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Speaker: Social Media Can Engage

Providence, R.I.--Dr. Rey Junco, an expert on the impact of social media on student engagement, will be leading a panel presentation on Monday, October 24, on campus.

The dinner presentation, “Social Media and Student Engagement in Learning,” will be held in Slavin Center ’64 Hall at 5 p.m. Joining Junco on the panel will be Dr. Maia F. Bailey, assistant professor of biology; Dr. Robert J. Barry, assistant professor of theology; Dr. Deborah I. Levine, assistant professor of health policy and management; and three PC students.

In a recent phone interview, Junco, an associate professor and the director of disability services at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, answered a few questions about the best uses for social media in the classroom, research he has conducted on the subject, and the future of social media use in teaching. 

Q) Initially, your academic background wasn’t focused on the areas of social media and student engagement; what drew you to this subject matter?

I think the first thing is that I’ve always been a ‘tech geek.’ I was into programming and bulletin boards and stuff like that back in high school. I actually dropped out of high school, but went back to community college, where I took a psychology class and really loved it. I studied psychology at the University of Florida and did some really interesting research in neuroscience. However, when I was thinking about going to grad school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was torn between continuing in neuroscience, changing to clinical psychology, or attending law school. Since I wanted to work with people, I went to Penn State to study clinical psychology with a focus in neuropsychology, but I was still really interested in technology. I think that because I was interested in psychology, technology, and education, the idea of student engagement fit me. Clearly, when I started teaching, I saw the value of being engaged with students. My philosophy is that education is about building and maintaining interpersonal relationships with your students. 

I was drawn to the study of social media because that’s where students are, and I am interested in meeting them where they are. I think that’s important since a large percentage of students are using social technologies. I saw the potential to use social media in ways that are educationally relevant. I think that’s where my work has proceeded from and to.

Q) What are some good examples of how social media has been used in engaging this generation of students?

I think the best examples of using social media understand how students use the technology and use social media in ways that are educationally relevant. One of the best ways to use Facebook in the classroom is when a faculty member connects what they are doing on the platform with their course goals. For instance, using Facebook to form study groups, to discuss course content, or for community building. There are numerous ways that social media can be connected in ways that make sense. If you integrate social media in ways that make sense in your curriculum and course goals, then you’re going to have better outcomes.

The key to improving student engagement using social media is not entirely about the platform that is used—it’s about how the platform is used. I’ve used Twitter to continue class discussions, build a sense of academic community, and to discuss a common reading. In our Twitter projects, students have run with the technology and made it their own. In a controlled study of Twitter use in the classroom, we found that students were much more engaged and had higher overall GPAs than a control group who used Ning [an online platform for people to create their own social networks].

Q) Of all your research findings, has there been anything that has surprised you?

I didn’t really think that the use of Twitter would have an effect on grades. It was really surprising. I was shocked because I thought we would possibly increase engagement but I didn’t think our intervention would have such a large effect on grades. Our sample was restricted to students in one major [pre-health professionals]. Typically, these students get middle to high As and Bs. Therefore, I thought there would be restriction of range. I thought that if our Twitter intervention would affect anything that it would impact grades in the one course that we used Twitter. Instead, what we saw was an impact across courses. Students in the Twitter group had on average a half a grade point higher than the control group. 

I think my findings surprise me all the time. I was surprised about the average time spent by students using social media. For me, the wonderful thing about conducting research is that your data may often surprise you, which is a good thing because I like to be surprised. I actually really enjoy it when my assumptions are proven wrong by the data. 

Q) What do you see as the future of social media in college teaching and learning?

As social media adoption continues to increase by both students and faculty, we’re going to see much more integration of the platforms in college teaching. Right now, some faculty members are doing it and more are interested. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a request by an Ed-tech startup to look at their product that integrates social technologies to enhance learning. I think we’re going to see a lot more of this as faculty become more comfortable engaging with their students online and more research is conducted on the best ways to use social media in the classroom. 

Q) Have you heard any faculty members say that new technology, such as social media, will have a negative impact on student engagement in learning? If so, what has your response been? What has your research said? 

​Sure! I think there are some who absolutely believe that. The reality is students have always been distracted. If it’s not social media, it’s something else. It goes back to what I said before: How the technology is being used is what is most important to academic outcomes. My research has shown that if social media are being used by students in ways that mimic academic activities or used by professors to encourage educationally relevant activities, then those uses are related to more positive outcomes. With my work, I’m interested in reaching the faculty who may be curious about using social media, but want to learn more about effective practices. I’m also interested in reaching those who are gung ho about these technologies to help them learn about the ways that social media use might not be positive.


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