Meet Students Where They Are

Valerie Powell, assistant professor of art at Sam Houston State University, decided to supplement her face-to-face courses to extend the classroom and provide opportunities for students who are not comfortable speaking up in the face-to-face environment. Rather than demanding that students interact using a specific tools, she offers options “to meet students where they are.”

Powell created a Facebook page for the Workshop in Art Studio and History (WASH) program, an immersive nine-credit “art boot camp” that includes design and theory. In general, her students, mostly first-year and transfer students, are comfortable interacting online but not necessarily within a learning management system. This is why, in addition to using Blackboard, she uses social media, particularly Facebook, to get students to interact online.

Powell likes Blackboard, but her students don’t. They use it mainly to check their grades. “They just don’t seem comfortable with that particular tool. They’re freshmen. It’s very new to them, whereas they’ve been using Facebook forever,” Powell says.

One requirement of the program is for students to critique each other’s work in progress. They can post images of their work for feedback in Blackboard or Facebook. “It gets them in the habit of learning how to document their work and gets them comfortable asking questions,” Powell says. “I have them post an image and ask a question, such as, ‘What can I do to improve this?’ Then they are required to comment on each other’s work.

“The first time I did this, I thought this might help a few people. I found that there was complete participation. They were making comments and using vocabulary from the textbook. I’d never heard a lot of these students talk before, and they were really making smart comparisons and were really confident in their opinions. It was such a wakeup call for me. This is a really good platform for them. They’re already using it. They’re already comfortable with it.”

The Facebook page is an open page. Former students, professors, and even the general public can comment on students’ work. Posting images of their work gives students the opportunity to gain experience photographing their work, and “it’s a nice way to make them aware that they are making their work for an audience,” Powell says.

This online forum provides opportunities for every student to participate. “It’s really important to allow everyone to have an opportunity to participate. I found that creating online discussions really allows those [introverted or shy] students to have a voice because many of them are comfortable on Facebook. They tend to have those conversations that extend beyond the classroom in a way that I don’t think happens if it’s just a traditional discussion,” Powell says.

For those who are not comfortable posting to public Facebook page, Powell offers the option of posting their work to Blackboard, which is not open to the public. Most students choose to post in Facebook. “I found that a lot of students are very excited to have that conversation in a place online where other people can join in, especially professors they’ll have in the future,” Powell says. “[These students] really like to live out loud. They’re very public. They want everybody to know what they’re doing and, generally seem to like being on Facebook and having their images on there. There’s a sense of pride, whereas on Blackboard, it’s very closed. Students said, ‘When we had to post stuff on Blackboard it felt like an assignment. On Facebook, it feels like I was doing it because I wanted to do it.’”

In addition to Facebook, Powell uses a WordPress home page for the program and encourages the use of other tools such as chat, and other social media such as Pinterest and Twitter. “If it were up to me I’d create this happy little place where we’d all be on one website,” Powell says, noting that managing the online portion of the course would likely be easier if the online components were in one place. “I think it’s important to be more focused on the needs of the students and the best ways to get them to perform at their best, rather on than how I can make this easier on me.”

Powell recommends implementing the use of social media incrementally. “Rather than redesigning your entire curriculum so you have this epic online component that’s going to change everyone’s life, why not create one project that has elements that encourages students to interact online, whether it’s research or critique?

“Part of being an instructor is being open to new tools and strategies. How can I ask my students to take risks and try things beyond their comfort zone if I’m not willing to do that as well?” Powell says.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 14.4 (2014): 1-2. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.