University of Wisconsin professors are encouraging students to engage in social media use beyond the boundaries of the classroom to further facilitate class discussion and communication.

Katy Culver, a UW journalism professor, said she uses social media in the classroom because she wants to engage with students on a platform that matters. The majority of students use social media regularly, but not necessarily in a professional way, she said.

Culver said she sets up course-specific Facebook groups and Twitter accounts for her students so she is able to actively communicate with them and allow for questions to be answered through discussion. While participation in the groups and on Twitter is generally voluntary, for Culver’s more advanced courses she said she requires students to draft professional tweets based on current news and events.

Don Stanley, a life sciences communication professor and an expert on digital communication strategies, social media and web design, also uses social media to interact with students.

“The students are already on it. They’re comfortable using social media versus corresponding to intrusive emails that clutter their inbox,” Stanley said. “Most of the time, [Twitter] is one of the easiest and fastest ways to get in touch with students.”

Stanley said he uses class hashtags on Twitter to track the discussions students engage in and posts additional course-related links for students to check out upon their convenience.

Using social media allows students who may be more introverted or quiet during class to speak up and have a voice in the discussion, Stanley said. He said social media has more interaction and discussion than email.

However, Culver said she’s seen a few instances where the use of social media as a communication channel between students and professors became problematic.

“I’ll receive friend requests from students after adding them to the class Facebook group,” Culver said. “And while I like being more approachable, there are occasions when students will address me unprofessionally and say things they wouldn’t normally say in class. Mediated communication changes the formality.”

Culver said she still uses email as the primary source of communication with her students because it is the most fundamental source of  online communication. She said the world has not yet reached a point where it is professional to Facebook chat someone.

Culver and Stanley both said they believe people will see social media become more common as a primary source of communication with students. It may even go as far as the elementary level, Stanley said.

“Kindergarten teachers are already using Twitter to interact with the authors of the books they read to their students in the classroom,” Stanley said. “They’ll tweet the children’s questions to the authors and engage in full-fledged conversations.”

Google Hangouts also allow professors and teachers to collaborate with other schools, interview authors and experts in professional fields or both to create a network of information sharing, Stanley said.

“It’s just going to become more and more of the norm,” Stanley said.