Can social media cure low student engagement?

Students can access an array of education applications of Facebook Courses.
Students can access an array of education applications from Facebook Courses.

Keeping college students and their professors connected through social media outlets could be key in boosting graduation rates, education technology experts said during a panel discussion at Social Media Week in New York.

Social Media Week ran through the first week of February in five cities worldwide—New York City, San Francisco, London, Sao Paulo, and Toronto—and authorities from the business world, academia, and other fields discussed how social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are shaping global culture.

During a Feb. 6 session called “The Future of Social Media in Higher Education,” a five-person panel explored how colleges can use social networking to communicate with traditional and nontraditional students, what impact the new Apple iPad might have on student-faculty communication, and why Blackboard is not meeting some students’ social media needs.

Vineet Madan, vice president of strategy and business development for McGraw-Hill Education and a panel member, said statistics that show only half of today’s college students will earn their degree in the next six years mean there’s a disconnect between teachers and students that could leave the American workforce woefully short of qualified workers.

“Lack of engagement is one of the biggest problems we have today in getting more students through the college and university system,” Madan said. “If we don’t tackle the engagement problem collectively, we’re not going to get more people through the system. … And one of the great promises of social media in higher education … is about promoting engagement.”

The future of campus technology, Madan said, “is not going to be sitting there and watching a webcast of a professor lecturing on a screen—that’s not engaging.”

Kathleen King, a professor of adult education at Fordham University, said until faculty members are rewarded for innovative accomplishments—and not just traditional research and pursuing tenure—professors are unlikely to accept and use social media tools in their courses widely.

“There is no incentive in most universities for engaging with social media or even for faculty to engage their students,” said King, president of Transformation Education LLC, a group of educational advisors based in New Jersey. “We have to start with the professor first, and we have to look to the institution.”

Panel members lauded Harvard University’s recent announcement that it would join the mobile social-networking application “foursquare.” Students now can use an application on their mobile devices, such as iPhones and Google Android phones, to explore the Harvard campus and its surrounding neighborhoods and shopping areas virtually.

Foursquare users can post pointers and suggestions about restaurants, local communities, and a host of other places. Student tips posted on foursquare can be shared on social-networking giants like Facebook. Users can earn foursquare points if they are the first to visit a location and post their thoughts about the venue online.

Programs such as Facebook’s Courses application have drawn college students away from traditional education technology giants such as Blackboard, said Social Media Week panel member and New York University student Mary Casey.

Facebook Courses gives students a host of applications designed for more productive group work, in-depth research, and efficient studying. WikiSeek Search, for example, lets students find Wikipedia articles through the social-networking site. Notecentric is an app that shares class notes with other students on Facebook.

Facebook Courses also has web tools for faculty members. Webinaria Screencast Recorder allows professors to record a lecture and share the video with students through Facebook. The Mathematical Formulas application lets professors distribute formulas and solutions to their students on the site.

“Blackboard is great, but it’s not collaborative and archival,” said Casey, co-founder of, a web site that connects NYU students with employers. “You can only collaborate with students in your class, that semester.”

Blackboard has introduced more collaborative tools in recent years, including an instant-messaging feature unveiled last spring. The Blackboard Sync program lets professors deliver course content and alerts through Facebook. If a student signs up for Blackboard Sync, he or she can check discussion board posts and grades while logged into Facebook.

Professors and their students can discuss lesson plans and homework questions with the instant messenger’s pre-populated class rosters, which provide connectivity between classmates who might be encountering the same problems in preparation for quizzes and tests.

Some education officials have been reluctant to embrace social networking because of safety and security issues revealed in nationwide studies.

Nine out of 10 American teens use some form of web-based social networking, and 34 percent of parents are aware of the inherent security risks of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, according to a recent survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“Teens explained to us how sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist and author of the report, “Teens and Sexting.” “These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun.”


Social Media Week

Facebook Courses applications

Blackboard Sync

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