Ben Gleason, a new School of Education assistant professor, studies how Twitter usage can bring about new literacy skills and enhance student learning. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Gleason taps technology to engage students, explore new literacy skills with social media

Ben Gleason isn’t just asking students to turn to a page in their textbooks, he’s asking them to turn on their phones.

The new assistant professor of educational technology in the Iowa State University School of Education sees the connection between social media use and the creation of authentic community.

“I’m driven by a desire to bring the most out of students,” Gleason said. “Along the way, I’ve been encouraged by how technology can be one of the factors that support student development and student growth, and the relational connections between people — as well as the overwhelming ability to change the community and to change the world.”

This desire to effect change, Gleason said, can cause many social media users to mobilize behind a cause.

“I’m interested in new social practices that arise from the use of Twitter,” he said. “For instance, how do students mobilize the resources of their followers, their networks, and their friends in order to achieve certainty when solving a problem?”

Serving students by speaking their language

Gleason’s study of students began long before his entry into the classroom. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English from Ohio’s Oberlin College, he got involved in youth development in California. There, his desire to serve diverse learners grew.

“We have a real social obligation to think critically about how to leverage learning technologies to better serve our students,” Gleason said. “We’re really selling our students short when we don’t take that seriously.”

“The world that we live in today is an interconnected, complex society,” he said. “It requires competencies in collaboration, civic engagement, and new literacy practices — all these are things that happen during the use of social media that may or may not be happening in a traditional classroom.”

Gleason said he believes that when social media is brought into the classroom, student learning soars.

“When educators use social media in the classroom, they make a powerful point because they’re starting with student language, experience, and culture,” Gleason said. “Part of their culture is the use of humor and the things that go along with that. When we value that in the classroom, it has the potential to really change the culture of learning in the classroom.”

This potential has caused Gleason to pose a number of questions.

“As teachers and students use Twitter, do students’ abilities to solve problems and to develop expertise in given areas shift?” Gleason said. “Is there a change in the power dynamic, so we create a more student-centered classroom versus a teacher-centered classroom?”

Gleason said he believes the answer is a resounding “yes.” By using Twitter in the classroom, he’s witnessed an increased sense of student ownership, or agency. He said this became crystal clear three weeks into the semester, when he first introduced Twitter to students in a large lecture class of more than 100 students.

“The moment that we started using Twitter in the classroom, the students’ eyes became the size of dinner plates,” Gleason said. “Their whole bodies began to be engaged — you could see the change. You could see their excitement. You could see them working with ideas that were previously only on a PowerPoint.”

Providing an authentic education

This engagement, Gleason said, is what education is all about.

“So often, all of the things that make us human — humor, fun, joy, a sense of play — are left out of the classroom,” he said. “Social media allows all those things, if a teacher is willing to bring them out.”

Gleason is quick to state the benefits that social media can bring to a student’s learning. Using the various platforms can not only add a higher level of learning engagement, but also enhance a student’s literacy skills in new ways.

“The use of social media, and Twitter in particular, represents a new kind of literacy,” Gleason said. “The use of Twitter allows people to read and write in new ways that were not possible before.”

Gleason said he believes these new ways of reading and writing prepare students for a digital word.

“By gaining familiarity with Twitter literacy, users develop particular digitally-oriented literacy practices or skills that enable social acts,” he said. “As students are using Twitter, they are learning to tell stories in different ways — ways that are very engaging and that draw upon social practices, such as the use of humor and pop culture, and the ability to share information on a particular topic and develop powerful arguments.”

Marlene Strathe, director of the School of Education, said Gleason’s knowledge of the social media world is a great asset to students and the education field.

“Ben Gleason has a particularly strong connection with our undergraduates with his research focus on social media and its impact on student engagement in various contexts,” Strathe said.

Gleason joins a team of Iowa State social media experts including Rey Junco, a national expert on the psychosocial impacts of social media use who came to Iowa State in 2014 and is also a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Training teachers in technology

Some teachers may be hesitant to use social media with their students, Gleason acknowledges. To allay educators’ fears, he said it’s important to meet teachers where they’re at.

“One of the ways in which I’ve been fortunate in this position is my ability to think about how I can translate my expertise in this area into effective, workable best practices for teachers,” he said.

Gleason said one best practice is allowing teachers to be curious about new or unfamiliar technologies.

“Often, the best way to teach people about something is to facilitate their creativity and support their own curiosity,” Gleason said. “That begins to help teachers have an open mindset or a learning orientation toward it.”