Interview Series: Ai Addyson-Zhang – Using Social Media to Discover My Zone of Genius: An Educator’s Journey
One of the best gifts that Social Media has to offer is that it allows you to meet amazing human beings that you most probably would not have had the chance to meet otherwise.
Ai Addyson-Zhang is one of the people I have had the fortune to cross paths with via social media and establish a connection with.
Ai is a smart, kind and generous person that will “disarm” you with her welcoming smile and her infectious high energy and positivity – she is a true professional and a caring, dedicated educator. 🙂
I have been moved and inspired by Ai’s love for education and how she is undeniably making an impact in this area by confidently and unapologetically pushing the boundaries and shaping the world of education by advocating for a “classroom without walls” where teaching intersects with social media and technology to allow for a better, more humanized learning experience.
You know what… words won’t do justice. I’ll just let you read on and see for yourself what I am talking about 😉
Can you please give the readers a quick run-through of the moment when you realized the potential behind the pairing of social media with education in the classroom? How did this idea come to you?
I am a college professor. I teach Public Relations and Social Media courses. I am a late adopter of the social media game. In fact, I didn’t start using social media for professional and personal branding until March 2015.
My transformative moment in my teaching career came when I was at home grading students’ papers. I read in a good student’s paper that he had never heard of Pinterest, a major social media platform. I was in shock for a few reasons: First, I had been talking about social media platforms in all of my classes and how important it was for the students to familiarize themselves with these sites, at least the mainstream ones in the United States. Second, I realized that our college students, the so-called “digital natives”, were not as digitally savvy as I had always assumed.
This instance was a huge wake-up call for me. I realized that there was a major gap in my teaching: I didn’t walk my talk as a teacher. On the one hand, I was teaching students that they needed to understand the ins and outs of the major social media players; on the other hand, I myself was not active on any of the social media sites that I was teaching. As George Bernard Shaw noted, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches,”.
Ever since that wake-up call, I decided to radically change how I would teach my classes and approach social media. I decided to use myself as an example to show my students the ins and outs of social media. Little did I know that this simple decision, to become a better professor, would literally transform my teaching and professional career.
Today, not only did my social media journey make me a better educator, but also opened the door to so many professional opportunities that were unthinkable to me only three years ago. I’m now collaborating with influencers, contributing book chapters and guest blogs, and doing podcast and live streaming interviews. I proudly call myself an educator, blogger, host of a weekly Facebook Live show, and a digital learning consultant.
Can you share with us some methods you use to incorporate social media in your classroom and teachings?
As I shared earlier, I do not consider myself a pioneer in the field of using social media for education. However, I pride myself for my curiosity to learn and for being a lifelong student. Twitter is the platform where my social media journey started and transformed. Through Twitter, I connected with a large number of educators who are pioneers in this field and who have generously shared their knowledge and expertise with me. I am forever grateful for their coaching and mentoring. My biggest lesson is: always be a lifelong student!
As social media platforms change all the time, how I incorporate them into my classes also changes correspondingly. For example, at the beginning, I mainly incorporated class hashtags and Twitter chats into my classes to facilitate teaching and learning. I created a hashtag for every single class that I taught. My students frequently shared that a simple hashtag had brought the entire class together as a community or family.
The class hashtag was also for students to share resources, learn from one another, and connect with the broader academic and professional community. For example, one semester I had a public relations influencer from the industry host a live Twitter chat during one of my classes. We discussed how the digital media landscape was influencing traditional public relations practice. We had students and professionals from all over the US join the live chat. The students greatly enjoyed it and kept asking for further sessions.
In another semester, I partnered with two other communication professors from two different universities in the US. The three of us designed a cross-institutional Twitter activity for our students from three different schools. Students loved connecting with and learning from each other. Through a simple hashtag, we overcame the geographic barriers and enriched students’ learning experience. The open-sharing and collaborative learning environment is one of the many reasons that I love using social media and technology in general as a teaching tool.
In the coming semesters I will be teaching all my classes online; I plan to incorporate more videos and live streams, create a Facebook group, and initiate more cross-institutional and global virtual collaborations.
How has incorporating social media in your teaching strategy influenced your students’ performance? Participation? Learning process?
Incorporating social media in my teaching helps humanize who I am as a teacher. Students get to know me at a personal level and I get to know their interests and struggles at a professional and personal level. It has made me much more relatable to my students. I frequently exchange Snapchat videos with my students to talk about coursework, career developments, and even life struggles. Nowadays, I can not imagine being a teacher without incorporating social media into my classes.
Another major benefit of using social media as a teaching tool is that it helps create a sense of community, where students feel comfortable sharing ideas and resources, voicing their opinions, reaching out for help, and learning from and supporting each other. A class has gradually emerged into a community and a family, which makes students become more interested and proactive in learning.
How has this method opened up the gates of communication with your students?
Today’s students are digital learners. They prefer self-paced and self-directed learning, and learning via digital platforms that allow them the freedom to learn whenever and wherever they can. Using social media in my classes allows me to do exactly the same. I am meeting my students where they are and speaking their language of emojis and GIFs. Students are much more likely to reach out to me to seek help or guidance than through the traditional method of visiting me during my office hours.
How do you adapt your method and help students that are not social media users or social media savvy?
Every single semester, I have students who are anti-social media. For various reasons, they don’t want to have an active presence online. I understand and respect their choice. I give those students alternative assignments or allow them to create pseudo accounts on various platforms. However, as my students are communication and public relations majors, I do make it clear that although they don’t have to fall in love with social media, they do have to learn and familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of various platforms and specialties – particularly, social media marketing and digital storytelling are likely to be essential elements of their jobs.
Do you believe this method/pairing applies to all educational fields? How?
Absolutely! Regardless what subject students study, they have to apply what they learn in the classroom to solve real-world problems.. For this very reason, it is important for students to start building their digital footprint while they are still at school so that they can be seen and eventually known in the digital space. Without an active digital portfolio, it is going to be more and more challenging for students to find jobs in an increasingly competitive global market.
What are the biggest challenges you have found when incorporating your method?
Definitely students’ resistance to using social media for professional or academic work. Students are used to using social media for personal and entertainment purposes. Social is their “personal” space. When teachers ask students to use social media for professional, business, and career development purposes, students feel that their personal space has been invaded. However, this resistance typically fades away for most students as they start to experience the networking, learning, and community-building power of social media. I also find that having professionals from the industry come to share their experience with the students helps a lot.
Are school administrative bodies and teachers open to and embracing the use of social media in teaching-classrooms?
There are definitely teachers and administrators who are advocates and supporters of this innovative teaching method. However, there are still many more who are either indifferent to or disagree with this approach. For example, a popular New York Times article came out last November arguing that teachers should ban laptops in lectures, which stirred lots of debate among educators. I think that is why people like me, who have experienced the benefits of social media as a teaching method, need to become advocates and start sharing our stories as much as possible. At the same time, leadership buy-in is crucial to effectively bring social media to mainstream education.
Given that you have lived in different countries (and continents) – How applicable is this method in different educational systems and mindsets?
I definitely think it is applicable. However, there are many cultural limitations and nuances, and the platforms used will certainly be different. For example, in China, social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, etc are by and large inaccessible. However, China has its own versions of Facebook, Twitter, Quora, and various live streaming sites that allow people to engage in information exchange. Many netizens have become quite popular as a result of the content they share online. Although the platforms, features, and cultures might vary, in my experience the core principles can still be modified and applied effectively.
How do you see Social Media in Pedagogy evolving in the near future?
I think today’s education system is undergoing a paradigm shift. It is moving away from a closed system where students learn from a very limited number of teachers and peer groups, to a much more open, collaborative, and participative environment where students are learning from and co-creating content with other educators, students, and professionals. Social media, due to its open and interactive nature, can help facilitate this transition. For example, I host a weekly Facebook Live show, Classroom WIthout Walls – Using Technology to Reimagine Education. I have people from more than ten countries join me to view my show on a regular basis. What a global learning experience it is. Imagine the magnitude of learning if our students were in a classroom unconfined by geographic boundaries. I see the future of education as a model that embraces classrooms without walls, allowing students to learn anywhere, anytime, and from anyone they want.
Ai Addyson-Zhang is a professor, blogger, liver-streamer, and digital learning consultant. She received her M.A. from Syracuse University and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, both of which are located in the United States. Ai teaches Public Relations and Social Media classes at Stockton University in the US as an Associate Professor. Ai also serves on a number of social media committees at national communication organizations. As a Digital Learning consultant, Ai conducts research in this area and offers independent consulting services to help educators incorporate digital media devices into their classes as teaching tools to enhance student learning outcomes. Ai is also the host of the weekly Facebook live show, Classroom Without Walls: Using Technology to Reimagine Education. On the show, she interviews leading professionals and educators regarding topics related to social media, technology, education, and innovation. Her live show is watched by people from thirteen different countries. Her recent interview with Mark Schaefer gained 1.1K+ views, 21 shares, and 230+ comments.
You can find Ai on Social Media at: