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A beginner’s guide to social media

We’ve pulled together advice from tech-savvy professors to give you the resources you need to start incorporating social media into your teaching.


You’ve heard of Skype and you’re tempted by the idea of free Internet calls, but the thought of downloading it seems mildly exhausting. When asked repeatedly if you want to upgrade to a new version of your existing software, you hit “Remind me Later” with a sigh, saving that technological challenge for another day when, well, you’ll just feel much more up to it. And when it comes to Web 2.0 tech-nologies, you’re hoping that if you ignore them they might just go away.

The bad news is that social media isn’t going anywhere. The good news is that you’ve come to the right place. We’ve pulled together advice from tech-savvy professors and learning technologies centres to give you the resources and advice you need to begin incorporating social media into your teaching.

For Sidney Eve Matrix, an assistant professor in the department of film and media at Queen’s University, the key is starting with what you want to accomplish, rather than with individual technologies. She recommends reviewing your teaching goals and then choosing relevant technologies that will help you reach those goals.

It may be that your course management system (CMS) already has the requisite tools to help you achieve your teaching goals. For example, some CMS platforms support threaded discussions that can help boost communication among your students. More innovative technologies that may already be supported in-house include iTunes U, wiki services or streaming services.

However, Alec Couros, professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina, notes that while IT departments support technology, they often don’t support innovation. The tools you need to achieve your teaching goals might not be available. According to Dr. Matrix, even at relatively innovative institutions, faculty sometimes choose to look elsewhere for teaching tools. Course management systems don’t always represent the easy route, and in some cases can require a lot of time and expertise to master. In terms of ease of use, the tools developed by private companies are often superior.


A wiki is an interactive web page that can be edited by any of its members. With a wiki, all previous versions are saved along with a log of changes made. This means that if you don’t like some changes that were made, you have the option of reverting to a previous version. A wiki is searchable by key words or phrases, a function that allows you to find all information on a particular topic with the click of a mouse. A wiki also allows you to set permissions, so you can determine if you want it to be public or private.

Dr. Couros incorporates wikis into his teaching because he finds them collaborative and empowering. By keeping his course wiki open to changes for a certain period of time, Dr. Couros allows students to help create reading lists, discuss how assignments should be structured, and even negotiate over submission dates. The advantage of not being locked into a course management system is that his course is available to credit and non-credit students alike; students who took the course three years ago still contribute to the wiki, enriching the learning experience for current students. Dr. Couros chooses to keep the history of his course’s wiki accessible to new students, thus allowing them to learn both from their peers and from work carried out in previous years.

Verdict: Wikis are intuitive, flexible and easy to use. Expect to feel fairly confident with basic wiki operation within a few days. They encourage students’ ownership of their learning process and work best when used as a place for recording objective and factual information.


Due to their ease of use and the fact that the software is free, blogs have become one of the most common types of websites found on the Internet. Blogs allow you to experiment with writing online, where you can moderate comments and have threaded discussions. Blogs automatically post content in reverse chronological order and create archives of old posts so they are easy to navigate, and they can be easily expanded or developed through the creation of new pages. Blogs can also be kept private, even if you’re using an external hosting service. For example, Google Blogger gives you the option of keeping private any group with fewer than 100 readers.

Blogs are an excellent tool for formative assessment and are useful in gauging student expectations prior to a course and measuring satisfaction afterwards. Not only can a blog facilitate reflection and discussion, it can also have a variety of other purposes. The links tool makes it easy to offer links to online readings and websites, and the blogroll allows you to link to other blogs that may be relevant to your area of discussion. Blogs are also an ideal location for FAQs. Your responses to these questions are then available for all students with access to the blog to see.

Verdict: Blogs are as simple to establish and maintain as wikis. The main difference is that wikis work best as a repository for factual information, whereas a blog is an ideal platform for reflection and discussion.


Podcasting is often the first step into the world of course-casting, a term that describes the distribution of lecture material via podcasts (downloadable audio files), video podcasts, or webcasts (material that is “broadcast” rather than downloaded using streaming media technology).

Dr. Matrix at Queen’s started course-casting after discovering that students were recording her lectures on their mobile phones for later review. By producing her own recordings she feels she has better control over the content and, at the same time, can provide a customized learning experience for students with diverse needs. Dr. Matrix notes that for students with special needs, knowing a podcast will be on hand can help alleviate the stress of having to keep up with a quickly delivered lecture.

Podcasts and video podcasts can often be easily created on your computer with the built-in microphones and cameras, and with standard software or an inexpensive upgrade (such as GarageBand on Macs and QuickTime Pro for Windows). They can then be uploaded to a website, blog or wiki.

Verdict: While adding podcasting to your repertoire can be a great way to provide your students with other ways of accessing and reviewing material, the tool has less obvious benefits to someone who is a social media beginner. You also need to ensure you can still provide incentives for students to attend lectures.

Social bookmarking

Bookmarking is the current system many people use to save the addresses of websites they may wish to visit in the future to their own computer. Social bookmarking is a system where these addresses are saved to a website instead, facilitating easy retrieval and information sharing.

When you create a bookmark, you assign tags (or categories) to each resource that best describes the content of that resource; for example, a site about the preparations for H1N1 could be tagged as “H1N1,” “pandemic,” and “public awareness.” If you are making your tags public, your social bookmarking service will indicate that you are the creator and provide access to your other bookmarked sites. This allows users to create social communities based on just about any interest and learn from each other’s bookmarked websites or resources. The tag system also allows you to search for all public resources that have been assigned a particular tag.

Social bookmarking allows you to share and retrieve information from a framework created and maintained by colleagues and peers. It can encourage collaborative resource sharing and can facilitate the distribution of resources, reading lists, bibliographies and papers amongst your students.

Verdict: An easy tool to use that can offer organizational and collaborative benefits. Before incorporating social bookmarking into teaching, keep your bookmarking private and try using it to first organize your own online resources.

For more information, check out our suggested web tools for beginners.

Christina Chant
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