Originally born in Turkey, Mustafa Gökçek is a successful history professor at Niagara University in New York, dedicated to his students’ education. When he realized that they were having trouble grasping some of the basic concepts he was trying to teach, he came up with an ingenious new method of communicating with them: social media. While the idea might be radical, the system is actually quite simple, and easy to implement for any history course to encourage engagement with the material and student participation.
Gökçek uses a two prong approach in his teaching. First, he created a list of 90 events in history that happened between 1945 and 2005, and began “tweeting” one event per day during the semester using the popular social media platform Twitter. Students might have trouble getting through a textbook, but they don’t need PhDs to read the daily updates from Gökçek. This regular, compartmentalized presentation of information allowed students to internalize the time line of events, because they were experiencing it as it happened. To accomplish the nearly Herculean task of tweeting daily, Gökçek used a software program created by Dr. Murat Demirbaş, which sends out tweets at regularly scheduled intervals. This tool is getting expanded, possibly to include a testing component, which would make the technology easier to adapt to other courses.
Next, Gökçek found links to interesting historical primary documents, helpful articles and websites, and sent them to students. That way, students could gain a deeper and broader understanding of historical events through the Internet—a medium they’re already accustomed to learning from. Often, tweets would be accompanied by links to help students better understand a particular event.
Another goal of Gökçek’s social media campaign was to get students to participate more in class. To accomplish this, he encouraged students to tweet their thoughts from their seats by phone or laptop—things students were often doing in class anyway. Because students must express their thoughts in 140 characters when they tweet, the limited medium forced them to think clearly and concisely before sharing. This method of participation also helps students who are shy about sharing their thoughts out loud, and facilitates multiple conversations at once so that no one student can dominate the limelight.
How else could popular social media sites be used to enhance student learning? Here are a few more ideas:
Facebook profiles of historical figures could help students understand historical characters using a medium with which they are already familiar. Including famous quotes as “status updates” or using their statuses to comment on a historical event would be a great way to illustrate their views and opinions, in a medium students are already familiar with and know how to navigate.
Additionally, YouTube videos depicting historical events in humorous way, such as the Thomas Jefferson musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton rap, “Horrible Histories” videos or any of the thousands of other light-hearted depictions. The more engaging and interesting the video, the more relevant it will seem to students. Plus, if there’s an element of humor involved, students will be more likely to remember it and share it with their friends.
History education doesn’t have to be limited to a stuffy lecture hall. Educators can and should take advantage of technological advancements like social media to communicate with their students, and help them gain a better understanding of their subjects. By using a familiar medium, teachers can encourage students to engage with the material on their own time, and make history really come alive in a uniquely modern way.
About the author: Brittany Lyons aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.