Incorporating Online Socializing in the Writing Classroom

by Catherine Hooper

To fully understand our continually changing position in the world of professional writing, we must also understand how we teach writing, how writing changes, and how these changes shape the incoming technical communication workforce. As the current age of social networking sites (MySpace.com, Facebook.com) takes off, both instructors and employers of writers must understand how these social networking sites, which involve millions of users who regularly engage in a new breed of written communication, impacts the next generation of technical communicators.

As an instructor of basic composition at a state university, I hear lots of dialogue debating the merit of these social networking websites. Instructors fear that these sites take up extreme amounts of students' time and devolve their grasp of written communication. However, as student participation in such online socializing is increasing at an incredible rate, it seems that perhaps instructors of writing should, if not embrace, then utilize the technology in order to increase student buy-in within the writing classroom. Bridging the gap between instructors and students is often an uphill battle, and we must attempt to understand and evaluate the changing product that is student writing and find ways to encourage learning through even the most unlikely outlets. Instructors of composition often find themselves charged with instruction in critical thinking skills, and as consequences arise from information spread through social networking sights, by ignoring these websites we miss a key opportunity to turn a critical eye to a technology that acts upon our students.

To first understand the importance of social networking sites, we must realize how popular these networks are among students in higher education-the future American workforce. Studies from many schools show that approximately 85 percent of students report using Facebook.com, and when multiple networking cites are considered, this percentage is even higher (Oblinger). I recently conducted a survey asking more than sixty Minnesota State University, Mankato students currently enrolled in Composition 101 about their online socializing preference. Survey results showed that over 80 percent of students reported using either Facebook.com or MySpace.com. Among the 66 respondents, only 16.6 percent reported not using social networking sites. The vast majority of students responded that they primarily used Facebook.com, a social networking site that, until recently, accepted only students with email addresses ending in educational addresses. Such a high percentage of student use implies several key ideas: 1) while social networking may be a recent phenomenon, its popularity has already expanded among this age group to challenge the predominance of email, and 2) instructors who think the use of such sites has negative impacts on student writing habits may be fighting a losing battle to steer students away from using these kinds of communication sites.

Instructor distrust of social networking sites comes from several legitimate concerns. Writing instructors profess worries time and again that the use of hurried, informal, abbreviated written discourse in such a large amount negatively impacts student writing skills. When asking several fellow composition instructors about student use of social networking sites, one instructor commented, "The more they use it, the less they seem to remember how to capitalize or use punctuation." The students, however, see the matter differently. Of students surveyed, a mere 27.2 percent felt that using abbreviations such as LOL (laugh out loud) or "u" (you) in online socializing increased their tendency to use these forms in academic writing. More than 50 percent of students indicated that they considered the writing forms to be entirely separate, one student stating, "I know when I'm talking online and when I am not." Others repeated this sentiment, responding with varying degrees of insult at the implication that they could not discern the different audience for different writing situations.

Another instructor concern pertains to students investing so much time using online networking sites. However, instructors fear that numerous extracurricular activities distract students from academic pursuits (television shows, email, video games). Students and instructors across disciplines will never agree upon the appropriate amount of time students should put into their scholastic careers. Instead of discouraging online communication as a time-wasting activity, perhaps we can instead harness the potential of so much information exchange for academic ends. At my own university, introductory English 101 Composition is the only course all students are required to take, and it is also the course taught by the highest number of graduate teaching assistants, a body of instructors who are often involved in the same technological pursuits as students, including using social networking sites for online communication. Several of these instructors have incorporated social networking sites into their classrooms.

Potential strategies for incorporating social networking sites into classrooms vary widely. Lesson plans include using MySpace.com to create marketing plans for new products. This activity involves having students survey the preferences posted on social networking sites by their friends and then invent a new product that targets those preferences. Students are then expected to present the product, research, and marketing strategy to the class. Another approach uses online blogging features for in-class writing. Yet another directs students to survey members of social networks to create research pools for argumentative essays. Students can create statistical information about preferences and use that information to drive arguments. Another instructor requests that students locate examples of garbled "netspeak" on social networking cites, which students then share and correct with the class in order to demonstrate ways to fix grammatical errors and raise the grammatical level of the written passage.

Instructors also report that creating their own social networking space, including a blog-type space and a limited profile that do not include the instructor's personal data, allows students to approach instructors more frequently and more comfortably via the web. Instructors report allowing students to post course comments and feedback on a social networking site seems to make students more comfortable with providing such feedback.

There is no absolute answer to the dilemma of dealing with the sudden popularity boom of social networking sites and the changes they elicit within the lives of today's college students (and Americans in their teens and twenties as a whole). However, while much university water-cooler discussion cries out for instructors to pit themselves against these sites, perhaps it is in our better interests to try to help our students see tools even in their extracurricular activities and realize that writing, in all its forms, is beneficial for their development as communicators.


Works Cited:

Oblinger, Diana G., and Brian L. Hawkins. "The Myth about Putting Information Online: 'No One Cares What You Say Online.'" Educase Review. 30 Sept. 2006
<http://www.educause.edu/apps/er/erm06/erm06513.asp?bhcp=1>.


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