Amy Gibbens had to join Twitter last fall to pass her Communications 101 class at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. During the semester, Gibbens' assignments had her tweeting examples of topics discussed in class and using the "Comm250" hash tag to debate media arguments and critique student presentations. Her professor's Twitter account served as the digital bulletin board for daily class announcements and extra credit opportunities. One assignment asked students to post a picture of bandwagon advertising within 24 hours to collect 5 points.
"At the time, it was kind of frustrating because I didn't have a Twitter account, and I didn't want to have another social media page to be checking all the time," Gibbens said. "However, it became handy because the professor posted helpful links and extra credit opportunities. Now I'm hooked."
Today, when almost every college student totes a laptop, smart phone or tablet, professors are harnessing the power of mobile devices and using new technologies, including social media and mobile apps, to engage students in specific classes and supplement or replace academic material.
While some educators have concerns about adopting social media as a teaching tool and others blame social media for encouraging bad educational habits, recent surveys show that teaching faculty are becoming more comfortable with social media use. Studies also suggest technology can compel student attention and interaction in the classroom, encourage concise writing styles and serve as a catalyst for better grades.
Social media use by teaching faculty in U.S. higher education is increasing, according to Pearson Education and Babson Survey Research Group's annual survey, released last month. Out of 4,000 professors, representing all higher education disciplines, one-third reported using social media as a teaching tool, preferring blogs and wikis over Facebook and Twitter. And nearly 90 percent reported using online video, like YouTube, in the classroom.
While mathematics professor Mathew Weathers doesn't use YouTube, he does post videos of himself working through math problems on course-specific websites as an extra resource for his students at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. In his "Nature of Mathematics" class, Weathers uses a free website service to have students weigh in on poll questions from their mobile devices.
Other professors use mobile device technology in a new way, creating course-specific mobile apps for their students, according to a recent report in U.S. News. While textbook companies have produced mobile apps and electronic books for several years, course-specific apps can compile material from a variety of sources, putting all the course material in one place. Mobile apps also give professors a way to update material, correct mistakes, and add features whenever they need to.
At George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, academic departments partner with technology engineers to create mobile apps that aid students in classes and everyday campus life. The school's IT department won the NorthWest Academic Computing Consortium's Hugi Exemplary Practice Award for its iGFU Mobile Portal, an app that gives students easy access to campus news, course schedules, upcoming events and university resources.
The private Christian college also partners with Pacific University, Western Oregon University and Willamette University to produce mobile apps for mathematics classes. Linda Samek, dean of GFU's school of education and a former math teacher, works with representatives from the other three colleges in a grant-funded group called the Center for Algebraic Thinking. The group has created more than a dozen math apps. "Cover Up," their most commonly recognized app, helps students develop strategies for solving algebraic equations through five levels of difficulty.
College educators also are beginning to take the idea of student engagement through mobile devices to social media - blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Microblogging platforms, like Twitter, which limits posts to 140 characters, have slower adoption rates - only 2 percent of professors surveyed by Pearson Education in 2011 reported using microblogging sites in class. But those who do use platforms like Twitter say the technology serves as a good backchannel for communication.
For Biola professor Jeffrey Volkmer's Biblical Studies classes, students must set up a Twitter account if they want to get full credit for the "Twitter portion" of his class. Twitter feeds are virtual journals where each student posts reflections and reactions to lecture materials and reading assignments - at least one per lecture or assignment. This simple post-class assignment increases retention exponentially because students have to stop, recall what they just learned, and tailor it down to 140 characters, Volkmer said.
The professor even encourages his students to tweet during lectures, to capture thoughts while they're fresh and help class interaction. He finds that typically quiet students will voice questions through Twitter when they normally wouldn't raise their hands in class.
"Twitter allows me to 'trick' the student into learning constantly," Volkmer said. "I am always calling their attention to things outside of the classroom, causing them to subconsciously interact with the course, and they like it, largely."
Studies show students who engage professors through social media get better grades, but teaching faculty continue to express concerns with the widespread use of social media and mobile technology in the classroom, according to Pearson Education's 2010 survey. More than 60 percent of professors surveyed worried about privacy and integrity of student submissions, but that percentage has decreased with time - by almost 10 percent from the previous year.
Despite concerns, some Christian educators, like Biola's Freddy Cardoza, director of distributive learning and instructional technology, see these new technologies as important steps toward cultural relevancy.
"I have a conviction that digital tools are a God-given gift that should be discreetly, but aggressively applied to higher education," Cardoza said. "This implies that Christian professors need to work to develop skill in these tools … and consider the employment of technology as a wise decision for the advancement of the Kingdom of God."