Social Media and the Business Professor

Using social media in the classroom might not be as hard as you think—and it could be more powerful than you realize.

Social Media and the Business Professor

Researcher and scientist Roy Amara once said, “We invariably overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies, while underestimating their long-term effects.” That statement, now known as Amara’s Law, could have been written specifically about academia’s attitudes toward social media. Many professors are talking about Facebook and Twitter, but few really know what long-term impact they might have on the classroom.

Much of academia is still living in the world of Web 1.0, where a few content creators talked to the many. Web 1.0 resembled the way a professor lectures to a class. But the emergence of Web 2.0, where everyone can share with everyone, has changed the equation. Web 2.0 encourages individuals to contribute their own voices to the conversation. It’s driven by social media, a broad term that encompasses a suite of technologies that enable online activities such as social networking on Facebook or LinkedIn, sharing photos and video on sites like Flickr and YouTube, writing blogs, or creating wikis.

The 20-somethings coming into business classrooms today have been using social media applications for most of their lives. And as a 40-something professor, I know I can reach these students more effectively if I use the same tools in my teaching.

Creating and maintaining a blog is a quick, effective way to promote ongoing discussion and keep the subject matter fresh.

As a business professor, you might not be comfortable “friending” your students on Facebook or “tweeting” ideas after hours, but it makes sense to jump in and experiment with these new media. Adapting them to your own classroom strategies might be easier than you think.

The Me in Social Media

“The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”
—William Gibson

Social media tools may seem peripheral to you, but they are already widely distributed to your students. One of the best books I’ve read on social media and how corporations are learning to use it is Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Li and Bernoff write that organizations should follow the POST process: They should get the right people, define their objectives, create a strategy, and choose a technology—in that order.

It’s no different when a professor is choosing a tool to use in the classroom. The questions are simple: Who are my students? What is the learning objective? How can I meet that objective? Once you’ve answered these questions, you can choose the best technology to accomplish the objective you have in mind.

Business professors often try to engage students in learning objectives in one of four ways: discussion, collaboration, research, and community building. The following approaches can help professors promote these activities effectively outside the classroom:

Discussion — Most professors calculate student participation as part of the final grade. However, many students are reluctant to raise their hands, particularly if a course is not taught in their native languages or if their cultures discourage engaging with the professor. Blogging can be an excellent way to increase everyone’s level of participation, because it allows students to collect and process their thoughts before sharing them. Many blogging sites can help you easily create and manage a blog, including two of the most popular, and

For example, my course on emerging markets has a one-week international travel component—this year we went to Malaysia and Singapore to compare and contrast the two markets. Instead of using a textbook to help students prepare, I posted current articles from The Economist and the business press on a blog and had students comment on the articles and respond to other students’ comments. Students also could post links to other articles that offered different perspectives. One student even posted links to entertaining videos on YouTube about how to experience Singaporean street cuisine.

Just e-mailing articles to students or handing photocopies out in class does little to increase participation. Creating and maintaining a blog, on the other hand, is a quick, effective way to promote ongoing discussion and keep the subject matter fresh.

Collaboration — In qualitative business courses like organizational behavior, marketing, and international business, students often are placed into teams to research topics and present their findings to the rest of the class. In the past, students might have set up meetings to discuss the topic, exchanged notes, and prepared their presentations. But what if they were able to work together 24 hours a day through a collaborative wiki?

Unlike blogs where people can comment on content but cannot change it, a wiki is a single online document or workspace where any team member can add to or edit the information. Its power is based on “the wisdom of crowds”—the idea that, if enough students edit and contribute to the document, the final product should be much better than one created through multiple, separate drafts.

Free software to create and manage a wiki is available from multiple sources. To find the best tool for your course, search online for “free wiki software.” A detailed list of wiki software is also available at

I teach a technology entrepreneurship elective where the entire class must work together to identify a technical product or service that doesn’t yet exist and establish how to take this product or service to market. In one class, students chose to create a universal key with biometric security that could open every lock in a person’s life. While teams of students were assigned the lead on particular elements of the project, everyone worked together on the final document.

Instead of sending various drafts around, we created a wiki that kept a single, current version for all the students to edit. Better yet, I could observe the process: I received automatic updates when changes were made and saw which students made the most substantive edits.

Research — The quantity of information available via Google and other search engines is impressive, even if the quality is often less so. But the information landscape now is growing to include access to information as it’s created. For example, Twitter allows writers to send out short entries, or “tweets,” of up to 140 characters, generating a steady stream of information on current topics. On Twitter, students can follow traditional print and media sources, as well as more scholarly posts like the McKinsey Quarterly and [email protected].

Anyone can go to Twitter and type in a search term without creating an account, just to see what others are posting on that topic. For example, I recently took a small team of students to South Korea for a global consulting project. My students could read my own blog on Korea,, but I also wanted to expose them to a wider range of information. I asked them to type “Korea” in Twitter’s search engine and re-tweet useful tweets or links to the other students. I did the same when I traveled with another student group to Singapore, blogging at about topics ranging from the country’s healthcare system to its restaurants.

Community Building — Social networking sites are a big part of students’ lives, with many students posting information on Facebook that they wouldn’t want their professors to see. But you also can use social networking sites to create a sense of community.

If Facebook doesn’t seem appropriate, try, where you can create a course-specific social networking group. Although the formerly free site recently began charging for its services, a professor can set up a private social network on Ning for as little as $2.95 per month. Once you’ve set up the group, you can send invitations to students to join and limit access only to those in the course. On Ning, students can post items related to the course that wouldn’t be of interest to their broader network of Facebook friends. And you don’t have to wade through the pool of less-focused ideas that students post to their personal pages.

Ning also can be a great place to experiment with other social media tools. Use Ning to try your hand at writing blogs or Twitter-like messages. Post content in multiple formats to see which ones work best to engage students in discussion.

A colleague of mine used Ning in an organizational behavior course to poll students’ attitudes on various issues related to employee evaluations. Students could see the responses of the other students and write comments, which generated a back-and-forth discussion that an in-class show of hands never could.

Mistakes to Avoid

“Chaos is the score upon which reality is written.”
—Henry Miller

By now, I hope you have decided there is a place for one or more social media tools in your courses because you believe they will enhance the learning process. You could continue using the same syllabus you used five years ago, but you’re not. It’s no different with technology. Staying technologically current is good for you, and it’s good for your students.

In fact, I’m convinced that students now expect professors to use technologies that go beyond PowerPoint and Blackboard. And they likely will appreciate the fact that you are looking for new ways to reach them in and out of the classroom.

But as powerful as social media can be, they also present some pitfalls. By keeping the following suggestions in mind, you’ll keep the technology under control and your students on task:

Focus on your strategy, not the technology. Like blackboards and textbooks, Web 2.0 tools are aids to the learning process. Use them to enhance the course, not just to say you use them. For instance, outside of class, use social media to increase the level of discussion and collaboration on new or tangential topics. This will help you free up in-class time for more central topics.

Don’t drive the bus—take a seat in back with your students. Don’t create a blog post and then just sit back and wait; continue to be a part of the conversation. Respond to students’ comments. Ask “Have you considered this idea?” or “How does your comment relate to this link?” Encourage responses to your response to their responses—and so on. Social media is about having a conversation, even if you are the professor.

On the first day of class, I share with students this quote by Marshall McLuhan: “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.” I tell them that I will try to provoke them. I want them to be comfortable posting their opinions, especially when more objective information might not be available.

Participate, but don’t officiate. Social media tends to lower inhibitions—students will write things about others that they would never say face-to-face, even when each post is attributed to its writer. Set guidelines for what is appropriate and what isn’t. Make it clear that students should challenge ideas, not attack other students’ motives or intelligence. Writing “a better choice might have been” is, well, a better choice than “only an idiot would have reached that conclusion.”

Also remind them of the level of discourse expected. Using a Twitter feed to post what they had for lunch does not move the discussion forward, unless the comment is meant to highlight a facet of customer service, marketing, or pricing strategy.

On the other hand, you also should avoid being too restrictive. Most blog sites allow you to approve comments before they are posted to the broader audience, but I strongly recommend against that. You risk giving students the impression that they can post ideas only if you approve of them—or worse, that by posting their ideas you automatically agree with them. Let them post whatever they want. If a comment is completely out of bounds or confrontational, you can easily delete it. Otherwise, let students respond to potentially offensive comments themselves.

The You in Social Media

“Users create knowledge, but only if we let them.”
—John Thackara

At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia encountered a new technology called television. He reportedly commented that he doubted Americans would have the time to sit in front of a box in their living rooms.

It would be just as easy to dismiss Web 2.0 as a fad that will diminish or disappear in the years ahead. But I think its rapid adoption is a clear signal that the digital generation of students would be unable to imagine life without a Facebook page. Like television, social media applications promise to have staying power if only because this generation of students—these multitasking students—would be lost without it. Former Apple and Microsoft executive Linda Stone coined the phrase “continuous partial attention,” which describes the way these students work. I don’t try to fight their need—and ability—to do several things at once. Instead, I use social media to extend the time I’m engaged with them, even when they’re not in class. I want to have their partial attention throughout the whole day since it is all but impossible to have their undivided attention for even a few hours.

If your goal is to help prepare students for business in the real world, then you must acknowledge that businesses are using social media in all kinds of ways. I know my students see the value in using social media as a complement to other course materials. Better yet, these tools are not time-consuming. Most weeks, I spend less than two additional hours posting articles to social media sites for my courses. I am reading those articles anyway, and the time I spend to cut and paste them into a blog is small. Reading student comments might add another hour per week.

Social media might not be for you, and they might not suit every course. But if you’ve read this far, then I’m guessing you think Web 2.0 might help you engage your students in the material on a deeper level. As John Munsell said, “If content is king, then conversation is queen.”

Allen H. Kupetz is the executive in residence at the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Some of the many social media tools he uses can be found at