A Singapore-based university lecturer believes educators should harness the potential of social media as it is not only practical, this is in the interest of students who will go into the workforce as "efficient knowledge workers".
Toward this end, he encourages tweeting in class.
While some balk at the idea of introducing Twitter into classrooms, Michael Netzley, assistant professor of Corporate Communication Practice at Singapore Management University, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that educators can help students and prepare them for life outside the university.
With students using channels such as Twitter or discussion forums in their normal life, it "only makes sense" for educators to speak to them through channels they are familiar with and proficient at using, said Netzley.
"Sometimes, as educators, we make the assumption that ideas must come first from us, the faculty member. We dislike anything that draws attention away from us as we deliver what we think students need to know," he said. "Frankly, I feel we sometimes over-elevate the importance of faculty in the complex process of student learning."
"Learning happens everywhere," he said. He added that the use of Twitter or discussion forums such as FriendFeed in the class opens up opportunities for students to participate and play an active role in their learning.
"In a classroom where I am discussing a case study with 50 students, not everyone can participate at the same time. A back channel such as Twitter allows everyone to comment, clarify, and share their thought even if they cannot speak out loud," he said, adding that Twitter acts as a log for students to review conversations as each message is saved.
His own use of Twitter as an instructor allows Netzley to review class conversations and see what students have understood from the lessons and where they were confused.
He added that business professionals can join in the class conversations and give feedback as well.
While the use of Twitter has its benefits, Netzley noted that it has a few downsides. For example, some class time is lost as the teacher has to show students how to use the channels professionally and spend time to establish the norms of online participation. The instructor also loses some time as he will have an additional channel to follow and pay attention to.
He added that educators need to set firm expectations of turning off e-mail and instant messaging as they can lose the attention of some students who are not disciplined enough to avoid excessive multitasking. "When I spot this, I question them directly in class as a sign that they need to focus a bit more and join the conversation," he said.
Twitter has also found its way into education through other uses. At the National University of Singapore, Ravi Chandran, director of the Centre for Instructional Technologies, said his department uses a Twitter account to provide system updates to the university community.
He added that many departments in the university use Twitter as an informal broadcast medium for announcements, while some use the microblogging service to engage students.
Online collaboration tools
Although the use of newer social media channels have not been widespread, Web 2.0 online collaboration tools such as wikis and blogs are already in place at schools.
In an e-mail to ZDNet Asia, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Education Singapore said local schools are already employing a variety of of online collaboration tools to facilitate the sharing of resources and ideas among staff and students, both within a school and across schools.
The Ministry of Education has rolled out a Google Apps suite for school staff in phases since November 2009. The spokesperson said that the suite includes e-mail and collaboration tools such as instant messaging, blogs, wikis and Google Docs that facilitate sharing of teaching practices and resources among teachers.
She added that some schools are working with the National Institute of Education's Learning Sciences Lab to experiment with the use of other collaboration tools such as Group Scribbles
"Online collaboration tools enable students to learn from peers and experts, as well as augment the guidance provided by their teachers," she said. "It allows them to co-create knowledge and sharpen each other's thinking through environments like wiki."
According to the spokesperson, students will be able to think critically based on available information and develop the ability to communicate their thoughts in impactful and succinct ways in wikis.
She added that students often take pride in producing quality pieces of work as these can be published online, reaching a wider audience.
SMU's Netzley concurred that the ability "for the world to watch and give feedback" is a positive motivator for students to produce quality work. He cited a project in his "Digital Media Across Asia" class where students maintain a Wikipedia-style wiki on social media in different Asian countries.
According to Netzely, the wiki has 800 to 1,000 visitors each week on average from more than 65 countries. He deems this a success as there is no other authoritative online source on digital media in Asia.
"Students are responsible for creating this public resource knowing full well the world is watching, and that sort of full transparency has been a great motivator to maintain a quality wiki," he said. He added that students also get to see feedback--both positive and critical--from people around the world, making learning happen on a global stage.
Apart from wikis, blogs are used in teaching. NUS' Chandran noted that blogs were one of the earliest social media tools used in NUS and were implemented as early as 2003. The school launched the NUS Module Blogs in mid-2006 and Blog.nus in 2008 to help the faculty and students set up their own blogs for learning.
Chandran added that the university has its own YouTube channel where public lectures and other videos are shared with a worldwide audience. In addition, videos on the services provided by NUS Libraries and NUS Career Centre are also hosted on the video-sharing Web site.