Using social media for academic purposes may be difficult to achieve, but when it is done professionally it can be very versatile and user-friendly.
In the university, Facebook has been employed as a learning medium: groups have been set up by academic staff and students of that module or course have been invited to join. The group is set up as ‘closed’, that is, students do not have to be friends with the member of staff or with other students who are in the group (unless they wish to be). The point of setting up a group in this manner is that personal information cannot be viewed by any other member of the group.
In art, Christine Ellison with other members of the department has worked to produce OSCAR, an online social media-like website. OSCAR was developed specifically for the Department of Art at the University of Reading, and has been designed to support teaching and learning activities across all of the studio modules for all years.
The aim of the website is to connect students and staff by displaying information and images regarding departmental events, from activities in the studios and taught workshops, to their visiting artist lecture programme, student exhibitions and international projects. Only current students at the University of Reading may join the group, as the university login is needed. Once enrolled, students and staff can get involved by posting to discussion threads and blogs that are relevant to their chosen subjects.
Alastair Culham is a lecturer in botany who has been using the social networking site Facebook to help organise his annual Msc field trip. Alastair sets up a closed Facebook group – specifically for that year’s cohort – in order to help disseminate information regarding the upcoming trip. This has a very simple, pragmatic motivation: students are more likely to check their Facebook accounts than their university emails or Blackboard. By including the flow of information into Facebook, students are kept up-to-speed with the latest developments.
In addition, the Facebook group can be used as a running journal during the field trip, with daily uploads of images facilitating open discussions. Because the Facebook group is created when students join the module and left to run for the whole academic year, the cohort is able to post photographs, links and general information about the course. They are also able to pose questions.
Alastair also teaches on an undergraduate course – his lecture is on photosynthesis. This year for the first time, Alastair set up a closed Facebook group to carry out a quiz during the lecture. Students were emailed about the event, the purpose of the online polling and and invited to join the group. They were also told that other members of the group – including Alastair – would be unable to view any of their Facebook profile content.
As the lecture progressed, questions were posed and answered, giving Alastair a chance to talk through students’ responses and address any misconceptions.