Connecting Students and Professors with New Technology

In many UAB courses, students can follow along with their professors’ presentations on their laptops, and offer instructors real-time feedback using their “clickers.”

The official name is Social Media and Virtual Communities in Business, but students know it as “the Facebook class.” This spring, UAB School of Business assistant professors Allen Johnston, Ph.D., and Lauren Skinner Beitelspacher, Ph.D., created UAB’s first course focusing on the business strategies of social networks.

“We found that there’s no consensus among either marketing, management, or information systems professionals as to how to maximize a firm’s social media presence,” says Johnston. “We’re definitely on the cutting edge here, on both the technological and business fronts.”

That fact showed up in the students’ reception of the course: All 45 seats were quickly filled. And while the nickname it soon gained is not altogether accurate, Facebook did play a role in class projects.

In one experiment, a student created a new Facebook fan page on a projection screen at the front of the room, and other class members accessed it with their laptops and cell phones, creating a “fan base” in real time. Johnston turned the resulting discussion toward the broader subject of how companies can attract and maintain an online community and involve it in their efforts.

Johnston says he made an effort to “concentrate less on how-to and more on strategy,” but there were still a number of hands-on projects beyond blogging and Tweeting, ranging from experiences in the virtual world Second Life to completing group assignments through SharePoint, an Internet document-sharing program.

As their final project, the students prepared a presentation on social networking strategies for managers at Birmingham’s Regions Bank. Other class topics included the privacy risks that companies and individuals face and how to create an effective “digital identity” for entering the job market. “A business professional’s networking is centered on demonstrating an efficiency and expertise in areas that are important to his or her career,” Johnston says. “As a result, students may want to limit their exposure in nonbusiness networks to avoid diminishing their professional brand.”

Tim Cook’s new online Japanese 101 class offers street-level language lessons live from locations all over Birmingham.

Johnston’s use of technology to enhance learning earned him one of UAB’s President’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching in 2009—but he is not the only digitally advanced instructor on campus. This summer, foreign languages adjunct professor Tim Cook launched an all-online Japanese 101 course that encourages students to call in questions and requests live using the Skype voice-over-Internet service.

Although some basic computer savvy doesn’t hurt, professors don’t have to be technophiles to benefit from modern advances, points out David Yother, director of instructional support services at UAB. The fact that so many current instructors learned their discipline pre-Internet “can sometimes be a barrier, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Yother. “They know how to teach, and they know how to engage students, with or without all these new devices.”

As long as instructors have “the solid, core knowledge and teaching skill in their subject, they can adapt as the technology grows and changes,” says Karen Shader, Ph.D., assistant director of Instructional Technology. “We sit down with faculty members and find out exactly what they want to teach, show them the tools available, and help translate the traditional approaches into the Web-enhanced or online environment.”


Discover the story behind Tim Cook's all-online Japanese 101 class and Allen Johnston's social media course in these features from the UAB Reporter.