Search, connect, share and study… academic learning has now acquired a collaborative dimension, thanks to immense resource potential of social networking sites.

It is now an almost impulsive act for many — turning on the computer and logging on to Facebook and Twitter. College students may say a quick ‘hi' to friends or check out new photographs and updates, but after that it is not merely campus gossip or the canteen fare that figure in their social networking activity. There is academic work happening too.

Students are putting to use the immense potential provided by social networking platforms to extend their classroom discussions to cyberspace. They connect to resources, collaborate in study and share information through social media.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and blogs are all finding their way to classrooms or rather classrooms are finding their way into these sites. Instant connectivity to resources, collaborating and sharing the information is key to making use of these online media.

Thillai Rajan, associate professor, department of management studies (DoMS), IIT-Madras, recounts how one of his Ph.D students used a social networking site to identify the right methodology to be used for her research. “A student searched for other people who are working on similar research and contacted them to clarify her doubts,” he adds. The use of web to elicit views from students has also helped many a college process become democratic. “With most cultural fests becoming completely student-organised, it has become easy for us to gather what students feel through Facebook. Right from what music shows they would want to what events they would like, taking a poll on the Net and considering the views makes the fest better and the activity engaging. Moreover, this way, participation levels have also increased among students in college affairs,” says Vaibhav Krishna, a student of VIT University.

Besides researchers, even undergraduate students share information on the Net. K. Yashwant, a second-year M.S. Electrical Engineering student, IIT-Madras, submits his assignments, reads class notes and clarifies doubts through discussion threads — all using a course management software moodle.org. “We no longer need to submit sheets or pen drive to our faculty members. It's all online and convenient,” he says.

Deciding on the future course of study, choosing the right institute is another area for which the power of such medium can be harnessed. Students form groups to discuss their GRE or TOEFL scores, understand which universities and courses they are eligible to apply for and also to get in touch with the alumni to seek advice. “For every application we need to shell out a significant sum of money. So it would work out better if we can contact people who have been through the entire process,” says Yashwant. Often, the process doesn't end here. Students who have got admission to a particular university can also form an interest group and discuss about moving to the new place and settling down.

Similarly, LinkedIn is one of the websites that more and more students are getting hooked to for making professional contacts. Students remain connected with their faculty members who can give recommendation on the website. This profile is just passed on to a prospective employer or college for admission. Student-organised cultural and tech fests are also being advertised and promoted extensively online

There are other things faculty members are experimenting with in these networking sites to reach out to students. “After every class, I ask my students to give the summary of what was taught in class in blogger.com. It is not compulsory for students to attend the class, but they would at least take that extra effort of finding out what was taught in class on the same day,” says Ravindra Dastikop, Director, Centre for Web 2.0 Enabled Learning, SDM College of Engineering and Technology. Besides this he asks his students to post a question on Facebook and all the others would try to answer; also they need to choose the best answer for which they are given credits. “In this way every student reads his classmates' answers and in the process a corpus of information is created,” he says.

For the next generation, developing the socio-technical skills in using these media not just to elicit information, but to develop research skills, participatory skills, interpreting skills is key. So next time teachers complain about students getting hooked to social networking sites, teach them to use it the right way!