Photo by Pete Ashton

Photo by Pete Ashton

Do you like having an audience? I know I do: that’s at least part of the reason I’m writing this blog post.

The social web has greatly lowered the barrier to entry for those of us who want an online presence, and given us the greatest possible chance of reaching an appreciative audience through, for example, Google, social networking and RSS aggregation. Each one of us has a unique audience, defined by our own interests and views and how those come across in our writing, photography, music or whatever else we choose to share.

Those people who are interested in what we have to say will listen. Those who aren’t, won’t.

Now, if we want to reach more people, we can put effort into tailoring our output to their interests, marketing our stuff and generally going out to meet our audience half way. But for a personal blog or special-interest wiki, we don’t have to: we can just say what we want to say, and eventually a few people will start to read it. This is one of the things that makes social media great.

Education is not like this (and neither is business for that matter). We cannot just do what we want to do and expect it to be eventually found by those learners who can benefit from it. If students are taking your course and you’re using social media, then they’re pretty much obliged to participate: it’s common to enforce this with assessment. Because by now we’re getting used to the democratic nature of social media, it’s easy to confuse this captive audience with a genuinely interested one and assume that they will engage.

So, if we make them, they will participate. But unless they’re interested in what we have to say, they won’t be engaged, and if they’re not engaged, then their learning will be severely limited.

But fear not, for all is not lost! They’re generally taking a course (at least in HE) in which we have some expertise, so there will be at least some overlap in interests. Take advantage of social media to get rapid feedback and comments from learners; then respond to it! Thing of a blogger who you really respect: chances are that they respond quickly to comments left on their blog, learn from them and adapt to make their future posts more relevant to their readers. Why can’t this work with students too? Here are a couple of ideas that I can think of:

  • If you're asking students to blog, try to leave a relevant comment or two on each student's blog to connect their views with your material;
  • If your students are collaborating on a wiki, check up on it from time to time and use it to inform your lectures.

Yes, this takes effort, but so does everything that’s worth doing (although I won’t claim that that makes it worth doing). And yes, they should be hanging on your every word because you’re the expert and they’re not. But only a few of them will: the rest you have to meet halfway.

Do you use social media to engage with your students and tailor your teaching to them? Why/why not? What’s your top tip? Share your comments below.