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10 tips for using social tools with students

By Jamie Loizzo
January 2, 2015
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Teachers these days are eager to meet students where they are. And where they are is online — posting on social networks, playing online games, reading blogs, communicating with videoconferencing tools and more. Incorporating these popular digital environments into the classroom is a surefire way to engage today's students. But it also opens up a host of new challenges.

The key for educators navigating this new landscape is to identify strategies and instructional approaches that engage and motivate technology-driven students while keeping them safe. But how can educators incorporate the tools young people use every day to promote meaningful learning while preventing cyberbullying and identity theft?

At Purdue University, we have used a web-based social media tool called Hotseat to allow students to engage in virtual fields trip we call zipTrips. It works like this: Using Hotseat, students can use their laptops or mobile devices to submit and vote on questions they want experts to answer. Then their school can use zipTrips to connect via web streaming and videoconferencing and interact with scientists at Purdue in real time. During the program, students use Hotseat to post questions for the scientists and to communicate with one another.

Seven middle school science teachers from across the country piloted zipTrips + Hotseat in fall 2011. The program engaged students and gave them a new way to take control of their learning by connecting and collaborating with experts and each other. It also gave participating teachers a lot of practice with managing the use of social and collaborative online tools with students. Here are those teachers' top 10 recommendations for making the most of these tools in the classroom.  

1. Become social media savvy and boost your technology confidence.

Do you have a Twitter or Pinterest account? Have you tried blogging or collaborating on a Google Doc? These are just some of the technologies your students already know how to use. Spend some time exploring these tools before you use them in the classroom. This will help you keep up with the pace and ease with which your students use these tools and will enable you to assist those who might have difficulty navigating them.

2. Get to know your school's tech support specialists.

Schools are set up to keep students safe on school grounds and in cyberspace. They use firewalls to prevent students from viewing inappropriate content, downloading proprietary files and sending distracting tweets during class. The downside of all this safety is limits to access.

In fact, all of the schools that tried out zipTrips + Hotseat found some of the necessary technology blocked. The teachers just had to contact their district or school technology specialists to get help using the tools or opening firewalls. Find out your school's policy for accessing social media in the classroom, and work closely with your technology specialists to determine the best way to access online programs.

3. Beware of buffering buffering

Internet bandwidth refers to the connection speed and amount of space your school district has for handling online activity. High-definition video files or interactive video games, for example, need a high-speed connection. Ask your tech specialist if your school has enough bandwidth for whatever you have planned, such as if you need a large numbers of students to log in to a program at the same time.

One of the participating classes experienced issues with freezing video because it was a rainy day and students stayed inside for recess. " "I'd say 80 percent of them had iPods, and that's when our internet started buffering," " the teacher said.

If you are going to host a videoconferencing session or use some other high-bandwidth program, don't forget to ask those outside your class to limit their internet use during the time of your program as well, or the system might slow down to a crawl.

4. Get students email access.

An email address is required to create accounts for most online programs. This poses a challenge for younger students, as most email service providers require you to be 13 or older to use their services. zipTrips + Hotseat schools had a variety of policies regarding student access to and use of email. One teacher from a technology-rich school used Gaggle, a controlled online environment where teachers can adjust privacy filters and email access settings.

Some school districts limit accounts to only high school students. A teacher who faced this issue contacted her technology specialist, who helped her set up temporary Gmail accounts that students used for the duration of the program and deleted the following week.

5. Make sure everyone can see.

Most of the teachers in our study took their students to a computer lab to watch a virtual field trip, which they projected on a wall or an electronic whiteboard. The students sat at individual desks with computers to view Hotseat while watching the zipTrip. However, one teacher quickly noticed her school's computer lab was set up so that some students had to sit with their backs to the webcast, forcing them to look over their shoulders to see the screen and then turn back around to face their computers.

It is important for students to easily view projected content and computers at the same time. Computer lab and classroom setups can directly impact learning motivation, technology use and attention to content.

6. Embrace BYOT.

If your school allows it, have students bring their own technology when resources are scarce. Even though more schools are purchasing mobile technologies, not every district has the resources to make such a big investment.

One of the participating schools in our study was in a rural area with a limited budget and no computer lab or enough devices for each student. The teacher sent letters home asking parents to loan their devices to their children. The teacher noted that some of the students " "brought extra iPads because their parents let them. Those are quite expensive. They don't bring those in every day, but on special occasions their parents let them." " This is also a great way to get parents involved.

7. Don't wait until the last minute to test the technology.

Work with your tech support to ensure that the devices, projectors, electronic whiteboards, firewalls, bandwidth and email are ready to use at least one week before the event. Many online tools provide a test page or space for you to try it out ahead of time, and web streaming programs typically offer a test loop to check video and audio quality. Go through tutorials to prepare students and have them run tests a few days before the event.

" "We didn't try out the audio ahead of time in testing the stream and didn't have the audio for the first three minutes of the program," " admitted one teacher.

Technical difficulties are always possible, but you can prevent most of them by planning ahead.

8. Set some technology ground rules.

Your equipment, school and students may be ready to start using online and social media technology, but it is a brave new world for many classrooms. How much freedom should students have? The realistic answer is that it is up to school administrators and teachers.

In our study, teachers had different comfort levels when it came to sending students into cyberspace. At one end of the spectrum, one teacher allowed students to drive the experience. Some sixth graders were responsible for coming up with a strategy for going online, setting up their own email accounts, and testing Hotseat in school and at home. On the day of the event, the students logged in and posted questions for the scientists with minimal supervision. The class also developed a policy that if a computer froze or someone got kicked out of the program, they would quietly move to another seat and work with a neighbor, so as not to disrupt others.

On the other end of the spectrum, another teacher kept tighter control. She signed each machine into Hotseat and had several volunteers monitor the classroom. The teacher said, " "Before they submitted a question, they were supposed to raise their hand and let us know so we could check the question because we wanted to make sure it was an appropriate question." "

No matter which route you choose to take — teacher driven or student driven — be sure to set clear ground rules.

9. Teach students to be good cybercitizens.

When you give middle school students an opportunity to socialize online, they are going to have some fun! In only 45 minutes, the 134 students participating in zipTrips + Hotseat submitted 871 posts. Students were excited about the change of classroom pace, interacting with other students through technology and the novelty of the experience.

Of course, there is also a huge temptation for students to make inappropriate comments. Some of the students had a good time creating posts such as: " "let's go tanning!" " " "I like tacos, their yummy," " " "Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii," " and " "yepp." " The majority of the posts, however, were relevant questions for the scientists, including: " "How many genes are in the human body?" " " "When it comes to fish and mutation is that the reason for some more rare exotic fish?" " and " "Why do salamanders hide under rocks?" "

Most of the teachers in this program stressed to their students the importance of submitting only thoughtful posts. One teacher made a point to teach students how transparent the internet really is: " "Other people are reading what they're saying. It's not just between them and the computer," " she said.

Bottom line: Before you allow your students to be social online, give them a reminder about good manners and internet etiquette.

10. Follow up to reinforce learning.

After your initial use of social media in your classroom, take some time to reflect on the experience with your students. What did they like about using the technology? Did they learn anything new? What did they learn from interacting with one another and possibly other schools online?

Most of the zipTrips + Hotseat students did well following along with the video presentation and social media interactions at the same time. One of the pilot teachers said, " "It was fascinating to watch them keep up with it all and focus. The students did both things very well." "

A couple of other teachers noted that some learners had a difficult time multitasking. Whether things go smoothly or there are a few bumps along the way, examining students' insights about their social media experiences will help you find the most effective way to implement the technology in your future lessons.

As students continue to use increasingly advanced and entertaining technology outside of the classroom, the need to provide technology-rich experiences inside the classroom will become more and more necessary to engage and motivate them. These 10 recommendations present a number of effective strategies for bringing web-based, interactive technology into your classroom.

Jamie Loizzo is a doctoral candidate in learning design and technology and an academic adviser in youth development and agricultural education at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. She previously served as a virtual field trip project manager.

Peggy A. Ertmer is professor of learning design and technology at Purdue University. Her research interests relate to technology integration, teacher beliefs and helping students become expert instructional designers through the use of case- and problem-based learning methods.

This is an updated version of an article that was originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of Learning & Leading with Technology.