re standing in line at Starbucks, checking status updates during lunch, or sneaking a peek to clear the notification bubble on their app).
- Build rapport. If I engaged students in an online locale they were familiar with, I could help erode some of the barriers (fear of speaking in class, an “intimidating” professor, etc.) that tend to inhibit communication between teacher and student.
- Cultivate a sense of community. I wanted to take advantage of a hub that would help foster the formation of friendships and study groups. I also hoped to provide a curated online environment for students to help each other with the course material – a community of learners.
- “Go online,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said. I saw an opportunity for myself to grow as an educator, and I wanted to challenge myself by wrestling with a tool I had yet to add to my teaching kit.
Which social media venue, though?
A Facebook group. Facebook has the largest active user base of social media platforms (192 million active users in the US), it’s in the top 3 most visited sites in the US, and it’s the social media site with which I have the most experience.
Soon, I began to have feelings of self-doubt and trepidation as an onslaught of questions started rolling in.
Would students be willing to participate? What about students who had chosen to avoid Facebook? How many points would I need to assign to get them to buy in? Would students have concerns about their instructor potentially seeing their Facebook profiles? Would other privacy issues arise such as online student-to-student harassment? How frequently would I need to post to keep students interested? What kind of material would I post? How would I compose posts to make them “effective”? How would I evaluate participation and engagement?
Well, some of these questions can only be answered in execution, so I looked at this endeavor as an exploratory, two month “pilot study” and pressed on.
I announced the Facebook group during the first lecture in my block of the course, explained that it was completely optional (no associated points), listed some of the benefits (that I perceived) of joining it, and told them that all supplementary materials posted to the group would also be posted on the course website (if they didn’t have/want Facebook). The first prompt I gave them on the Facebook group was a question I had found on an 8th grade test from 1912:
“Why should we study physiology?”
Immediately after lecture ended, I whipped out my smartphone and checked on the group. About 30 students had joined. This was encouraging, but really… I was hoping for more. With less than 10% of the class on board, I began to regret not offering more carrot.
Over the next week, the students trickled in. It climbed to 40. 60. 80. By the end of my block two months later, 108 students had joined the group. Close to a third of the class, which (considering I made it optional) was a success.
Ah, but were students actually participating?
In order to get an overview of this, I turned to marketing analytics for social media. Likes, shares, and comments are the marketing currency for businesses in this realm. I think it’s much the same for educational purposes, though the value you assign to each currency for their contribution to “engagement” rating may differ.
Regardless, I used the website sociograph.io to give me metrics for my Facebook group. Sociograph.io is free and quite a nice tool (despite some bugs). The image below shows the kind of data it provides, which includes:
- Summary for number of unique contributors (post authors, commenters, and likers)
- Timeline showing activity for the group in graphical format (posts, likes, and comments).
- Breakdown of the types of posts that have been made (photos, videos, links, statuses, and events).
Sociograph.io also allows you to analyze posts to see which had the highest engagement ratings (which is done by summing data for likes/shares/comments for each post).
Of my posts, those that included videos were the highest rated followed by ones containing photos. The second highest rated post for the group was from a student who posted a photo that related to a topic we were covering in class. Perhaps unsurprising, visual content is the best bet for engagement. Pure text-based posts and links were not very popular.
Additionally, summary stats ranking each visitor can be viewed. This is useful for finding students in the group who are the most active or who are generating the most engaging posts. This “visitor rating” takes into account received likes, shares, comments, and comment likes and submitted likes, posts, and comments. The comparison between the two (received versus submitted) is what sociograph.io measures as “karma”.
On top of all this, each set of data can also be exported as CSV or XLS files for analysis.
That said… did this actually have a positive impact for learning physiology?
Yes, I believe so. Based on comments from students (directly asking them or through course evaluations), using the Facebook group got them more engaged with the material. Students seemed to like the online dynamic. They felt that it showed that I cared about interacting with them and facilitating a different avenue for them to ask questions.
It also gave me a chance to share interesting tidbits about physiology with students without having to shoehorn them into lecture. Social media is definitely well-designed for “hey, look at this cool thing” kind of communication. Often, it’s those tidbits that tend to stick and motivate students to dig deeper on their own.
But, did using social media make an appreciable difference for their exam grades?
Given the way I carried out my “pilot study”, determining that with confidence is trickier. However, students who simply joined the Facebook group scored a few percentage points higher on the block exam. Since the group was optional, though, those who took part may represent students who usually take more initiative in their learning.
While my approach to trying out social media was a little messy, I thought it was an extremely valuable experience. I’ve found that fumbling around is often the best way to learn. I may still have two left feet, but I’m not going to find the rhythm without stepping onto the dance floor.
Sources for social media usage statistics:
- Kemp, Simon. “Special Reports: Digital in 2016.” We Are Social, 27 Jan. 2016, http://wearesocial.com/uk/special-reports/digital-in-2016
- Perrin, Andrew. “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015.” Pew Research Center – Internet, Science & Tech, 8 Oct. 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/08/social-networking-usage-2005-2015/
Scientist, teacher, and all-round geek, John Kanady earned his PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona. He is currently a postdoctoral trainee in Dr. Janis Burt’s laboratory at the University of Arizona. His research involves looking at how cells communicate with each other via proteins called connexins and what that communication means for cell function. He serves as Postdoctoral Councillor for the Arizona Chapter of the American Physiological Society where he strives to advance the three pillars of the organization: teaching, research, and outreach. You can follow him on Twitter @JDKPhD