Student PLNs: Three Ways to Add Social Media to your Curriculum

And then I had a really simple thought, if I can [use social media] to become a better teacher, why can’t my students use this to get good at whatever their passions are?
— Nate Green

Over the last few years, I’ve been on a campaign to have more teachers integrate social media into their classrooms - to teach students about the power of a personalized learning network based on one’s passions. As the quote above asks, how do we help our students to use social media to explore and develop their passions?  First, we have to bring it into our classrooms; we have to talk about what students should do on social media and not just want they shouldn’t do. Second, we have to help our students value veracity over virality and creation over spectation. The best way to achieve these goals is to allow students to explore passions with professionals in digital networks. And the best way to bring that into our classrooms is to use our curriculum to try to ignite those passions through our instruction and assessments.


If we succeed in helping our students use social media differently, not only does it benefit our students, it enhances the learning our classrooms, and it becomes the curriculum we need around digital citizenship, media literacy and digital portfolios. After all, if our students are using social media to learn, share, and collaborate in professional spaces, we won’t have to worry about students posting inappropriate things online, we won’t have to worry about them encountering uncontested misinformation, and we won’t have to worry about their digital presence inhibiting their future ambitions.

Without further adieu, here’s a beginners guide to adding social media to your course:

1. The Syllabus that Updates in Real-Time

Many educators add an “additional reading” section in their syllabus, which includes content that was cut for time but would provide depth to the course content. We need to bring that back, but instead of readings, it needs to be a list of experts and professional organizations that students can follow to learn more about the subject. That way, students continue to learn about our subject in a space that updates in real time, indefinitely! Students also get a glimpse into what experts in that content area read, create, and share on a daily basis; and, they begin to understand of a professional landscape while still in school, so when they get out, they can decide whether, how, where, or why to enter that field.

For example, I taught a new class this year called “Internet and Inequality” about how emerging tech is impacting our society. For that class, I recommended my students follow these 200 Twitter accounts, subscribe to ten newsletters from Morning Brew’s Emerging Tech to Equal Future, and subscribe to eight podcasts from Reply All to Recode Decode. When the class concludes, my students will not stop learning this subject matter. Every class should create these resources and add it to the syllabus. Of course, where you build these networks depends on the class you’re teaching. For example, if I was teaching a photography class, I would build those networks on Instagram, VSCO, and Pinterest.

I can’t think of a better way to teach media literacy. With this updated syllabus, I know if a student loves the content of my course, he will be learning about it as long as he’d like from quality sources.

2. The Real World is Calling: “Tear Down [this classroom] Wall”

One of the greatest things about social media is access--there are literally thousands of professionals from every industry that are discussing their work online. And, they don’t just interact with other professionals, they also interact with amateur users, and, of course, they love to interact with students! Make a point of reaching out to a professional and ask him or her to speak with your students. You can also have individual students reach out to professionals on social media. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but every once in awhile a student gets lucky enough to learn from an industry leader with a lot of followers!

Another way to use social media to extend your teaching beyond your classroom wall is to connect with other teachers and classrooms. You can create a pen pal program, you can host a group discussion, or you can evaluate each other’s work. It doesn’t matter if the class contains older or younger students, both give you an opportunity to share work, discuss topics, or collaborate on an assignments.

Glen and Mike are really good at this, I’ll let them share an example with you:

Amazing work is being done all over the world connecting kids and classes using Skype in the Classroom. It’s an incredible opportunity to make connections and experience cultures you would never have the chance to otherwise. Check out to see who YOU might be able to connect with.

I can’t think of a better way to teach digital citizenship. If students want to be successful in their career, they know they have to use social media the way professionals do. They have to be able to connect and collaborate with other learners and creators.

3. PB[RW]L: Project-based, Real-World Learning

As teachers, we can strategically assign projects that push our students to see how the content we’re covering is being studied and applied in professional spaces. That could be a current events assignment, an assignment where students have to interview an expert, or an assignment where students have to weigh in on a controversy within an industry. We also should ask our students to create and share content the way professionals do. For example, with the increased demand for data visualization, we can have our students to create infographics. Finally, we can use our projects and assessments to help our students build digital portfolios to open doors for them professionally (see example below).


For example, I like to assign each student some class time where they can present on current events. The catch is that it has to connect to what we’ve been studying in class. I scaffold that by suggesting topics and steering them to places where they can find quality information. In my contemporary World History class, I created a list of 32 topics central or tangential to our study of the contemporary world. Then I provided this list and a list of news organizations to explore to help find current events that they can share with their classmates.

When I taught a “Mass Media” class, I assigned projects where students had to emulate professionals, by writing articles, recording podcasts, and producing videos. In order to connect it to the real world, I created a course blog, Soundcloud, YouTube, and social media to have them post their work as if they were journalists. I also had a colleague who had his students share their AP Physics lab reports online. And I’ve taken digital portfolios a step further in my Passion-based Learning through Social Media course, where students can choose their own content and construct a digital portfolio around that.

I can’t think of a better way to teach digital portfolios. By providing our students with an authentic, professional audience for their work, their digital footprint will blossom into a digital portfolio that will reflect well on them in college admissions and employment applications.

Of course, we can’t assume our students will love our subject matter the way we do. Perhaps they aren’t interested in the networks we expose them to, and that’s okay. As long as we’re showing them the process and providing them the with skills, our students will build their own personalized learning networks in areas of passion, be it academic, civic, or career related.

Hopefully these activities will help our schools change social media’s status from persona non grata to one where learning, sharing and collaborating brings knowledge and fulfillment to our students’ lives. After all, only when we embrace social media and teach it, can we mitigate the negatives that it has brought on our school and society (like addiction, misinformation, bullying, to name a few). We, as teachers, need to also embrace the role of role model, and the role of mentor. It’s important to show your students how you learn, curate, create, share, collaborate, and lead online. With our mentorship and leadership, our students will become passionate learners, sharers and collaborators online, and we can share in their success as media literate, digital citizens with robust digital portfolios.

Nate Green is a Technology and Instruction Specialist from Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @MrShakedown

Mike WashburnComment