When cell phones first appeared in the classroom, students could do little more than look at them. It took more than guts to make an actual phone call during class and since that’s all cell phones could do at the time—make or receive phone calls—the problems that existed took place mostly during breaks and lunch. With the advent of texting, cell phones in the classroom became more of a problem. As a high school teacher in the early 2000’s, I dealt with more than my share of texting teens complaining about class via cell phones to a friend in another room. They employed every tactic imaginable to text without being caught: cell phone in the lap, cell phone hidden behind a textbook, cell phone concealed in a note book or inside a backpack pocket. The disruptions grew as students spent more time trying to surreptitiously text than to learn.

Today, as a college professor, I know the world of technology has gone well beyond texting. The use of social media and the internet has students bringing not only cell phones but tablets and laptops to class as well. Though I know some students use these devices, especially computers, for note taking, I can’t help but wonder as I look out into a sea of computer covers if they’re taking copious notes in Word of chatting with a friend on Facebook. The integration of social media into classrooms of nearly every grade and subject has created a new plight for the educator. While some strive to ban all use from their classrooms, others have found ways to use it to their advantage. Below we’ll discuss a few ways that social media can be used by the creative teacher to engage their students.

Create an Outside-the-Box Assignment

The possibilities for assignments via social media are almost endless. We’ll consider two.

  1. Create a Social Media Graph. Have your class spend time reviewing the posts of friends and family on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Ask them to record the average number of posts made by their community each day then ask them to analyze the content of these posts. Have your students create a series of graphs showing the types of content posted (personal, educational, informational, etc.), the peak hours that postings take place, and the types of posts that generate the most comments. Chances are most of your students will return graphs or charts showing an inordinately high number of posts centering around trivial personal matters (new shoes, announcements of a headache/stomach ache/other random pain, and pictures of cats come to mind). Your students will probably also find a large number of posts take place during school hours. Have your students write a brief report describing what they have found and discussing the side effects of frivolous social media use during class time. Ask them to provide examples of how social media usage has disrupted their own abilities to learn.
  2. Use Social Media as a Social Experiment. Give students a questionnaire consisting of questions such as: How many hours do you spend on social media each day? How many of those hours take place during times you should be paying attention in class or doing homework? What is your primary purpose for being on social media (boredom, research, status updates, etc.)? How many hours do you currently spend studying/doing homework for this class? What is your current grade in this class? Students should be completely honest with their answers and understand that they will not be shared or used against them for their grade.

Next, have your students conduct an experiment in which they abstain from using social media during class or homework times for an entire week (you can push this to two weeks if you think your students can stick with it). At the end of the designated time period, ask your class to fill out the questionnaire again and then to compare their results from the first and second times. Have them write a report or summary sharing their conclusions. Did their concentration improve during class and homework when they weren’t using social media? Did they spend more time preparing for class? Did they receive better grades on any assignments turned in during the time when they were abstaining from social media? Use their findings to help them create a balanced approach to social media use.

Use Social Media as a Source of Inspiration

Despite the fact that social media can be used to alert the world to every possible emotion a person is feeling at the very instant they’re feeling it, it can also be used as a source of inspiration. Sites such as Pinterest, Instagram, and even Facebook can give students ideas for projects, papers, and assignments they’ve been struggling with.

Give students the opportunity to search for this inspiration during class time by turning their social media obsession to good use. After assigning a large project or paper, have your students search their favorite social media outlets for inspiration. For example, if you gave your class an assignment to take a common household object and do a presentation on a new and innovative use for it, give them time in class to search Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, or other sources for ideas. The broad and connective nature of social media gives your students access to literally a world of inspiration that can broaden their horizons. Allowing them to tap into it during class gives you control over their time while giving them the chance to learn in a way they love.

Make Social Media the Assignment

Give your students an opportunity to get creative using social media as an assignment. For example, an art or photography class may ask students to turn in an original photograph as a final or midterm assignment. Perhaps this photograph needs to make use of interesting subject matters, colors, shapes, or settings. Rather than using the standard methods of cameras and digital alterations via computer, allow your students to create their photographs using Instagram. The color washes and effects provided by this social media application can allow your students to experiment with lighting, subjects, and colors with immediate results.

Utilizing an application such as Instagram can also allow students to submit their assignments via this social media platform. Simply create a hashtag for your class and they can not only turn in their photograph for your review but can also see the progress of their classmates in real time as they upload pictures of their own. Students may also feel a push to go above and beyond as they search for ways to make their assignments unique when compared to others in their class. The wealth of apps available that allow for collage creations, side-by-side images, and unique effects gives your students the ability to truly make their creations their own. It also gives them an opportunity to find constructive ways to utilize social media as they discover options that range beyond simply giving status updates.

Use Social Media to Create a Class Community

Educators can set up professional accounts through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and other social media platforms that allow their classes to keep in touch outside of the classroom. A class Facebook or Pinterest page can be used to update assignments, respond to questions, give reminders, show examples, discuss class activities, and more. They can also provide your students with a forum in which to ask questions of their classmates during non-school hours. This promotes an exchange of ideas, thoughts, and support that can be invaluable in creating a cohesive classroom community.

Teachers can also set up communities via Twitter and Instagram by using specialized hashtags that students reference whenever they post regarding your class. This can give them an opportunity to share websites, pictures, stories, and more regarding class assignments and projects that range beyond the confines of the classroom. This promotes a spirit of sharing and co-working that can not only benefit your students’ grades but also change the way they view social media and its uses.

While social media does have its drawbacks when it comes to classroom use, it can also open a world of exploration, inspiration, and motivation for your students. Though most teachers find it necessary to put some limits on the use of technology during class, a little creativity and innovation can allow social media to make learning even more meaningful. A good place to start is with your own favorite social media platform. If you love Instagram, create an assignment or class community around it then encourage your class to use it (properly of course). If you like to share websites and ideas via Twitter, create a professional profile that your students can follow to stay up-to-date on the topics that pertain to your subject. Regardless of which avenue you choose, some ingenuity in the social media department can lead to a wealth of positive experience for your students.