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September 14, 2017

Teaching at Pitt

Tips for Teaching Students to Use Social Media Credibly, Civilly for Research

The impact of social media on teaching and learning is an ever-widening area of study, reflection and praxis. As the definitions and use of social media continue to grow exponentially, there are many issues and ideas to consider. This column is designed to offer a quick guide to addressing two prominent concerns: credibility and professional civility.

Issues with credibility of scholarship and information always accompany research. Post-secondary students are early adopters of social media. Not only do they view and react to content regularly but they share what they have deemed acceptable both within the various platforms and in their face-to-face interactions with others in their learning communities. It is critical for them to be able to properly vet information they find. You can support students as they build this skill by incorporating some of these foundational activities:

Investigate Authorship

Some students will look to social media sites for sources. They may generate references by searching Wikipedia, Quora, wikiHow and other similar crowdsourcing websites without paying attention to the qualifications of contributors. Asking students to investigate authorship can work very well with a platform like Wikipedia where students can experience creating content on their own as well as track editing and crowd-based contributing. You can do this by giving them an assignment to improve an article. This kind of project has been successfully carried out by other instructors. Check out Jon Beasley Murray’s Wikipedia projects in his Latin American literature course at The University of British Columbia where the goal was to take a Wikipedia article as close to “featured status” as possible.

Triangulate Sources

Students may see information posted on several different social media platforms in different ways and assume that the information is coming from different sources. It is important for them to understand that different posts may often reference the same news or research sources. You can help students learn to do good verification by giving them an assignment that requires them to provide three different sources to back up something they see on social media. For example, a student or group of students may show the class a tweet about the carbon dioxide levels in a national park. Their task would be to verify the levels by tracking down at least three independent sources of the information. You can jumpstart this activity by providing students with lists of scholarly and news-based sources. Reuters, AP and are some larger platforms that may be good places to begin.

Exchange Ideas

Teach your students how to use social media to build on classroom learning activities. You can offer these opportunities by having students build on in-class discussions with social spaces like WordPress blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter hashtag campaigns or YouTube channels. CourseWeb’s discussion feature could be a good place to let them get some practice. We want to get students to exchange ideas in a community and support one another in the dissemination of well-researched information.

This activity leads us into the other major concern about social media. As students increase use for learning or early career purposes, we need to support their understanding of professional civility and standards of use. We shudder at the stories of people being fired for posting inappropriate content on their social media platforms or missing professional opportunities because of online interactions that can be seen as rude or mean. You can help students with this issue by recognizing it and discussing some basic tips for management.

Share with Care

Remind students that social media posts — whether they be images on Instagram and Snapchat or comments in a sub-Reddit — are lasting and retrievable. This can be confusing for students because many applications promise them anonymity, privacy or the ability to erase data. It is important for social media users to understand that “E” is for “Ever.” All it takes is a screenshot to preserve a post in perpetuity. The idea is not to scare them from posting anything — we all have times when we wish we could get a do-over. But making them more mindful proves an effective way to manage unintended consequences.

THINK it Through

The “THINK” acronym is a great tool for assessing appropriateness. Going through each letter, we decide whether what we are about to share is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and/or kind. Considering each of these before posting provides a momentary testing point. Students should also be introduced to ethical codes of conduct within the industries or fields where their studies may lead them. These are often available through field associations like the National Society of Professional Engineers or the International Foundation for Art Research.

As you investigate these and other ideas for harnessing the power of social media in learning processes, remember to take a quick tour through some of the latest popular applications and ask students for their input. Most importantly, rely on your ability to clearly identify that any social media integration aligns with your course objectives.


Tahirah Walker and Meiyi Song are teaching and learning consultants at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


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