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An Interview with Ai Addyson-Zhang - Entrepreneurial Social Media Educator

Using social media to bridge the gap between teaching and practice

September 12, 2018
 
 

Dr. Ai Addyson-Zhang is an Associate Professor of Public Relations at Stockton University and a Digital Learning Consultant, Blogger, Speaker, and Live Streamer.

Keeping up with everything that Ai is doing within the education space is almost a full-time job in itself. She is a top writer on Medium and has recently been featured in Forbes.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Ai some questions about using social media for teaching and learning:

Does social media connect learners and educators in a more relatable way?

Today’s students are digital learners. Mobile phones and numerous digital media devices have become an integral part to students’ educational and learning experience. Contemporary students consume content on the go and rely heavily on social media and digital media devices to connect with their peers. Emojis, for example, have almost become a default language to today’s students.

As educators, we need to embrace and respect that. Instead of expecting students to come to our space, we need to make a concerted effort to connect with students at where they are and learn to speak their language. This will require us as educators to step out of our own comfort zones and do some of our own extensive un-learning and re-learning, or de-constructing and re-constructing.

I will forever remember the excitement on a student’s face several years ago when she first received an emoji from me on Snapchat. She called me her “coolest” professor ever. It was at that moment a light bulb switched on in my mind. Since then, I have become a heavy user of various social networking sites in my classes to facilitate teaching and learning, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

I have discovered that when professors are on social media interacting with students and speaking their language, teachers become a lot more relatable to the students. Communicating back and forth with students via emojis, GIFs, videos, audios, and sometimes selfies helps break down the power-distance between teachers and students. It humanizes the teacher as holistic humans; and students enjoy discovering the human side of their instructors. This humanizing factor helps teachers become not only more relatable to the students, but also help cultivate a stronger bond between teachers and students.

These deeper emotional connections are conducive to learning. I learned a profound lesson when I just started my teaching career at the University of Maryland as a teaching assistant. A mentor shared with me, “Students don’t always remember what they learn; but they remember how a class makes them feel.” For some reason, that sentence stuck in my mind for more than a decade and played an important role in shaping my teaching philosophy. The emotional component in learning helps students remember the information they learn in the classroom and empowers them to be more interested and proactive in learning. The emotional bond also has the potential to transform a class into a community, which is what i frequently hear from my students nowadays.

How can social media bridge the gap between teaching and practice?

One of the challenges facing higher education is a gap between what students learn in the classroom and what they are expected to do in the industry. Before I embarked on my social media and entrepreneurial journey, I struggled to identify ways to bridge the gap between what I taught in the classroom and what my students needed to practice in real life. I oftentimes read in my course evaluations that my courses were too theory-based and did not have sufficient real-life implications. It was hurtful to read these comments. However, I didn’t know how to improve the situation.

Later, through self-directed learning and intentional networking in the digital space, I discovered that I was the missing link in the disconnect between classroom teaching and real-world application. That realization brought me into a new world to me. I myself decided to become a practitioner. Today, I am a proud blogger, speaker, host of a weekly Facebook live show, and a digital learning consultant. I no longer struggle with identifying ways to interlink the two camps of teaching and practice. Instead, I have a wealth of professional networks and resources to share with my students. Playing the dual-role of being an educator and practitioner familiarizes me with both the academic environment and day-to-day practice; it helps transform my classroom teaching. Everything I do outside the classroom has made me a better teacher inside the classroom in numerous profound ways.

For example, for my Social Media class, I now have content from my own Facebook live show to share with my students. On my show, I interview leading industry professionals from all over the US and the world to discuss topics related to social media marketing and communication. Many of the guests on my show are sought-after industry speakers; and their depth and breadth of certain subjects have far surpassed my understanding on these subjects. For example, on September 19, at 5PM, EST, I will have Cathy Hackl on my show to discuss Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality. Cathy is a highly established industry expert and sought-after speaker on these topics. Her insight will be much more valuable to my students than what I could tell them based on my own limited understanding of these topics.

In addition, because my show has regular viewers from fifteen countries, this global perspective has substantially enriched classroom discussion. It is such a humbling experience to see that my extended professional networks and communities have become an indispensable part to students’ learning journey. These connections have also helped bridge the gap between education and practice in such profound and transformative ways. Moreover, the openness of all these digital and social media platforms has successfully blurred the line between formal classroom learning and informal everyday learning. An important lesson that I communicate to my students is that learning shouldn’t be limited to the classroom. Learning never ends and technology makes lifelong learning feasible.

Does social media transcend the traditional teacher-student boundary?

Traditionally, the teacher-student relationship ends once a class is over. However, this is not the case for teachers who use digital media devices and tools to connect with their students. Technology and social media have made self-paced and self-directed learning possible. Learning is happening not only inside the classroom, but outside in the digital space as well. Over the course of the past several years, social media has extended my availability to my students. I have become a part of my students’ learning journey.

For example, used right, Facebook group can be an effective e-learning platform. I created Facebook groups for each of the classes that I am currently teaching in the fall semester. Facebook group has numerous features that can help me stay in constant communication with my students such as live streaming, units, poll, events, Q&A, stories, etc. All these features allow me to get to know my students beyond the classroom walls and to offer personalized coaching.

Video is a particularly effective format to transcend the traditional teacher-student boundary. One way I use video is via Facebook live streaming. I create weekly Facebook live streaming Q&A sessions (scheduled as “Events” on the group pages). During these live streaming sessions, I answer my students’ questions related to the class, as well as career and fun activities. Because I use a third-party tool (BeLive) to conduct my Facebook live, I can invite up to three students to join me during any particular live streaming session. It feels like a virtual mini-conference. During these Q&A live streaming sessions, students and I have conversations regarding their questions; and the rest of the students who join us live share their opinions in the comment section. In other words, students are no longer learning from me passively, but are actively co-creating a learning experience with me and the rest of the class. Even the students who cannot join the live Q&A can watch the replay and share their experience as well.

Another way I use video is to use Facebook Stories to share my day-to-day life especially when I attend professional conferences, workshops, or events. For example, during the first week of class, I was attending a digital marketing conference. I used Facebook Stories to bring my students with me to “experience” the excitement and intellectual stimulation of attending one of the biggest digital marketing conferences in the US with over 24,000 attendees. Without a digital platform such as Facebook group, I wouldn’t have been able to share the experience with my students as it was happening. I could inform my students of what happened after the conference was over. However, it would not be the same. The synergy of a live event wouldn’t be there.

Besides professional activities, I also use Facebook stories to share a little bit about my personal life. Students have “met” my kids and husband. In general, these storytelling efforts have humanized who I am as a teacher and allowed me to connect with my students at a level that involves and evokes emotions. The emotional component helps me nurture a warm classroom environment conducive to learning. This is especially the case for online classes.

What are some of your best practices when it comes to using social media for teaching and learning?

  • Keep at least 80% of the content you share on social media professional. This is the case especially if you are using these platforms in the classroom, because students will watch your content. You want to model professional usage of social media platforms. Most of the content that I share on all platforms that I use is related to social media, education, communication, and entrepreneurship. These are the subjects that I teach. I do also share more personal information on selected platforms such as Facebook Stories, Instagram, and Instagram stories. However, I keep in mind that everything I share has the possibility of being viewed by my students. I also teach this to my students. The content that they convey to the outside world, even with supposedly private platforms or settings, has the potential to be viewed by the public. Nothing is truly private in the digital space.
  • Develop proper social media etiquette. I have a section on each of my syllabi dedicated to Social Media Etiquette. Because social media is a relatively egalitarian space, I want my students to still remember that I am their professor, not exactly their “friend.” They cannot call me “dude” for example. I require my students call me by “Dr.” even if it is on social media. I believe classroom is a safe and ideal place for students to learn and practice professional social media etiquette.
  • Communicate your availability to your students. Social media doesn’t sleep, but, instructors do. I tell my students the specific hours that I will be responding to their social media messages. I also tell them the specific hours that I will be holding the virtual office hours via Facebook live or Instagram live. Additionally, I tell my students on the first day of class that the preferred way to contact me is via each class’s Facebook Group because it allows everyone to see the questions and engage in peer-to-peer learning, which is a priority to me. I also let my students know that they have the freedom to contact me via various private messaging platforms such as on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. However, I won’t get back to them as quickly as other preferred means.
  • Respect students’ privacy. If you decide to incorporate social media and digital tools into your classes to facilitate teaching and learning, you will encounter student resistance. I have met students who refused to be on social media due to various reasons. Also, some students don’t like their private space being invaded (students perceive social media as their “private” space). In these circumstances, I do respect their choice. I allow students to create fake accounts for learning purposes. Meanwhile, I communicate to my students that if they choose to follow me on social media, their content might be consumed by me. They are encouraged to follow me on social media, but not required. However, as my classes are all communication and digital-mediated related, I do emphasize how crucial it is for them to understand social media and to build their digital footprints. Finally, if you are an instructor afraid of losing your personal privacy, you can create separate classroom-related social media accounts. I have seen people do that with great success.
  • Embrace a lifelong student mentality. Incorporating social media into classes as an educational tool is not easy. It is time- and energy-consuming. One reason is that social networking sites change constantly. New features emerge and old ones become obsolete. As educators, we have to engage in constant learning and make an effort to practice intentional networking and join relevant communities to share resources and learn from each other. We call these communities Personal Learning Networks (PLN). Twitter and LinkedIn, for instance, have lots of forward-thinking educators who are experts on digital learning and pedagogical innovation. Discover, connect, and get to know them. You can even schedule virtual hangout with people. I do it all the time. Many educators are willing to help and share resources and ideas. At the same time, be willing to take risks, experiment with ideas and initiatives, and most importantly, admit that we don’t know everything. Although many educators hold a terminal degree in their respective fields, learning has no end. Both teachers and students need to understand and adopt a forever-student mentality.

Any final thoughts on social media and education?

Reflecting on my teaching career, the most compelling takeaway is that we educators need to practice what we preach and model behaviors that we want to see in the classroom. This is especially important for preparing our students to find and create meaningful work after college. Although cultivating students’ digital literacy has become an important topic of discussion, to truly prepare students to become digitally savvy and literate, teachers themselves have to embody these desired changes. Without teachers becoming digitally ready first, students are not going to take our words seriously and be able to meaningfully act on the education that we provide them. To borrow from Gandhi’s words, educators need to be the change that we wish to see in the classroom.

Thanks to Dr. Ai Addyson-Zhang for taking the time to participate in this interview. For more information about Ai's work as a digital learning consultant and educator, please visit her website.

 

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