College students attend lecture with their laptops (Photo/Tulane University)

Note: Article was originally posted April 2, 2011 on American University’s graduate news site,

American University is hosting a three-day Social Learning Summit this weekend to promote new media and its use in academic institutions.

The event aims to bring together students, educators, researchers and professionals to learn and exchange information on a “broad swath of topics at the intersection of social media, technology, and education,” according to the event website.

The use of social media by AU students may have increased rapidly in recent years, but its use in academic programs has been slower to develop, according to AU senior and SLS coordinator Alex Priest. This weekend’s gathering aims to change that.

Alex Priest, BSBA, AU 2011 is president of the American University Social Media Club (Photo/Jeff Watts, Social Media Club)


Facebook has taken over as the “social network of choice.” While other outlets such as Twitter have become popular as a social media and networking tool, Pew states that just 8 percent of online teens say they ever use the micro-blogging tool.

According to Priest,  the “advent of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other mobile apps” is as significant as previous technological milestones such as the “impact of email and the telephone.”   Despite this, he says, many on campus may be “less receptive” to social media in the classroom.

Priest said that the term “social media” is awkward and is sometimes misunderstood. “Any form of communication, any medium that allows for two-way communication… to allow you to interact with each other” is social media, he says. He believes that maybe if people looked at social media in terms of an “engagement” that it will help them to understand it better.

Professors and social media

AU Professor Scott Talan, another AUSMC faculty adviser, said that students “don’t know what they don’t know” about social media. Though younger users may have grown up using social media, such familiarity may not translate to fully exploiting its capabilities. While Facebook has become wildly popular, Talan said, if technology is not intuitive, people — even young people — won’t use it.

Scott Talan, Assistant Professor, School of Communication, American University (Photo/American University)

Talkin’ bout my generation

Talan said some professors still see social media as another way to fracture student’s attention spans. However, he does not see this as a valid argument against using social media in the classroom.

“Students are distracted by daydreaming. There will always be distractions,” he said. But, he also sees SLS as a “big opportunity for [professors] to learn and use social media” in order to understand it better.

Talan added that most staff on campus are “digital immigrants” in that they “haven’t grown up with this stuff.” He said that faculty are the “last generation” in that will be part “analog” and part “digital.”

“Different generations have a different comfort zone with technology,” said John Hussey,
He says some faculty are uncomfortable with social media because of the “barriers of technology” and the “stigma” that may be associated with it. He said that faculty still see Facebook as a place for “posting baby pictures” and Twitteras a tool for letting people know “what they had for lunch.”

John Hussey, Web Communications Manager, American University (Photo/American University)

There isn’t an official AU push for faculty to become more adept with social media tools, according to Hussey. However, he said that there are more that 70 AU offices on Twitter and approximately 40 professors have Twitter accounts.

Hussey said there is no need for a “PR campaign” in order to “pitch” professors on social media. “The adoption of social media has happened all over campus,” said Hussey. “The professors will have to get on board.”

To help ease faculty’s comfort with social media tools, Hussey’s office has held unofficial group meetings durign the past year to answer technology questions from professors and staff. He plans to officially schedule monthly meetings as a place to help faculty feel more at ease with using social media.

“They need to get past the technology to understand what it offers,” said Hussey.

Social media in the classroom

Though some students and faculty may not have fully embraced social media, a few AU professors have incorporated it into their classrooms.

During Fall 2009’s ‘snowpocalypse’ AU Professor Rhonda Zaharna used Facebook to hold class during a snowday when campus was closed. “It was the first time that I ever used Facebook that way,” she said.

Rhonda Zaharna, Assistant Professor, School of Communications, American University (Photo/American University)

Discussion questions were posted and answered via the social network during the scheduled classroom time. Since then Zaharna has used Facebook along with YouTube to “generate discussions” about assigned readings in her class.

Though Zaharna has been using Facebook she hasn’t discussed her usage of social media with other faculty members. “I’m still too new to it to be advising anyone” on how to use it in the classroom, she said.

Lauren Feldman, assistant professor in the School of Communications, said Facebook is easier to use as an interaction tool with students — such as to extend classroom discussions — because they are on it several times a day anyways.  “Getting students to use Blackboard . . .  was more of a challenge” because students didn’t use it consistently.

Feldman said that the fear some professors have that social media will take the place of actual teaching is due to the educators not “having quite figured out how [they] should embrace social media.”  However, she said that it’s important that faculty “understand that students’ approach to learning is diverse” and that they have to “go where the fish are” to get through to them.

Though Feldman has embraced social media, she said that it would not replace other forms of learning, but will merely be supplemental. “Tweets will not replace papers and blog posts are not going to replace reading,” she said.

Social media redefining the classroom

The social media landscape is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up or determine what will be the next big thing.

Social media beyond the Web will be the next big change, according to Talan. Faculty and students will eventually be using social media tools such as e-textbooks, iPads and smartphones in the classroom.

But real change depends on users adopting new technology. The “real challenge,” says Priest is getting people to have an “open mind.”