Using Social Networks to Encourage Class Discussion

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 1 Winter/Spring 2013
Ethan Tussey
Georgia State University

I use Facebook and Twitter in my teaching for two reasons; firstly, I want to reach my students on their most often used devices, smartphones and laptops. Secondly, my own research has focused on the efforts of the media industries to incorporate digital technology into their existing business practices, so I see it as a useful challenge to similarly find ways of incorporating my students’ social networking habits into my established teaching practices. During the Winter Quarter of 2012, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to bring my research interests together with my teaching efforts when designing a connected viewing class for third and fourth-year Film and Media Studies majors. Some of the most productive parts of the class were the weekly take-home assignments that asked the students to post comments on their social networking sites while using connected viewing technology. We then reviewed those comments in class and used them as a springboard for discussion.

My use of social networking in the course was particularly important because the students were also the research subjects for a project I was working on with the Carsey-Wolf Center and Warner Bros Digital Distribution. A year prior to the course, the Carsey-Wolf Center and Warner Bros Digital Distribution created the Connected Viewing Initiative, a series of research projects dedicated to understanding how digital technology and networked communication relate to traditional entertainment practices. I proposed a project that examined how “connected viewing apps” on mobile devices, laptops, and televisions enabled viewing practices both in and outside the home. To analyze these viewing practices, I designed the connected viewing course in which I taught students about connected viewing by providing information about new media theory, media industries practices, and convergence culture, while simultaneously collecting information about their tastes and fan practices to inform my study.

Social networking was essential to this course as it allowed me to gather data on the students’ connected viewing habits while also providing content that fueled class discussions. The students were asked to document their connected viewing experiences in two ways, once while using the technology and later while reflecting on their experience. The two types of documentation provided a way to check if my students were completing their assignments while also offering an opportunity for the students to reflect on their viewing habits and course concepts. It is clear from the students’ comments that the social network platform was considered a performative place. For example, one student posted quotes and genial conversation on her social network platform while engaging in connected viewing of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, but later expressed her dislike of the show in her journal: “It’s funny cause even though I don’t watch, care, and probably never going to talk to the people in this class I cared about what I commented on. Which is annoying!” In this example, and in subsequent class discussions, students reviewed their Facebook and Twitter posts and understood how the context of use shaped their reactions to content. The aforementioned student realized, upon reflection, that she had tailored her commentary to be agreeable to her peer and instructor-audience, a fact that “annoyed” her.

The students learned that the ability to access content in any context through digital distribution did not mean that they would watch it or use it in the same ways as they would in their leisure spaces. I asked them to put that knowledge to use by designing a connected viewing app using the software provided by the social TV company Miso. The students entered a Miso contest to develop slides- pictures with humorous captions, audience polls, etc.- that would display on smartphones in sync with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Based on the students’ experience discussing and reflecting on their social media use, they created slides that would be enjoyable in multiple contexts while watching television in the living room or while engaging with content outside the home. For example, humorous captions might be funny in a variety of viewing environments, but plot prediction polls are best used in the living room during the user’s initial viewing experience. Thanks to the students’ creativity and weeks of analyzing their own social networking habits, Miso rewarded three of my students with free sweatshirts for their slideshow project.

While the students learned a lot from the class assignments, they were initially anxious about letting an instructor into their social network. I felt it was necessary to preserve the anonymity of the students for the study so I wanted to keep their comments about the connected viewing private. Unfortunately, the only way to ensure this anonymity was to create a “secret” Facebook group. “Secret” Facebook groups are one of three categories of groups that allow members of the social network to collaborate on a project. Though this setting allows all posts and members to remain confidential it also required me, as the creator of the “secret” Facebook group, to “friend” all of my students so that I could then add them to the group.

“Friending” the students raised some privacy concerns for me and for my students. Suddenly, we could see the everyday things that we were posting to Facebook. According to a survey conducted by Tammy Swenson Lepper, students are uncomfortable with authority figures making judgments about them based on their “private” Facebook communications, regardless of the pubic availability of this information (183-184). I tried to ignore the things my students posted on my news feed that were not related to the content of the course. Though students do not want their instructors to draw conclusions about them based on their social network profiles, there is research that suggests students feel that access to their instructor’s personal Facebook feed humanizes the authority figure and improves lines of communication (Lora Helvie-Mason, 61). Perhaps that would account for the level of detail and personal disclosure my students included in their journal entries. For those not conducting a study with their students, I recommend using the “closed” group setting as it allows students to join the group without first having to “friend” the instructor. In the private groups students can also keep their content from showing up on their friends’ news feeds, a hassle that the students were very concerned about.

Overall, I have found that incorporating social networking in my courses offers an opportunity to engage students in a space where they are already comfortable sharing their opinions and commentary. Based on my experience in the connected viewing class, I have made social network commentary a regular feature of my instruction. I ask my students to comment on a reading or lecture on Facebook or Twitter before class begins and then discuss, defend, or unpack their comments in class. This makes the class more student-centered and gives those struggling to follow lectures and readings an additional platform to work through course concepts. Literature professor Andy Jones has seen his students invest in course material because of their use of Twitter before lecture, explaining that the students arrive prepared to work, “already talking with each other as (he) arrived, each of them with (the) class anthology already open, rather than working through crossword puzzles or thumbing through email on their cell phones” (99). Although not everyone in my classes displays the eagerness that Jones describes, I have found that the use of social networks is vastly superior to online course discussion tools provided by universities because Facebook and Twitter are easier to manage on mobile devices and are familiar interfaces. While using social networks requires a lot of coaching to encourage meaningful commentary, it is a useful tool for getting the class invested as you work together to define which posts stimulate the best kinds of discussions. As long as students are compulsively checking these sites, I will be creating Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags in the hopes of capturing their enthusiasm and directing it to a conversation on course topics.




Lora Helvie-Mason, “Facebook, ‘Friending,’ and Faculty-Student Communication,” in Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media ed. Charles Wankel. Emerald Group Publishing, 2011.

Andy Jones, “How Twitter Saved my Literature Class,” in Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media ed. Charles Wankel. Emerald Group Publishing, 2011.

Tammy Swenson Lepper, “Facebook: Student Perceptions of Ethical Issues About Their Online Presence,” in The Ethics of Emerging Media: Information, Social Norms, and New Media Technology, ed Bruce E. Drushel and Kathleen German. Continuum International Publishing, 2011.


This entry was posted in Group Projects, Media Examples for the Classroom, Social Media, Teaching with Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply