Theory into Practice: Teaching with Social Media

By Brian Flaherty

Back in July I blogged about using social media as a tool to teach legal research – the post was a review of a “deep dive” program I went to at the AALL Annual Meeting.  Going into the program I was incredibly skeptical.  I was imagining spending a good deal of time “getting up to speed” with different media and platforms, only to be met with the same eye-roll from students that I get from my kids when I give them advice on especially nifty IPhone Apps.   Nevertheless, I came away from the program with some ideas for using social media in teaching – or at least turning over some of the control to the students.

One of the ideas that came out of the program was incorporating Instagram in teaching research: have students take pictures of things they think are or should be regulated, and upload them  for others to work with.  In (or before) class, we could have students look for applicable laws and regulations – teasing out the differences between things that are dealt with in the statutes vs. things that are dealt with through administrative regulation.  Also, given the number of research exercises we have our students do, I imagined this as an opportunity to have them create some of the research exercises rather than us.

I decided to try this idea – ironically, minus the traditional “social media” aspect.  I had students take pictures and send them to me – and I used them to create a classroom presentation and exercises.  But honestly, the idea of creating an Instagram site for our class, and having everyone log into it (or subscribe to it, or follow it, or whatever one does to Instagram) was daunting.  I realized, though, that in terms of this being a “social media” exercise, I realized that we didn’t have to use one of the major platforms (Instagram) for it to be “social media.”   Having them take pictures, send them to me, and then share them with the class was a social media based exercise.

The whole thing worked out as well as I could have imagined.  I gave students two weeks to take and send pictures (I sent out the assignment the week before spring break).  In addition, I told them to spend a bit of time – no more than a half hour – looking up whatever laws and regulations they could find on their subject.  Send the photo and the regulating authority to me by email.  I created a powerpoint of most of the photographs, which we cycled through in class, researching each thing in turn.  It took a good deal of preparation on our part to know where we wanted to guide the discussion for each – but to be honest, this preparation was more enjoyable than struggling to come up with interesting topics to research.

We got a huge variety of photographs to work with – from pictures of homeless people (laws against vagrants, vagabonds and tramps, panhandling ordinances), to pictures of overflowing trash in Boston (Sanitary code, Boston City Ordinances), to a picture of a hot chocolate vending machine (Rhode Island: milk product dispensed from a vending machine).  One person took a picture of his bedroom ceiling and wrote “why is there no light on my ceiling?”  (Sanitary code: light and electric outlets in habitable rooms).  In doing these exercises in class students had do some involved searching – they had to use statutory and regulatory schemes, they had to find city ordinances, and we had them track down enabling legislation.

We will absolutely do this kind of exercise again next year.  Student were actively engaged, it got us working with unfamiliar topics, and we would up talking about why different things are governed by different types of authority, i.e. statutes vs. regulations vs. ordinances.   From here, I’m going back to my AALL notes to figure out: what other cool things are my colleagues doing that I can adapt?

Teaching legal research… with social media?

Early on I went to one of the “Deep Dives” – the longer programs towards the beginning of the conference.  “Inventing the new classroom.”  Now I will admit a certain skepticism going in; at this point I’ve been to about 127 “Flipping the classroom” presentations, and while I try to remain receptive to new ideas, the ideas just don’t seem that new anymore.

I was wrong.

The presenters were fantastic, the way they presented was interactive, fun, and peppered with concrete examples and suggestions (I love going away with material I can implement in upcoming classes).  I’m duty bound at this point to write an article for the ALL-SIS newsletter on this, but I wanted to share a few of the ideas that came out of the program:

One of the speakers talked about using Social Media as a teaching tool – playing into my skepticism.  “Social media” says I, “I cannot imagine such a thing in the class – and frankly, students don’t want you in their social media teaching research.”  But a few folks had some really cool suggestions, that I’m going to try to implement:

  • Take pictures  – or better yet, have students take pictures – of things that you think are (or ought to be) subject to regulation.  Upload them to instagram, and then divvy them up in class, trying to find the relevant regulation(s) or statute(s).   This is a great opportunity to talk about what kinds of things are regulated vs. what kinds of things are subject to statutory control.
  • Again use instagram, but have students upload photos of signs where a controlling statute or regulation is actually noted on the sign.
  • Create a blog, and have students do blog posts, and most importantly: have them create tags for these posts.  Great way to teach about indexing, controlled vocabulary, subject access – you know: headnotes.  I suppose the blog posts could be related to just about anything….
  • Have students create checklists or flowcharts for a legal research process (e.g. “researching something controlled by regulations.”).  Have them give this flowchart to another student to follow to precisely  & see how accurately they’ve described the research process.  This recalls challenges of my youth: “write step-by-step instructions for making a fluffernutter – now give it to someone and have them follow it precisely” (which always ended with fluff and peanut butter covering everything, and no sandwich).  PS: if you’re going to do this, you cannot have shown them the appendix to Amy Sloan’s research books, which include such charts.

OK, so this last one isn’t exactly social media – but it does sound kind of cool, right?  There is more to come on this “Deep Dive,” but I wanted to whet the appetites of our abundant readership.

AALL Annual Meeting: In Praise of Round Tables

At every annual meeting I’ve ever been to, the programs have been a mixed bag.  But reliably, the highlights have always been the roundtables – opportunities to sit with colleagues in a (semi-)formalized setting and discuss issues, learn about innovations others have implemented, and share strategies for solving common problems.

At the Marketing and Outreach RoundTable earlier today I sat with a group discussing specific marketing tools and examples.  We talked about Newsletters as outreach tools, and agreed that in order for these to be read there really had to be a hook: The Georgia Bulldogs, for example, run a “LawDogs” contest, where people submit photos of dogs, and  the “winning” photo  is printed in the newsletter.  At SMU they have “Loo Notes,” which is – you guessed it – library news posted in “the ‘loo.”  These broadsides contain trivia questions, the answer to which are submitted to the circulation desk and make on eligible for a raffle.

Folks also talked about doing programs for faculty and students on using library resources – those recently acquired, or those whose interfaces have recently changed (like THAT ever happens).  Again, we agreed there has to be a hook – usually food – to get folks to attend.

Finally – in terms of faculty – we talked about different ways to be more…present in faculty consciousness – from being present near faculty offices (offering cookies, or just checking printers), to facilitating TWEN access, to showing up at faculty works-in-progress talks, to taking places on faculty committees.

As far as marketing to students, people seemed to be a bit more creative, and successful.  Several folks check out materials other than books and computers – for example, frisbees, hula-hoops, sports equipment or umbrellas.  Others give things out during orientation – USB drives, lunch bags, even reusable library coffee mugs with the promise (eventually fulfilled) of free coffee during finals time.  Someone from Georgia talked about the tremendous success they had with “luncheon learns,” where they would provide pizza for students along with some kind of programming – often, but not always, library related (e.g. “taking care of yourself during finals,” or “what to do BEYOND law school.” )  He reported that they had a startling 60-70 students at these events!

One of the librarians present talked about essentially being the library candy fairy, strolling through the library at various times delivering pieces of candy and good cheer (e.g. “great work – you can do it” or “happy day, from your friends at the desk.”).  She said that students reacted as though she were dolling out gold ingots.

Some of the other “extras” offered to students in the name of marketing:

  • Coffee Breaks during finals (see the aforementioned “Library coffee mugs.”)
  • A “Petting Zoo” in the quad (don’t try this in the city, unless your menagerie is entirely pigeons and squirrels)
  • An oatmeal “breakfast bar” during finals time
  • “Relax in the Stacks” 7-15 minute massage in the library
  • And just because that last one bears repeating: FREE MASSAGE IN THE LIBRARY!

Again, the greatest value of the annual meeting is the opportunity to talk to colleagues doing similar work in different parts of the country.  Librarians tend to be very smart folks doing hard work with great humor.