Using Social Media to Fuel Face-to-Face Interaction in the Classroom

A Few Moments with Antero Garcia

Antero Garcia is known throughout the digital media and learning community for leading the charge for the adoption of social media in the classroom and supporting participatory learning in school settings. So when it came time to decide on his dissertation project, Garcia knew three things had to be incorporated: his classroom, his students, and games. What resulted was Ask Anansi, an alternate reality game that features a fictitious storytelling spider who takes on a mentorship role with youth. After spending eight years teaching English at a majority-minority high school in South Central Los Angeles, Garcia completed his PhD at UCLA and headed east to Fort Collins, Colorado to begin his college teaching career. Now as an assistant professor of English at Colorado State University, Garcia is tackling new challenges that come with integrating social media into a university-level curriculum. We caught up with Garcia after completing his first semester of teaching to find out what role social media should play in the college classroom and how his relationships with students have changed as digital media becomes a fixture of their everyday lives.

You’re in the unique position of having integrated social media into your curricula at both a high school and college level. How do the two environments compare?

Twitter helped develop the social atmosphere in my college classroom. When I tweet something, the other individuals who sit in this classroom are able to build a connection with me. That was the most valuable thing I hadn’t anticipated using social media for — the face-to-face interaction it helped mediate. I have office hours where I can meet with students, but the schedule I set doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of all students. One of my students works the graveyard shift at a hotel, and he uses that time to blog for my class or tweet me late at night. In that sense, it’s been really helpful in negotiating those interactions because it’s difficult to make those personal connections on a big university campus.

At the high school level, there were a lot of policies that got in the way of the kinds of meaningful relationships I was trying to develop. One of the last projects I did with my high school class involved placing students into chat rooms so they could connect with preservice teachers in Illinois who were looking to gain some cultural knowledge from young people. It was frustrating having to type in the password to get past the school filter on every single computer. I’d type it in, then they’d log out, and I’d have to retype it in. In doing so, there was so much instructional time lost.

Having said all of this, people would assume it’s easier to integrate social media in the college classroom, but that’s not necessarily the case. The same types of digital practices I would have done with young people at a high school I couldn’t do with college students. The fact that every student has a computer and a smart phone doesn’t change what I want them to do in my class. If we are only meeting three times a week for 50 minutes, I don’t want students to stare at computers, I want them to use social media as a tool for reflection.

Looking back on your first semester, what would you have done differently?

I introduced a number of digital media tools to my 301d class all in the course of a week — a chat room, an open Google doc, a blog, and our Twitter hashtag. The students were overwhelmed. There was too much information in too many places. By the end of the semester, they could navigate everything, but I know pedagogically I didn’t introduce these tools very well in the beginning of the class.

I am teaching the class again this semester, and in trying to figure out how to make improvements, I told my students they could write a letter to next semester’s class using the class blog. It was interesting reading these letters and seeing what advice they had to offer to the next class. One student decided to focus on the fact that I am an awkward teacher.

“First, I think it is important that you know Dr. Garcia is just as awkward as he comes off to be. (Garcia please take that in the best way possible!)”

In my approach to teaching classes, I don’t see myself as the expert in the room. Instead I facilitate conversation through social media and face-to-face interaction. It’s about us coming to a common understanding, and I’ll be the first in the room to acknowledge I don’t know what is going on or the first person in the room to volunteer to make a fool of myself, if that’s what it takes. Those are also the kinds of shifts my teaching career has undergone over the years. When I began teaching eight years ago, I assumed I had to know everything, and if I didn’t, it was really embarrassing. Now it’s the opposite. I am trying to be the most active learner in the room as much as possible.

You’ve written that if trust is not established between student and teacher, mobile use will often be in opposition to teacher goals. How do you build trust with your students?

The whole idea of trust is never going to be about a device. Trust is what is going to make or break you as a high school teacher, at least in the context I was in. If students aren’t buying into what you’re doing, they’re going to shift their attention elsewhere. Many of my students had negative experiences with teachers, had not fully believed in high school and thought they were probably going to drop out. They were very open about their attitudes towards school.

Trust is about getting them to see that you’re on their side, but you can’t just say you’re on their side, it has to be reflected in your actions. It’s speaking up about certain programs that aren’t meeting the needs of your students, or making calls to students if they are absent, or eating at the pizza joint down the street where your student works, even if you don’t like the food. When students see you taking those extra steps to understand them, the trust begins to build.

It’s a little trickier at the college level. Like I said, me trying to be open about these things turns into me being awkward. For my Composition 301d class’s main paper assignment, students had to effectively write to an intended audience about an issue in education. Some produced YouTube videos. Some created memes, and others created fake petitions and conducted social experiments. Half the time they were worrying about what their grade was going to be, which is understandable. Your GPA in college matters. But if they put in the effort I am looking for and get to the kind of thinking I am looking for, the grade comes along. I’m still searching for answers as to how to move beyond this paper chase, which is a major challenge in the university setting.

You recently had the chance to reconnect with a former student of yours who dropped out during his senior year. Does this type of reflection process reinforce the need for student voice in the ed reform conversation?

I feel extremely privileged that I was able to talk to Roger again. He became a Facebook friend, and that’s literally what connected us. He was one of those students who for years after my second year of teaching stood out in my mind as a place where I had failed. Getting the opportunity to hear from him about what’s wrong with the system and what I could have done better meant a lot to me. I probably learned more from reflecting on my conversation with Roger than any teacher prep class I could ever take.

That’s why we need student voice. No one can offer that same kind of insight Roger or any of my students can offer a preservice teacher. Those making the big decisions in education policy think they don’t need to hear from students because everyone at the table was a student at one time. But you’re not a student in 2012 in South Central Los Angeles, or up here in Fort Collins for that matter. Another part of it is legitimacy. I spend however many years going through a university to earn a piece of paper, which forces a student to call me Doctor. That makes me the expert in the room, not the kid who is 15 and babysits his sister after school. But kids in South Central live and breathe that space. It’s not something you can write about in a peer review journal. Jim Gee talks about this as tacit knowledge — knowledge that isn’t quantifiable — and it’s what we need in the conversation.

Can you recall a moment from the past eight years when you were able to reach out to a student and connect with them using digital media?

I know you want to hear a success story, but I’d like to share a failure with you. During my first year as a teacher, I had a student who was never in class. Back then, I had a lot of assumptions about what it meant to be a teacher, and I was determined to get that student in class. I thought I could really connect with him because the few times he was there it really felt that way. Instead of attending class, he would stand across the street in front of the donut shop. I’d see him there when I would grab my morning coffee. One day, I went over to the payphone he usually stood next to, put 75 cents in, and used the payphone to dial my cell phone so I could have the number on my caller ID. When the student wasn’t in class, I would call the payphone from my classroom. One day he actually answered.


“It’s Mr. Garcia. Why aren’t you in my class?”

He thought it was really funny. Ultimately my effort of reaching out — in this case via cell phone — wasn’t effective, and he dropped out. It’s one example of where social media/mobile media didn’t do it. If we put all of our eggs in the social media basket, we are going to miss out on a lot. That’s why I hesitate whenever I see lists. Every tweet is a list of something, and it really moves us to this dangerous place where we think we are going to fix everything if we just give people enough chargeable devices. That’s not what is going to happen. We’re going to fix things when students can make personal interactions with teachers that are meaningful and when that culturally relevant curriculum reflects their own experiences, whether it’s on a device or on a chalkboard. Social media shouldn’t be the only solution; it should be one pathway to building trust and relationships.

What was the first piece of social media you ever used in your classroom?

The first social network I used was in my second year of teaching. It was a MySpace page. You’re in luck. I think it might still even be up!

Banner Image credit: Courtesy of Antero Garcia