It's not every class that has its own movie trailer. To be fair, Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor of media and mass communications at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, is a bit of a pioneer when it comes to harnessing the power of social media and technology for her courses. Matrix uses an online chat program called Cover it Live for her office visitation hours, offers to remind students about important dates and assignments via text message and posts all of her lectures onto YouTube and iTunesU, a store for free audio and video podcasts.
She even has an app—ClassCaddy—which is free for Apple and Android devices. It provides just about all the resources her students need for her class, including lecture videos, reading lists and a schedule. And if students can't make it to Kingston for September? No biggie. As long as they have Internet access, they can take the course from home—sitting in their housecoat and bunny slippers—just like 400 other online (in addition to 700 offline) students registered for her class, Film240x: Media and Pop Cult, for the fall.
Technology and education have a somewhat checkered past. At one time or another, just about every magical invention has been predicted to change the face of education, everything from radio to the 1957 Skinner Teaching Machine. But walk into a university classroom and the one piece of technological innovation you'll likely see there is a large vertical black slate, which has been a teacher's main tool for displaying and sharing information for more than 200 years.
You don't have to go back that far to see the love-hate relationship between technology and learning. It wasn't that long ago that laptops and cellphones were banned from lecture halls and students were hauled before disciplinary committees for organizing Facebook study groups. Some universities have blocked Wikipedia while others even shunned Wi-Fi networks.
But things have changed. Today, connectivity is ubiquitous, information is limitless and the ability to communicate anytime, anywhere, with anyone has opened vast opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and collaboration. Attitudes about everything from smartphones to virtual classes are not only gaining acceptance in the gilded halls of academia, a growing number of educators view social media and technology tools as indispensable.
But it's not professors and administrators driving the change. "Momentum comes from the students," says Matrix. "When I wasn't creating podcasts, students were taping my classes. When I wasn't creating RSS feeds of lecture notes, students were trading lecture notes on Facebook. If you don't create a mechanism for them to collaborate, they will do so on their own," she adds.
So who, or what, is the student of 2011? That's just the sort of question Michael Wesch of the University of Kansas has spent the past several years asking. Wesch is a cultural anthropologist who studies and teaches digital ethnography—essentially how tools of communication have altered how we learn, connect and think. In a 2007 video project, Wesch had 200 students in his Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class collaborate on answering a simple question: "What is it like being a student today?" Participants in the video, which has been viewed nearly 4.5 million times on YouTube, hold up some of their declarations on note pads and laptop screens to help summarize some of the characteristics of students today. Among them:
•18% of my teachers know my name
•Only 26% of class readings are relevant to my life
•When I graduate, I will probably have a job that doesn't exist today
•I Facebook through most of my class
"On some fundamental level [students]are not any different than they were 20 years ago," says Wesch. "Most students are still at school mostly to figure out who they are and who they're going to be. It's not that students are different in their nature, it's that they live in a different environment so the same sorts of drives are expressed in different ways." That's the challenge and the opportunity, says Wesch, where technology can play a role. A lot of the technologies we see today, especially in social networking, were created to explore the search for meaning and are based on the ability to connect with others. While having a course Facebook page may seem like it's just pandering to the "tech-savvy" youth of today, it's important to remember that Facebook was born on a college campus and was meant to make connections between people says Wesch.
But anthropology aside, can something like Facebook or Twitter contribute to the academic side of university?
"Absolutely," says Peter Carr, who teaches courses on the impact of information systems on society and social media for business at the University of Waterloo. "The new modern philosophies of education would say it's important to have students working in groups, interacting with each other and the professor and learning the content together."
Carr is one of the growing number of professors who spends more time online than in the classroom. Recently, Carr had a group of 30 students work with the Red Cross in Geneva as part of a project to investigate how the organization set up franchise operations and delivered services such as health education. Students connected with Red Cross workers at offices in Uganda, Colombia and India using Skype. During the week, students would be on the "phone" with Africa and whenever they had a question to ask or if they had something interesting to share, they would buzz Carr at his computer.
"The way I like to think about it is that we can make the outside world more visible to the students and have them interact more with the outside world around their subjects. That, I think, is where there is a lot of opportunity for us to really make education better."
BEYOND THE CHALKBOARD
Facebook Every course should have a Facebook page. Students can crowdsource—that is, share relevant information with the group and post links to resources. Some profs come up with inventive ideas, such as having students create profile pages for historical figures, replete with extensive bios.
Twitter Some professors take questions via Twitter during class or display running commentary on a big-screen monitor.
Cover it Live The online chat tool is used by some professors for their office hours rather than managing a queue of bodies lined up outside the door. Students ask questions and everyone can read the replies. Chats are saved and links can be posted online for future reference.
Skype The communication tool runs on computers and smartphones and can be a free source of audio or video messaging.
YouTube/iTunesU Either is good for recording and uploading audio or video of class lectures; both are accessible on mobile and desktops and are great for catching up on classes one might have missed.
remind101 An SMS service lets profs program reminders and announcements and send text messages or emails to students.
Webex A webinar service that live-streams video to up to 1,000 remote online viewers. Sessions can re recorded and offer e-mail reminders, detailed reporting on attendance and participation and live polling features.