Making Social Policy Relevant Through Social Media

Casey BohrmanDr. Casey Bohrman (@CaseyBohrman) is an assistant professor in the Department of Undergraduate Social Work at West Chester University. In this blog post, she writes about how she uses blogging tools such as Twitter and Tumblr in her social welfare policy courses to engage student in current events and practice advocacy skills.

During the winter of 2013, I frequently listened to Tell Me More, an NPR radio program focused on issues impacting people of color.  I noticed that many of the experts on the show came from the “blogosphere” or gained their standing through prolific tweeting.  Wanting my social policy class to be relevant to modern policy discussions, I decided to have students join Twitter as part of a class assignment in Spring 2014.

Because Twitter is limited to 140 characters, I also wanted students to have the opportunity to comment on social issues in a more comprehensive fashion.  Inspired by David Jaffee, a sociologist from the University of North Florida who blogs about his perspective on current socio-economic issues, I decided to have my students also create blogs. The first time I taught the class we used WordPress, as it was the site recommended to me by our librarian.  In future classes, I used Tumblr as it was more user-friendly and allowed for easier incorporation of audio-visual material.

I asked students create a Twitter account and a blog about a particular area of interest, such as mental health policy or how social policy might directly impact women.  I asked students to tweet several times per week and post a blog entry once a month about current issues in their policy area.  I also asked them to follow a range of accounts from traditional news outlets, advocacy organization, and people directly experiencing an issue.  One of the strengths of using Twitter to learn about policy is that it gives students a broader and more current perspective on an issue than they can get from a textbook.   It is particularly important for social workers to hear and learn from the perspectives of people who directly impacted by a social issue. For example, there are a number of users who identify with Black Twitter (such as @Feministajones, @Karnythia, and @TheBlackVoice) who provide important perspectives on racial issues.

At the end of the semester, I asked students to write a paper on the strengths and limitations of using Twitter and blogging to engage in advocacy work. In critiquing the role of social media in advocacy, I asked students to incorporate literature from popular journals/blogs in addition to scholarly literature. It was important that students not be limited to traditional academic sources like peer-reviewed journals because of the time lag for publication.  Students needed to refer to popular media sources to obtain the most current perspectives on social media and advocacy.

The first time I used this assignment, I had students using social media in a limited fashion.  I had them engaging in advocacy through raising awareness about an issue and encouraging public involvement around relevant pieces of local, state and federal legislation.  When I taught the class again, I focused more on having students also tweet about their own activities in the community. I asked students to tweet from events such as on-campus talks, rallies or other political activities. Students used Twitter to promote voting. They tweeted out pictures of themselves helping to register voters and pictures of themselves with “I voted” stickers.  One of my sections used Twitter to coordinate going to and publicizing a march in support of reducing the stigma around drug and alcohol recovery. Another group of students used Twitter to publicize their role in rallies on campus in support of the #blacklivesmatter movement.

Despite initial reservations, students have generally enjoyed this Twitter assignment.  Some of the biggest challenges have been:

– Non-tech savvy students having to dedicate extra time to learning the platform;

– Students following prolific tweeters and their feeds getting clogged so they could not see their classmates tweets;

– Students struggling to limit their time on social media and finding that this assignment contributed to their time management issues.

I look forward to working through these challenges in future social policy classes and to connecting with other social work educators interesting in using Twitter to teach policy practice.

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

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