Friday, May 13, 2011

Contact me...really!

As our semester ended, I thought back to the communication with this group of students and found myself excited by a slight shift in student responsiveness. I typically have to BEG students to come see me during office hours (picture me at the front of the room, "I am in my office, I want to help you with your outlines, so if any questions come up PLEASE come by") but this semester it seemed everything clicked and students got information through a variety of channels AND I didn't have to beg. I simply provided detailed contact information on the syllabus (as always) and then tried something new:

I encouraged them to put my information directly into their cell phones. The first day students added my office phone, my Twitter handle, my IM handle, and my campus email right into those little smart phones. I found the student contact was much greater this semester than in previous semesters where the contact information was on the syllabus but where I did not directly encourage it to be added (that moment, in class) to their mobile devices.Was it this new move or simply the increased use of social networking that led to more student contact? Did increased communication foster the stronger class connections felt this semester?

 Can social networking in your class help you craft that sense of "connectedness" or community? One benefit I have noticed my students mention when they have the option to connect with me via Twitter, Facebook, or Instant Messaging is that they feel "closer" to me as an instructor. I value this connection and offer a comment one student noted on our end of semester evaluations last week, "Dr. Lora is so available to her students. She's the only professor who offered Twitter & I [could] get her from my phone. I loved reading her updates about class and about her regular live [sic (life)]." Another student wrote, "I found Dr. Lora on fb [Facebook] and it was right on my phone. It was easy and her pictures made me now [sic, (know)] her better." I believe it is important that the students (and especially those online students) find this availability and connection with professors so they feel comfortable asking questions.

These comments fueled my interest in social networking in classes and that relationship with the professor and other classmates. I am continuing my research on this interesting issue and in the mean time I am reading everything I can get my hands on and reflecting on my personal practices. For example, I put my IM and Twitter handles on the syllabus (and connect IM and Twitter right to our BlackBoard site), but I never put my Facebook or LinkedIn information on the contact area. However, if students find me and "friend" me or "connect" with me, then they initiated the computer-mediated connection and I will respond to them via Facebook/LinkedIn if they ask questions or make comments. Working with the students' preferred contact option (not just via on-ground office hours) makes me feel more available and truly allows me to assist students who were not coming to office hours...and yes, we've all sat in our office during office hours waiting for a student to show up, knowing he needs help, and wondering why on earth he doesn't come. Now, that student with schedule conflicts, transportation issues, or preference to communicate without face-to-face interactions has alternatives.

I found students tweeted and "followed" one another, answered each others questions in IM chats, and responded as a tight-knit group in most of my classes this semester. I wonder about the positives of social networking and computer-mediated communication, positives that can often be overlooked by my colleagues who don't want to  learn something new or have legitimate concerns about privacy (both their own and the students' privacy).

If you're interested in that "sense of community" that is so important in our classes, consider what impact both online and face-to-face social networking might have on your students. I can offer the article, "A study of the relationship between student social networks and sense of community" by Shane Dawson, 2008, in Educational Technology & Society as one option for further reading. Consider also the book edited by Charles Wankel (2011), Teaching arts and science with the new social media (cutting edge technologies in higher education).

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