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Only 14 percent of college faculty said they saw educational value in social media such as Twitter.
Only 14 percent of college faculty said they saw educational value in social media such as Twitter.

There are more than 20 million college students in America, and more than 50 percent will not graduate. The No. 1 reason contributing to student dropout rates is a lack of engagement. The billion-dollar question for our education system is: How do we motivate and stimulate students to take a more proactive role in their academic success?

An obvious starting point might be the environments in which we know today’s students are currently engaged, all day, every day—social networks. To date, a significant chasm has existed between students’ interactive, stimulating experiences with social media and the reality of their “low-tech” classrooms.

Of course, there are exceptions, but on the whole, the education system isn’t yet capitalizing on the social networking and Web 2.0 tools that keep today’s digital natives motivated. It’s time to unleash that potential.

In a recent McGraw-Hill Education survey, a staggering 98 percent of students agreed social networking is beneficial to their education. Yet a CDW-G survey indicated only 14 percent of instructors believe there is educational value in using social networking sites.

This disconnect between student and instructor perceptions stretches across the range of social media sites and even to what many in the commercial sector now think of as traditional technologies.

Given the nature of higher education—that is, a culture typically built on collaboration, research, shared information, and real-time communication—it seems only natural that social media would be an important education technology tool for instructors and students alike.

Engaging institutions

Change can be difficult, time consuming, and costly. To ensure that faculty and institutions adopt and implement these new study and learning tools, we first need to make sure they can see the value.

For that, we need a success story. Community colleges have long been at the forefront of change, more quickly adapting to new economic conditions, technologies, student demographics, and more. Just as they were on the front lines of online learning, so they again must serve as the industry’s beacon of change with social learning networks.

In addition to creating a “poster child,” the industry will need to convince institutions that social media can affect their bottom line. More engaged, digitally imaginative students means more career-ready students, and that has brand benefits for institutions.

Encouraging instructors to use social media and giving them incentives—like linking tenure to digital teaching innovation and using unique methods to engage and connect students in the classroom—will place colleges on the cutting edge and, most importantly, drive student performance and retention.

Using technology in non-intimidating, intuitive ways will be key, especially as institutions seek to win their share of the rapidly growing mature-age student market. Offering flexibility and peer-support networks for students with multiple conflicting priorities, from jobs to families, who can’t physically engage on campus will be all-important, and social media plays right into that space.

Social media in action

Instructors at various institutions are already using tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and geo-tracking, among others, to help improve student engagement and collaboration. For example:

  • A professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dr. Monica Rankin, encourages students to tweet comments on classroom lectures in real time, removing the inhibition some students feel about asking questions in front of peers and increasing student engagement.
  • Welcome to Hairdressing Training, an iPhone application that helps students learn techniques, provides real-time streaming of classroom concepts. It was developed by hairdressers Jordan and Burr and ported to mobile devices by Mimas JISC national data center of the University of Manchester in Great Britain.
  • Hotseat, a network for students to post messages and access an ongoing dialog with their peers, developed and used at Purdue University, improves engagement and collaboration.
  • Virtual Language Exchange via Skype, a program designed by a foreign language professor at Marquette University, Janet Banhidi, connects students in her classroom with those in South America to help them practice foreign language skills.
  • Current and prospective students at North Carolina State University can access a program called WolfWalk to gain information on campus historical landmarks and buildings via geo-tracking. This kind of technology also could be used by students and professors with a focus on anthropology or history, among other subjects.

The opportunities abound. Other methods either currently being used or on the horizon include:

  • Virtual office hours, which have become an increasingly important tool for both instructors and students using Skype, chat, and other platforms.
  • Peer-to-peer collaboration via social media to allow for easy sharing of study materials and methods among peers or as a platform to discuss course topics or create virtual study groups. McGraw-Hill’s own GradeGuru.com is an example of this in action.
  • The wisdom-of-the-crowd concept, which has massive implications for education because it can allow for a world in which class case studies can go global to draw in a diverse cultural and educational experience.
  • The Web 2.0 concept of creating an online academic profile and developing virtual networks around it, which has the potential to go full circle—taking students from an online, interactive portfolio on to real-world career networks and job opportunities.
  • Augmented reality, which could play an increasingly important role in student learning as the educational experience across physical and digital environments gets “smudged” to deepen engagement and drive increased interaction with course concepts in three dimensions. In an open, digital world, the potential to address the needs of different learning styles through a breadth of approaches and deliver students real-world examples that connect course concepts with their daily reality becomes imminently possible.

Not only can these new technologies and interactive resources improve engagement; they can also better prepare students for the 21st century by helping them build professional skills on platforms that are already mainstays in the commercial world. Students will need to know how to use social networking sites to communicate professionally from the day they begin job hunting.

Change on the horizon?

No one is expecting a universal change overnight. There is a learning curve. We must demonstrate that these new platforms and technologies are valuable for students, instructors, and institutions.

Publishers must contribute new resources, not only to make engaging students through social networking more seamless with classroom learning, but also to help arm instructors with best practices.

Fortunately for us all, our best co-teachers in this process are the students themselves. Their digital knowledge can provide the “how-to” for using new education tools. Combined with professors’ knowledge of pedagogy and coursework, we have a recipe for effective and engaged learning.

We have an opportunity to improve student engagement if we as educators are prepared to commit and engage.

Emily Sawtell is the director of Student Innovations at McGraw-Hill Education, and Kathleen King is a professor at Fordham University and president of Transformation Education LLC.