Social Media and BYOD

I recently attended one of those mind-numbing meetings that all of us academics are summoned to from time to time. In order to mitigate the meeting’s effects, I brought along my iPad, so I could take notes and respond to my students on Twitter. Before the meeting began, I was tweeting away when a tie-wearing colleague from the IT department sat down in front of me. I looked up and greeted him, and he pointed to my iPad: “Man, if I could just convince my students that those are tools and not toys my life would be a lot easier.” I considered this for a moment and replied: “Can they be both?” Before we could continue our discussion, the meeting began, but I’ve been considering his statement ever since.

If I want to incorporate the use of digital devices in my classroom to encourage students to participate and to explore, the best way to achieve this, it seemed to me, was to encourage them to play with their toys, not work with their tools. Considering further, [Mitra’s and Nelson’s approaches](The Classroom in the Cloud) seem closer to serious play than to mundane work. When education is so serious and adult like Mitra and Nelson argue, then something wonderful is lost in the process. Social media is where students go to play, and I saw no reason to stifle this attitude. Perhaps a bit of guidance would be all I would need to provide in order to make social media an integral part of the classroom in the cloud.


Upon entering the classroom, most students are familiar with professors telling them: “put away your cell phones.” I, too, was once guilty of this same policy in my classes. While some have suggested that casual use of social media mixed with school work may negatively affect students’ grades, so might watching TV while working on algebra or studying in McDonald’s. Other studies have shown that computers users have greater neural activity and can often make out greater details than non-users. This greater activity might be channeled to educational activities. Therefore, instead of struggling against the inevitability of technology in the classroom, I figure it would actually be better to try to change my pedagogy to incorporate cellphones, or other gadget, into the curriculum. If students can use their cellphones and social media in critical ways, perhaps it will actually increase their engagement of the materials. Therefore, my BYOD policy was born.

My #MailerClass would have a BYOD policy: “in this class, you must have some sort of networked digital gadget capable of web access with you in class everyday.” Whereas a pen and paper were integral to yesterday’s classroom, the digital device – smart phone, tablet, laptop – would be crucial to the daily operation of the classroom in the cloud.

What makes a requirement like this appropriate today is the ubiquity of devices, especially smartphones. While I would not have expected all students to have a device just a couple of years ago, these days it’s pretty much a given for college students to have a cell phone. Indeed, students are more likely to forget their chemistry text or a pen than they are their smartphones. A 2010 study determined that 74% of students have an Internet-connected computer at home, but 93% of them go online. The same report states that those in lower income brackets are more likely to use their phones to go online since access to a computer is likely more limited. According to a recent Pew Research study, 91% of all American adults own a cell phone, and over half of those are smartphones. One in four teens access the Internet mostly through their cellphones. And for pure convenience, nothing beats the device that students bring with them in their pockets.

In my experience, most traditional students had some sort of device to bring to class: usually a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. The ones who didn’t were non-traditional: students coming back to college later in life after raising a family or working in the private sector. As I mentioned above, for these students, the department had a cache of iPads to draw from, assuring that all students, despite their economic realities, had a device to use for the semester. Additionally, they could use the device for their own applications and other classes, something I encouraged them to to do. Even if the students elected to purchase their own device, a $200 Android tablet or Apple iPod Touch is more affordable, portable, and desirable than the least expensive netbook or laptop. In fact, The Register reports that because the increasing popularity of the tablet, netbooks will become extinct by 2015. Perhaps the laptop will follow soon after.

 Social Media

Students use their phones for a variety of purposes, from communication to game playing, with Facebook dominating the pack currently (Sponcil and Gitimu 7). Social media was born out of the Web 2.0 and allows students to stay in touch with and contribute to select communities, some based on personal relationships while others center around amateur and professional interests. As the last two presidential elections have shown, young people are using social media to directly engage with the political process, like starting online political groups, discussing important political issues, or producing a topical YouTube video. As a 2012 University of Chicago study shows, this “political participation” is unique in that it crosses traditional lines of race and ethnicity, is peer-based, and is not affiliated with traditional institutions and centers of authority (Cohen and Kahne vi). Social media has also been credited to the spread and success of the Arab Spring, the challenge to the American copyright system, and on-going civil unrest of the world-wide Occupy Movement (Lucas 248-49).

As any Google search will show, educators are increasingly using social media as supplements classroom approaches. Many use the the King of Social Media, but I prefer to leave Facebook purely to the students’ uses. However, I want to harness social media’s accessibility with a critical approach to social media literacy that fosters best practices. Students are already familiar with the mechanism of social media which makes it more accessible, and it has another benefit. They are “lean back” services that deliver content to the user, so they work even better on mobile devices. Unlike a web-based, course management system that student have to visit in the their web browsers, content from social media is delivered – or “pushed” – to mobile devices, much like a text message. Notifications prompt a response. If devices condition us to respond to their beeps and pop-ups, why not use this for learning.

Much like the “classroom,” traditional media of evaluation – the essay, research paper, etc. – stifle students rather than excite them. Social media does the opposite. If students would rather tweet than write reader responses, then how might they be motivated to substitute social media for classroom media? While the essay is a traditional literacy of the academy, perhaps developing and implementing best practices for social media might also be considered a crucial literacy in the digital age (Greenhow and Gleason 466). #MailerClass used Twitter, Disqus, and Skype as central applications in its approach.


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