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Posted at 7:55 AM ET, 02/ 2/2011

When snow hit, one American U class moved to Facebook

By Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson

Today's guest blogger is R.S. Zaharna, an associate professor of communication at American University who experimented with hosting class on Facebook during a snowstorm last week. (University profile)

The first e-mails about the threat of snow came in shortly after noon, not from the university but from the students: "Professor, supposedly we are getting 5-8 inches of snow this evening, and I'm worried about getting home from class. Do you know if we are still definitely going to hold a session? If so I will obviously try my best to make it."

I doubted there would be 5 to 8 inches, but I knew that it was possible classes would be canceled. In Washington, D.C., just a few inches of snow are enough to send the nation's capital into a tail spin, snarl traffic and otherwise endanger students who commute to the American University campus where I teach. Last year, we had two back-to-back blizzards that shut down campus for a week. This year, colleagues farther up the East Coast are getting their turn.

Last year's blizzards, nightmares though they were, forced me to take a second look at technology, especially the part about connecting and interacting. Coincidentally, I had just written a book highlighting connectivity and interactivity as defining features of the global communication era. In theory, I know about the potential of using new technology to connect and interact. The problem was, I had never put theory into practice. But that February 2010 storm, dubbed Snowmageddon by the media, gave me long, house-bound days to re-consider not what the technology could do for me, but what I could do with technology.

I took some tiny steps. The snow melted. I went on sabbatical. And, that was it.

Two weeks ago, I returned from sabbatical. Last week the snow, and the panic, returned.

Soon after the first student e-mailed me her snow advisory, others started e-mailing their "what if..." weather-related concerns. I was trying to deal with this blizzard of e-mail, and the snow hadn't even started.

That's when I remembered our class Facebook page. I posted an update on the page and told the students I would only cancel if the university canceled. That way I did not have to reply to every single panicky request.

Setting up this Facebook page was one of the first things I did after I created my spring syllabus for this class, International Public Relations. It wasn't my idea; it was something I learned from students and junior colleagues when I returned from sabbatical. After eight months of being in research la-la land, stepping back onto a high-speed, wi-fi campus was like moving from the cave wall paintings to, well, digital walls. I attended a one-day university-sponsored teaching symposium and zeroed in on technology sessions to get myself up to speed. The line that really stuck with me was: "If you want to fish, go where the fish are." The fish, is seems, were all on Facebook, and I wanted to cast my net.

I set up our "AU -- International Public Relations/Communication" Facebook page. I'm not a "digital native," so followed my notes very carefully: Facebook sign-in. Left column "Groups." Open/private, secret. Click "open."

There it was. My line was in the water.

On Wednesday, I used the page to post my own "Snow Advisory.". The snow had finally started, but the e-mails suddenly stopped.

Wow, it works!

Then the official word came. The University would close at 3 p.m. My 5:30 p.m. class was canceled - at least the on-campus version was canceled. A student posted this news on the class wall.

My next Facebook post: "I'm thinking ... stay tune..." (Yes, it should have been stay tuned, but I was into digital speak.)

At 4 p.m. I alerted students that I would post a "creative challenge" at 5 p.m. I also sent e-mail alerts and posted an announcement on the traditional teaching site.

Their assignment: Students would use the cultural assignments that were due for that night's class to re-design a brochure for a digital storytelling summer camp for teens to better appeal to diverse ethnic communities. I had planned to do this in class, with students working in groups.

Then I realized I didn't know how to upload the brochure they needed for the assignment.

I clicked every which way I could think of. Right. Left. Center. Drag. Scroll. Then I remembered "visual" - photo - jpg. How to convert pdf to jpg. Digital speak. Google it.

It worked.

At 5 p.m., I posted the "Creative Challenge." To keep the spirit light, I switched it from a "must do" assignment to a "try to" effort.

"Class" began as scheduled at 5:30. Students were online. They were posting. They were into the assignment.

I was giving feedback, posting my comments. No, wait. I wasn't posting comments. I was writing them, but no one could see them. Then, I accidentally hit the "return" key. My posts were up and I was back in business.

I tried to keep the discussion going with prompts and questions, but I need more tips on providing quick online feedback. Resorting to "wow" and exclamation marks has its pedagogical limits.

I tried to keep comments short .... tried to remember the dots... to signal "ongoing, please continue"...

GREAT experience! (Three exclamation marks in digital speak.)

I learned a lot, and the students did an incredible job. They provided solid, thoughtful answers that referred to their reading and research. And they seemed to enjoy the experience. One even participated while she was riding the Metro. Not everyone made it to my virtual class, but those who didn't were catching up, posting their ideas the day after the storm.

So the next time it snows, I won't be ice fishing; I'll be Facebook fishing.

(And you can read the full class transcript on Facebook.)

Facebook turns seven later this week, so two Facebook reps will be on Campus Overload Live Thursday afternoon at 1 to answer questions from readers. Send in your questions now!

How have you used technology and social media in your classroom? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section.

By Jenna Johnson  | February 2, 2011; 7:55 AM ET
Categories:  Networking  | Tags:  American  
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Next: Few American college students left in Egypt; Georgetown students share their experiences


Thrilled to hear that a professor was inspired by our panel at the Ann Ferren Teaching Conference!

The panel was proposed by the newly formed American University Social Media Club, and we have much more planned for this semester (including our ongoing Hashtag the Campus campaign, and a full weekend conference on social media and education coming up April 1-3, 2011).

For more info about the club, check us out on Facebook and Twitter:

Posted by: alexpriest | February 2, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

I did - I teach public relations and my guest could not come due to severe weather and massive traffic jam. He by-passed into McDonald's and did the class via Skype. The students were delighted. It becomes more and more common nowadays everywhere, not only in the US.

Posted by: l_newcomer | February 2, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

In addition to the events mentioned above, the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University (organizer of the Ann Ferren Teaching Conference) will host a Noontime Conversation on the use of social media in the classroom, on Wednesday, March 16, from 12 - 1:30 p.m. at American University (Mary Graydon Center, room 5).

For more information, please visit:

Posted by: annaolsson | February 2, 2011 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Yes, a good idea. my students definitely seem to enjoy discussions on Facebook. (I'm a professor of journalism at the University of Memphis)

I also created a Twitter Scavenger Hunt that they seemed to really like, and we are now being joined by universities across the nation, and we welcome more! See this for more info on what we are doing and why:

Posted by: brizzyc | February 8, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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