05 August 2013

In students' eyes, there is nothing unusual about utilising Twitter for learning

Three years ago, I invited James Cunliffe, a photography tutor from the same college I work for, to write a guest post (http://nwhc-librarian.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/facebook-in-fe-tutor-on-pros-and-cons.html) on his use of Facebook for teaching. That was the time of confusion: after consulting with tutors and managers, Facebook was blocked on on-campus PCs and tutors were told they could not communicate to learners on Facebook. Neither awareness campaign, nor training preceded the consultation, so the terrified voices - Facebook is evil! - were the loudest. Photography tutors’ experiment of using Facebook has survived and developed into the best example of utilising social media in our college I am aware of. Three years later, I learnt that something new and equally exciting has appeared – James and his colleagues have adopted Twitter for their practice. Here is what he told me recently:

James Cunliffe photoTwitter can be time consuming. Have you heard about the fear of missing out? There is always something out there, which you want to gather and share. In the beginning I was checking Twitter every day, posting, re-tweeting… I was doing it on the train during my 20-minutes journey. Recently, I’ve deliberately stepped back a bit and take it more casually now.

My colleagues, Andy and Hazel, are helping to look after the NWHC Photography Twitter feed (@nwhcphotography). For now, we don’t have any special arrangements who is going to reply or re-tweet. Perhaps, we will develop a strategy in that respect eventually.

Last autumn, we had a visiting lecturer, Jonathan Worth from Coventry University. He has a huge Twitter presence. He said he would write about us and asked what our Twitter name was. That was the moment we realised Twitter would be very good for us. The initial idea was to bring together the current and prospective students, so we posted about our day-to-day activities like trips or workshops. It kept our future learners informed of what we were doing, “kept them warm”.

Students don’t really comment on the fact that we are using Twitter and Facebook. It’s just normal for them, they take it for granted. They are very much aware of Twitter and often follow celebrities and friends there. We are not introducing them to something totally new; perhaps – to a new way of using the tool. Students won’t go to Moodle when they are on the bus, but they are likely to go to Twitter or Facebook. They may engage in a photography task while talking to their friends there.

When we conceived the idea of Twitter, I approached the Marketing team to ask for the college logo, in grey, to be used for our Twitter feed. They agreed; it has given us the college identity with the photography-specific twist to it. By the way, Twitter doesn’t feature in the college social media policy right now. It’s just the sign of how quickly life is changing now.

The impact of using Twitter is not easy to measure. It gave us opportunities to offer students what otherwise would not be there, like competitions, job adverts, exhibitions. We learn about them and cascade to our followers. I didn’t realise how much was happening out there. Sometimes photographers ask for assistants for one-off projects; and I had no idea that that’s how people got their jobs eventually. It is completely different to how things were when I was a beginner photographer. That was education for us, and it is helpful to students as they can follow the people who may be of use to them in the future.

Having the online presence and getting learners, current and potential ones, to engage with what we are doing will be equally important for us in the years to come. Also, if we, the college, are going down a more entrepreneurial route, we’ll need to let people know what we offer. That is the immediate plan.

So far, we have not embedded Twitter in teaching. We have been busy utilising Instagram (ID nwhcphotography) instead. Learners do activities and hashtag their works. Then we can look at all of them in one stream. It works well, though we’ve only just started doing it. I’ve seen examples of using Twitter in lectures, hashtagging all the content and comments. I am not sure it will work with our learners. More thinking and trying is needed.

On Facebook there is more of direct interaction with our students – about their work, projects, anything really. On Twitter, it’s more of us putting the content there; there is dialogue on Twitter, but it’s occasional, whilst on Facebook – it’s an ongoing conversation.

We have had Facebook for three years or so, we kept all those groups running and students have kept in touch with us – at universities, working in industry, in different places. Though it is nice having them with us, it has become unmanageable now. Soon, we are going to set up a NWHC Photography page, then close all the old private groups of ex-students. We will invite our former students to follow the page instead. They will still be able to have a dialogue with us; we will direct our prospective learners there too. Private groups will only be for the current students. It should be easier to manage the social side of teaching next year.

So far, we haven’t taught our students social media. We certainly mention the importance of online presence, but we should start doing more. Social media allow developing a personality on the internet. It’s a real communication skill and students should have a business-like attitude to that. You need to think about what people want to hear from you; being online is not a monologue and everyone must think what kind of persona we establish there.

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