Bringing Twitter into the classroom at the University of Nottingham

Associate professor Dr Roger Kerry tells Gill Hitchcock that social media should be a natural part of higher education

Integrating social media into university education for a generation who live on smartphones might sound easy. Even for the academic described by Jisc as an “ambassador for social media in higher education”, it has taken detailed planning and heaps of encouragement. Dr Roger Kerry, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, believes it is worth it, because the benefits can be revolutionary.

“Social media offers a unique and progressive dimension to the world of education,” says Kerry, from Nottingham’s faculty of medicine and health sciences. “Like everything, there are limitations and misuses, but the more we learn about these, the more we can harness and develop the true power of these media.”

At the end of 2017, Jisc, a provider of digital solutions for UK education and research, crowned Kerry one of the UK’s most social media-savvy academics. Jisc says Kerry has proved its value many times, not least with students securing employment from the networks they are encouraged to build.

One of Kerry’s innovations, which caught the eye of Jisc, is his Twitter in Education project, or ‘Tweed’. It began by delivering part of a first-year physiotherapy course module on Twitter. The idea was to supplement learning by tweeting critical questions and generate interest and answers.

You have got to guide the students. You can’t say ‘just start tweeting a bit’, because that doesn’t work. There has got be a structure.

What happened next surprised him. While most students actively engaged with Tweed, others lacked the confidence. They did watch the conversation, however. As it developed, it drew in experts from around the globe whose answers, comments and resources hugely expanded the horizons of Kerry’s students.

This immediate access to wide-ranging knowledge is the biggest benefit, according to Kerry. But support for students via social media has helped them onto conference programmes, the committees of professional bodies, and even into work. “They have graduated from here and gone straight into the job they sorted out because of networking on Twitter,” he says.

In another innovation, each year Kerry tweets using the hashtag #physiosomereadinglist asking third-year students to select their top two papers or books. He gets hundreds of responses, refines this to 30 or so, and then asks students to justify their selection. His final choice becomes the formal reading list. Kerry tweets the list so that a wide audience, including universities overseas, can use it. 

“The unique thing about this is that it is an organic and real-life way of understanding what reading is important to students, rather than being chosen by me,” he says. “That peer input is amazing.”

Kerry has also introduced a blogging assignment as part of the assessment for a postgraduate module. The theory behind this is to develop students’ critical writing and thinking skills by having them write material that is immediately open to public scrutiny.

In future, Kerry can see higher education exploiting virtual reality, for example to recreate lecture halls; and using 3D explorable models for healthcare students. They will be able to control the pace and angle of the lecture or demonstration. 

He thinks robots will be used to train healthcare students in procedures such as injections, surgery, or anything where using a human subject would be at risk. Robots could deliver education in inaccessible locations, or even ‘visit’ students while they are away on placements, he believes.

Culture shock
Kerry was among the authors of a report on students’ perceptions of Twitter for learning. The document, funded by the Higher Education Academy and published in January 2017, shows that despite their familiarity with digital technologies, students may struggle to use personal technologies and services effectively in an educational context. 

Among a cohort of 43 first-year physiotherapy students, it found that more than half never used their mobile phone for study-related tasks; six of the 43 did not own a smartphone, and most – 27 out of 43 – did not own a tablet or iPad. 

Focus groups at the university revealed a strong reaction among students to incorporating social media into their academic life. 

“It was a culture shock to them: why would they want dull academic life to encroach on something they used to contact their mates, something that’s fun?” Kerry says.

Overcoming attitudes like these did not happen overnight. 

“We had to feed it into the curriculum over the past two or three years and let them see the benefits for themselves,” says Kerry. 

“And now we have student ambassadors of Twitter on our programme who have taken over the lead. It’s not like a lecturer trying to be cool and show them it’s good; it’s the students themselves acting as role models within the cohort.”

Some students have bridged the gap between the personal and academic by having two accounts on the same platform: John Smith the rugby player, and John Smith the physiotherapy undergraduate, for example.

What does Kerry think about attitudes to social media among academic staff? 

“There’s a lot of ‘it’s for young people’, and ‘I’m quite happy with my PowerPoint slides’,” he says. “There is a group that says, ‘I’d really like to use that, I just don’t know how’. And then there is a small percentage of very active users.”

The good news at Nottingham is that, after some in-service training and a conference last year called UNSmart which was dedicated to social media, minds are changing. Kerry believes even those who deemed it irrelevant, are starting to see that if they want to get the best from students, they should be engaging with this.

Students have graduated from here and gone straight into the job they sorted out because of networking on Twitter

How should universities go about introducing social media? Kerry is inclined to encourage people to just have a go, but believes there has to be infrastructure because there are so many pitfalls and negatives.

“Set guidelines for social media in your institution: ‘these are the dos and don’ts’,” he says. “You have got to guide the students. You can’t say ‘just start tweeting a bit’, because that doesn’t work. There has got be a structure and there has to be well-planned implementation into your module and curriculum.

“Social Media for Academics by Mark Carrigan has some good tips, and other books too show that it’s being done in other places and if you do it too, there are real benefits to learning.”

His message for educators is not to dismiss the use of social media, and for students, not to think of these simply as networks to connect with friends. 

He adds: “Platforms will change. In 10 years, we’re unlikely to be talking about Facebook or Twitter, but we will still be networking electronically and we should move towards the natural integration of this into curriculums.”

Sam Trendall

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