Social media, like all things on the internet, can provide great benefits or be a total cesspool depending how it is managed. On the plus side, a teacher can funnel new discoveries directly to students. This is much preferable to waiting a few years for that to be published in textbooks. On the downside there are the usual trolls waiting for you. And obviously, we don’t want the classroom to resemble a website comments section. For this post, I’ll focus on Twitter and Facebook.
I was reluctant to sign up on Twitter with its 140 character limitations. However, I teach astronomy, and NASA is a Twitter machine. This is particularity true with ongoing missions. Once a mission has ended, but the data is still being processed, NASA seems to prefer Facebook to make those announcements. In Twitter culture, there is an emphasis on acquiring large amounts of followers. Unless you work in mass media, I would recommend looking for high quality of interaction over quantity. The Twitter landscape is populated by trolls and bot accounts. Target certain accounts that are subject related and be quick to use the block feature to prevent an interloper from ruining the experience. If Twitter is being used in a class, using a private account may be a good option.
Twitter is at its best when researchers are disseminating and reviewing results. At times, you may get to see the scientific process at work when scientists debate their results. In the class, this can be a demonstration of the dynamics of scientific discovery. Sometimes it’s messy! It can be used to display professionalism when researches volley back and forth over the meaning of their data. It can also be used to demonstrate that even professionals can stumble and personalize their arguments. In science, its the argument, not the person, that wins the day. Used wisely, Twitter can be a useful mechanism to bring current research results into the class.
Facebook is a different animal. With greater privacy settings, it is easier to contain the trolling element without going completely private. Once a mission has ended, NASA’s twitter accounts tend to go silent while further discoveries are announced on their Facebook accounts. For example, after the Messenger mission ended, the discovery that Mercury was shrinking was released on Facebook but not on Twitter. For astronomy, this makes Facebook a key supplement to Twitter. Unlike Twitter, Facebook does not have a character limit allowing for more descriptive posts. Also unlike Twitter, you are not likely to see scientific debates on Facebook. However, Facebook has a higher quality interface for images which is especially helpful for astronomy. To start off, below are some links.
For Twitter, you do not need an account to access a public Twitter feed. The blue check marks next to an account name verifies this is a legit feed.
Of course, as you explore various Twitter accounts you’ll find others that strike your fancy. Like Twitter, Facebook allows accounts to verify themselves as legit with a blue check mark. Facebook requires an account to view other feeds. Some good Facebook feeds to start with:
Over a thousand years ago, the Silk Road served to transport knowledge and ideas between Central Asia, China, India, and Western Europe. The internet serves the same purpose today and social media is a key component. With a little experience and time to manage it, social media can play a constructive role in the classroom.