Why Teach Social Media?


I teach social media courses. They are graduate courses in a communications program and most of the students are working in some related field (technical writing, graphic and web design). Some older friends who are not educators have expressed surprise that there are courses in social media (SM). They view social media as something “all kids know about” these days and don’t think of SM as a very serious subject.

Of course, SM is very serious business in the marketing and advertising sense. I have written earlier about what some feel is a social media skills gap. That term, “skills gap,” is itself an important one for colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called it “The Idea That Launched a Thousand Strategic Plans” (the article is unfortunately for subscriber access only) because trying to fill in gaps in skills that employers say they need has become a way to build programs and therefore colleges’ plans for the future.

There are educators that question that kind of planning because it makes assumptions about the role and purpose of a college education. Is college meant to train employees in skills and job-specific areas, or is the mission something much larger?

Some social media consultants have said that 90% of workers don’t have the skills to leverage social media as a business tool, so it would seem logical that there would be a “market” and interest in higher education to fill in that gap.

Yes, more social media courses are being offered at colleges – generally in marketing and communications programs. But for just-in-time training, current employees are also looking to online courses, MOOC offerings and free on-demand resources.

Hootsuite is one of those providers, but it also offers a Student Program that provides educators and their classrooms free access to social media tools and resources. They have a Hootsuite Academy, which obviously uses their own Hootsuite dashboard which is a widely used platform for social media management. They also offer free certification for students who complete the program.

Because I teach social media courses at a university, and I also do social media consulting, I looked into the Hootsuite Student Program as another way to integrate hands-on activities into NJIT’s online MA program and also its graduate certificate programs.

Social media is just one part of this larger gap, but the “meteoric rise” of social in U.S. over the past decade to more than 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide can’t be ignored.

Some of the materials in the Hootsuite program were topics that I have always included in my curriculum for designing social media. For example, having students conduct an online reputation audit on a real local gives students a better idea of creating a strategy for a brand versus their personal accounts. Students do research and present an analysis in order to create a strategy to improve their client’s social marketing. They research target audience, popular content channels and types, competitor social media use, and make recommendations for future social media marketing activities.

I have students create a social media campaign with objectives, target audience, and metrics. It no longer surprises me that my students often make very little sophisticated use of social media themselves, and have a very limited understanding of how organizations are using it.

One gap I have been attempting to bridge this past year is the lack of knowledge (and interest) in social media ethics and law. That gap is not only in students but in those currently working in social media.

I also see frequent mentions online about a broader “digital skills gap” with employees who don’t know how to use, or are not aware of, the technology available to them. According to a Harris poll survey in Entrepreneur, only one in 10 American workers have mastered their employers’ tools and this gap “Bleeds $1.3 Trillion a Year From US Businesses.”  I believe that this learning process in my social media courses has value beyond making students just being able to do marketing via social media. Activities like creating a social strategy through research, analysis and application, and doing it in a digital world can help bridge a number of skills gaps.

Place-Based Learning


About 10 years ago, I read a book called Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and CommunitiesPlace-based learning is an educational philosophy. It is also known as (or is related to) pedagogy of place, place-based education, experiential education, community-based education, education for sustainability and environmental education.

The term Place-based Education was coined in the early 1990s by Laurie Lane-Zucker of The Orion Society and Dr. John Elder of Middlebury College. Orion’s early work in the area of place-based education was funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and I received a grant from the Dodge back then to do a project with a community and elementary school in New Jersey using this philosophy.

Here’s an excerpt of that book that gives you an overview. It was written by David Sobel, who teaches in the education department at Antioch University New England in New Hampshire.

Back when I was teaching in a middle school and working on that grant, I had used another book  by him, Mapmaking with Children.  It’s definitely related and concerned with having kids get a better “sense of place” for their community.

child's map

I’m a map fan and for me this is more than geography education. You can work with kids and start with mapping close to home in their known world. Then it can “zoom out” to nearby neighborhoods, bordering towns and beyond. I saw this as visual literacy and critical thinking.

I know that many educators use it along with community projects involving the environment or service projects. In the project I did for that grant, we had set one of the goals to be having every kid work with at least one parent closely and we did a day of field trips around the town and area with them,

I saw the mapping as way beyond a  social studies class. I had a lot of fun having students make maps of imaginary places and setting from books they were reading.

Place-based education is more aimed at solving community problems. It uses the students’ local community as one of the primary resources for learning – the unique local history, environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place. The community can be just the school grounds or the town.

You might zoom out later but at the start it is definitely better o zoom in on the community rather than national or global issues. Think global, act local.

Kids always liked that this was very much hands-on learning, project-based learning, and involved getting out of the classroom.

More recently I saw an article on place-based learning that got me thinking about this again. This idea of community as classroom and learning that engages students in solving real problems in the community is still very valid. Even more important to me is the idea of place.

You can easily imagine a nearby woods or river as a classroom for science. What about using it for writing poetry or for a math lesson? Getting away from just using textbooks and worksheets is probably more of a challenge for teachers than for students.

Sobel has kept the philosophy moving forward and he consults and speaks on child development and place-based education for schools. He has authored seven books on children and nature. Perhaps his best known book is Beyond Ecophobia.

That article mentioned above is by Bernard Bull and he suggests six starting points for using place including thinking beyond the “field trip (something that is often not feasible for teachers to consider these days anyway) and building a community network of groups and people in the community who own or work in places that align with the curriculum.

Place-based learning didn’t take a real grip on education when it first was promoted, but I think it has so many possibilities for dropping the many walls, literal and figurative, that hold back innovation in education.

And this is certainly an approach that parents can take with their kids, even if the schools are not willing to take on the challenge.

Original photo by Kenneth Spencer, enhanced by Dianne Lacourciere https://www.flickr.com/photos/60712129@N06/
Original photo by Kenneth Spencer, enhanced by Dianne Lacourciere via flickr.com

There Is Life After Teaching

Jeff Selingo was an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but left to become a book author and columnist, still  focusing on colleges. His new book is titled There Is Life After College. The title is not a question – Is there life after college – but a clear statement that there is an afterlife. That’s the way I view my lifetime of teaching. There is an afterlife.

Diana, who does the Those Who Teach blog, asked me if I would do a guest post about how I left teaching (my multi-decade secondary school gig) but stayed in education, or about the skills teachers have that work well in other fields.

Reading some posts on her blog, I was disheartened to see one about the fact that “I hate teaching” was the most popular search term for 2015 that brought people to her site.

I don’t hate teaching. But I left teaching. I had been teaching middle and high school for 25 years. I still enjoyed it – most days. I wasn’t “burned out.” I told my wife, also a teacher, that I felt like some days I was going to school in the morning, but on too many days it felt more like going to work.

25 is a magic number for teachers in New Jersey because it means you are entitled to your full pension after age 55. (A benefit that is no longer there for new teachers, thanks to one of my former students, Governor Chris Christie.) I decided that I was going to leave the way some sitcom show stars I admired (like Mary Tyler Moore and Jerry Seinfeld) had left – while the ratings and reviews were still good.

Red, yellow and blue parachute against cloudy sky (5278205683)I had no real plan for what would come next.

One of my colleagues was incredulous. “No one leaves without knowing what comes next,” he said.

“It’s kind of like jumping out of an airplane,” I replied “Pretty exhilarating at first. I just have to hope I have a good parachute.”

My parachute was that
a) I could collect my pension if need be (early and with a penalty, but in an emergency, an option)
b) my wife was going to continue to teach and was okay with me taking some time to find something else. And, most importantly,
c) I knew I had marketable skills.

You can find posts about that last part of the parachute from others: Skills Teachers Have that Employers Want, How Teaching Prepares You to Succeed in Business and What It Takes to Find Life After Teaching.

For myself, I knew that though I wasn’t a math or science teacher with those STEM skills that could work for me,  I was a very good English teacher. I am a good writer and communicator who had also gotten a master’s degree in film and video, started and fizzled out on the doctorate, but had picked up a good amount of computer and technology skills along the way.

One key moment in believing in my skill set had occurred a few years earlier when I first considered leaving teaching. A close friend worked for AT&T and said that if I was interested in applying there, I should look at their skills list that was used to sort résumés.  The list contained a good number of skills I’d never seen before.  Platform skills? What’s that?

Platform skills, I discovered, is the name for presentation behaviors that a trainer uses to transmit content effectively. They are a blend of skills you need to do training and make effective presentations.

“You have no problem getting up in front of a group on a platform and talking. Most of us are not comfortable with that,” my friend told me.

He  is correct. Many surveys show that speaking in front of a group is the number one fear of most people. As Jerry Seinfeld liked to point out, fear of death is number two.

Platform skills are more than just being able to get up in front of a group to speak. How many of these dozen skill questions can you answer in the affirmative?

  • Can you be in front of a group of 5, 50 or 500 and be calm and professional?
  • Can you clearly communicates the session’s topic, goal, and relevance to the participants at the beginning of the session?
  • Can you use humor, analogies, examples, metaphors, stories, and delivery methods other than lecture or PowerPoint to engage an audience?
  • Can you facilitate large and small group discussions?
  • Can you give constructive oral and written feedback?
  • Can you plan and deliver presentations that convey complex information in a clear, accessible way?
  • Can you use an appropriate variety of audio-visual technologies to present information?
  • Can you establish and implement grading evaluation criteria?
  • Can you respond to student and supervisor feedback in a timely fashion?
  • Can you work independently without supervision?
  • Can you write documents tailored for specific audiences?
  • Can you set and meet weekly, monthly, and yearly goals?

If you answered “No” to more than one of these, I wonder how effective you were as a teacher. Every good teacher I know has those skills. Sure, some of us have more of some skills and less than others, but we’re not missing any of them. Those twelve platform skills are a very good starting place for building a résumé and preparing for an interview.

Moving from teaching to training is no great leap. It is a fairly natural one. I know several teachers who went that direction or became involved in jobs related to education, like academic publishing.  But those skills also work for human resources and other business applications.

When I left teaching, I decided to take the summer off and not really look seriously for a job until the fall. I spent the summer working on a new résumé and sifting through the boxes of plans and lessons that I had taken from from my classroom “just in case I needed them one day.”

That August, I saw an ad for a position as a director of instructional technology at a nearby university. After I did some searching on what that actually meant, I realized that I had some experience with all the requirements, though no experience in higher education. I applied, interviewed and was in my new job before the summer was even over.

I have worked for that university, NJIT, in different capacities ever since.  Twenty-five years teaching in a public school system had prepared me well for ever-changing priorities, new programs and having to learn new skills while I was doing using them in my job.

Besides supervising staff and student workers, I helped design courses, ran faculty training in both tech tools and pedagogy, chaired committees, and even started teaching a few classes a year.

I also picked up new skills in web design, coding, audio and video production, social media and grant-writing. I was offered a job managing a large grant at another college and took it for five years. I started my own consulting LLC in order to do training for other colleges, and took on web and social media clients.

This year, I think of myself as semi-retired (or, as my wife describes it, “someone with poor retirement skills”). I’m no longer looking for any full-time gig. I have my pension and benefits and a new 401K from my higher ed years, and new projects keep finding me. They keep me busy and add some income, but I turn down as many offers as I accept.

I still teach a course or two each year. Often, those courses are graduate courses that are online, but I still get energized getting in front of a class or group face-to-face. That’s why it saddens me to read reports that a strong majority of teachers surveyed about the profession say they are “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to encourage graduates to become teachers. That means they are in a job that they wouldn’t even recommend to others.

If it’s the case that you aren’t as passionate, idealistic or excited about teaching as you once were, I think you should change professions. Of course, I would say the same thing if you worked as an accountant, landscaper or pharmacist.

I had a former student who had worked for three years on Wall Street visit me. He said he had loved my class, loved literature and writing, and was not happy in his work. “Is a love of literature and writing a good enough reason to become an English teacher?” he asked me.

Well, I love those things too, but I had to tell him No. That’s not enough to be a teacher, because teaching is, for better and worse, a lot more than just a love and knowledge of subject matter. Though knowledge and passion for a subject matters more and more as you move up the grades and into high school and beyond, all levels of teaching require so  many other skills, and much of your time will be spent doing things other than actually teaching your subject.

Maybe to a ninth grade teacher, college seems like an easier gig. Only a few classes per day. Self-motivated learners. High-powered content. But that’s as much of a misconception as the idea that a high school teacher is done with work at 2:30 pm, has lots of vacations and summers off, and can teach the same lessons a few times a day for only 45 minutes.  Teaching isn’t easy at any level or in any subject.

If you’re thinking that academia is making you miserable and you want to “escape”as if it was some gulag where you were being held against your free will, give notice as soon as possible. You can leave. You should leave. And there are other jobs that you are qualified to do. Prepare your parachute and jump.


Designing Social Media

I have been using “social media” since the term was coined to describe the networks that were emerging online along with “Web 2.0.”  In a time when wikis, podcasts, blogs and social media were all seen as a new form of branding and marketing, I began doing consulting for companies that wanted to enter the social media world.

It reminded me of early web development. In the 1990s, companies started to sense that they “needed a website”, but they weren’t exactly clear about why they needed a site.  It seemed like what everyone else (i.e. their competitors) was doing.  The Return on Investment (ROI) was not exactly clear.

In 1997, the Web had one million sites. Blogging was just beginning.  SixDegrees.com let users create profiles and list friends and AOL Instant Messenger let users chat. Google was non-existent.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Wikipedia was started, and Apple started selling iPods. Friendster, a social networking website, was opened to the public in the U.S. in 2002 and grew to 3 million users in three months. The following year, MySpace. another social networking website, was launched as a clone of Friendster.

By them what company of any decent size would be without a website? None.  As with websites, social media began to be seen as “something our company needs to do” even if companies were not sure what the immediate return would be.

In 2006, MySpace was the most popular social networking site in the U.S. However, based on monthly unique visitors, Facebook would take away that lead in 2008. That was also the year that Twitter was launched as a social networking and microblogging site.

I started teaching about social media in my courses and by 2010 it became a course in itself.  “Designing Social Media” at NJIT, even at that time, seemed to some of my fellow educators to be a topic that was not worthy of an entire course. Interestingly, as other colleges also began to offer social media courses, a good number of the students who enrolled were equally from communications programs and from business programs.

That course requires a lot of preparation because it changes so rapidly that last year’s social media sites, the syllabus topics, and the readings (forget about a “textbook”) are largely useless except as historical content.

In 2013, I took on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as a social media client. The organization and its many affiliate groups realized that they needed to have a social media strategy and employees to implement it.

One of the big questions from the executive staff when I met with them at their headquarters in Indiana was still ROI – “How will we be able to measure the impact from using social media?” It is still the big concern and a very tricky question to answer. I would start by asking how you measure your brand without social media?

For NCTE, we offered these social media ways to share any page on their website

No one really disputes the significant role social media plays in the world – though they may debate its value.

Though social media use has fallen mostly over to the marketing side, I have kept my interest in non-profits and individual usage.

But Has Technology Really Changed Your Pedagogy?


Although those of us who work in educational technology talk about how much technology has changed education and how it will change education, it is much harder to explain how it has changed teaching.

If all the technology you use in the classroom were gone tomorrow, how would it affect the way you teach? 

Has your philosophy, your pedagogy or your methodology changed  in any permanent way?

Take away the computers and the Internet and projectors, your electronic gradebook and all the rest, and I am sure any good teacher could still teach.

There are media stories all the time about people trying to go “cold turkey” on their connections by giving up the Net or their smartphones. It’s difficult, But I suspect that giving up all the technology in your classroom would be easier for most teachers K-20.

Could you go back to paper books, papers, pens, a non-digital whiteboard  or easel?  Sure, you could. But would you actually teach differently?

I have read several times that if doctors, engineers or even farmers lost all the technology created in the past 30 years, they would have a very difficult time doing their jobs as well using the methodologies of 1983. Not true of teachers?

Yes, this is a very hypothetical question to ask and the technology isn’t going away (except for those short-term situations after disasters). My thought experiment is to take the 2013 math teacher and put her in a 1983 classroom world. How does she teach? Whatever falls away is what technology changed in her pedagogy. Would the science teacher be more affected than the language teacher?

My own personal reflection on this is that as much as I use technology in my preparation to teach and in the classroom, I don’t think my own teaching style has been dramatically changed over the years by technology.

The biggest exception is my online teaching. If that needed to go back to 1983 and some correspondence model of distance learning, it would require a major shift in my content and my methods – but my philosophy and pedagogy would not change as much.

Teaching the Daily Practices

Daily practice is a part of many religions and spiritual quests. But the discipline of daily practices does not have to have anything to do with religion or spirituality. The self-discipline of having a daily practice is good for the mind, body and soul.

My writing online is a daily practice that is spread around in a number of places. It is the best thing I have done in my life to improve my writing. I have tried daily writing practices before. William Stafford and other poets are known for their daily poems.

It did that in 2014 with a daily poetry practice that I called Writing the Day. It helps that Stafford, when asked about how he could write a poem each day, replied that he lowered his standards. He didn’t write a gem every day. But he did write every day.

This year, I still write poems and I still contribute weekly to that poetry blog, but my daily practices have changed.

Maybe your practice is yoga, meditation, working in the garden, painting, or making time for serious reading. The list is long with possibilities.

It takes discipline. I know that “discipline” has a bad bad reputation. It makes you think of school and getting sent to the principal’s office for detention. But discipline is good and necessary.

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that we should have in our non-academic life.

When I was more seriously into meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When I stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about. EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. “

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and with Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

People apply Buddhist teachings in such a way as to release tensions of the body, reduce bodily stress and pains, and in many cases alleviate not only symptoms but also underlying causes of illness. Can you pass on that knowledge and teach others to have a daily practice? I think that is the ultimate point of gaining the knowledge.

The other place I see this happening is with yoga – a practice that I have very little experience with. (I took a 5 week class that didn’t work for me.) But i saw a blog post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn and she talks about a concept of “body prayer.” She applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (There is a a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

I see yoga classes being offered everywhere from corporate centers to churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It’s a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice.

Healing yourself is good, but healing the world, or at least a small part of it, is better. I have been a teacher in schools for my entire adult life, but my sense of the “teacher” is not really connected to schools but to every experience.

I have posted on another site about contemplative practices. I posted something about a very simple and brief guided practice using a bell sound meditation. It takes five minutes to do. Everyone can do a daily practice that only requires five minutes. But that is still more time than many people seem willing to give to quiet contemplation.

Even a daily practice of five minutes a day requires discipline.

One of my new daily practices is taking a few minutes every night before I go to sleep to review the day and note what I am grateful for from the day. Honestly, when I started, for a few nights I couldn’t come up with anything I was grateful for that day. That first saddened me, but then it bothered me. How could there be nothing that day I was grateful for? Sure, I could say I am grateful for being alive and healthy, for having a job, and for being married to someone I love and for my children. But that sounded corny, a bit of a cliche and too easy. I could use them every night. I am grateful for all those things every day, but it is harder and more important to probe deeper and

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself? The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things.”

At the top of this page is the Tree of Contemplative Practices, which is a nice visual of seven branches of practices, that I found on the website for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

You can see that it ranges from quiet practices for stillness (sitting meditation; centering prayer) to movement (walking meditation; pilgrimage). These practices can be done alone, but most of them actually involve others (especially work and volunteering or storytelling), Some of these practices can produce tangible results. That might be music, art, a house, a sacred space, a journal or a dialog with someone.

I asked a co-worker this past week if she sets aside any time each day for conscious contemplation. She said that it was those ten minutes that would sip coffee while waiting for the train every morning. “What do you think about?” I asked. “Nothing. I stare mindlessly at the tracks.”

I know that many teachers of meditation will encourage you to empty your mind, but the “mindless” nature of my co-worker’s practice make me think it’s not a contemplative practice.

You can add another level to an activity that seems mindless or just relaxing. For example, gardening is one of my favorite activities and I consider it to be a contemplative practice when I am conscious of an intention of cultivating awareness. I know someone who gardens as a way of developing a stronger connection with God. That’s different from just gardening.

You can do it while sitting quietly, walking in the woods, watching a fire, gazing at the ocean waves or resting on the couch, but you have to move beyond the experience and the moment.