The Professors of the Education Partner Program

  • Ai Zhang

    Ai Zhang

    Associate Professor, Communication Studies

    Stockton University

  • Courses Taught

  • PR
  • Digital Communications
  • Interview
  • Introduction
  • Twitter Stream

Interview with Ai Zhang - Stockton University

- I use Snapchat a lot with my students. One way I really love is to do virtual office hour. So by using Snapchat for example really allows me to get to know my students and answer their questions on a one to one basis.

- Hey everyone, thanks for tuning into the Teacher's Lounge. HubSpot's podcast for the Education Partner program. I'm Isaac Moche, your host for today. Today we'll be talking to Ai Zhang, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Stockton University. Welcome Ai.

- Thank you so much for having me, Isaac. It is truly my honor to be here and to share my journey of social media.

- Yeah it's gonna be great. I've been following you on Medium and LinkedIn and watching your progression, your development as you've started blogging and can you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and your role at Stockton University?

- Yes, hey everyone and my name is Ai and I am an associate professor of public relations at Stockton University. I teach classes in PR and social media and I am an advocate of using social media in the classroom as a teaching tool to enhance student/teacher engagement and many other benefits that I'm sure we are going to discuss later today.

- What was the wake up call for you that you needed to bring social media into your classroom and that it needed to be a bigger part of the way that you taught?

- I didn't start becoming active on social media until only two years ago. So this is how everything got started for me. I was at home grading students papers and I read a very good student's paper. He wrote that he had never heard of Pinterest and that was March 2015. I was like "Oh my god, what is happening there?" because I had always been talking about social media I taught my students that you need to engage in life long learning, get onto Twitter and Instagram, everything. And then I read in this student's paper I was like "Wow" that was like slap in my face. And I noticed a big hole in my teaching. I realized I was not walking the talk. So I what I did was merely talking about social media in my classes but I didn't actually embrace social media myself as an educator. So that was my biggest wake up call and since that day I went nuts with social media and I started to participate in Twitter chats, two or three a day on a daily basis for three months nonstop. And I started to learn as much as possible. I told my students and I told myself "I am going to use myself as an example to show you guys the power of social media." And I wanted to be a better teacher, you know? But little did I know that simple decision to be a better teacher really transformed my own teaching practice and my own professional career.

- You had a pretty huge transformation, at least on Medium and I'm sure many other places, just from that two months of doing that. Can you share what some of those other transformations were and what the results were?

- I used to struggle to find professional speakers coming to my classes, but ever since I've become so active on social media last time I taught and before my sabbatical, I had a waiting list of people who wanted to speak to my class. And that was huge. That had never happened to me before. And so many people, I'm talking about high profile influencers and amazing people who got paid to be speakers, and they wanted to speak to my class because they see how active I am on social media. There are some others, because of my active usage of Twitter and I am also collaborating with a big Twitter influencer and she's a speaker, and I'm part of, or she has a really popular Twitter chat called Twitter Smarter and I am part of her grading team. So all those opportunities to work with influencers, they all come from my online presence which is really amazing. And you mentioned the Medium, so I didn't start blogging until only recently and I blog daily and every time I blog I think about my audience. What do they want and how I can serve them better and how I can offer value to my audience. So I blog daily and I earned a top writer in social media status on Medium within two months. Which is quite incredible to me and actually many people came to me because of my blogging content. Like yesterday I mentioned I was doing a interview like this and he discovered me through my blog.

- So as I was doing research and reading through your blogs, I found this one quote that I just thought was so powerful. You said "My social connections have become my students' learning opportunities." And it is remarkable to see this outpouring of content and enthusiasm that you have lead to people connecting with you, which has almost turned your classroom into a platform where other professors and other thought leaders and other speakers come and your students benefit from all of that.

- Absolutely, absolutely. I think this is the biggest, one of the biggest benefits of using social media in the classroom because I think we are in today's information age, there's only so much students learn. Students can learn from one professor, you know, but if I incorporate Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, all these things I destroy, or I broke down the classroom, the physical classroom walls by inviting professionals from the industry to interact with my students and that is really amazing. I always remember my students from every single class I teach I have a class hashtag. And I always have professionals join the conversation. My students always comment "Oh my God! Who-and-who "Commenting on my tweet, that is incredible!" So it is so nice to see that reaction from students. Which is great, which is exactly what we want to see among our students because once they graduate they are going to learn to communicate with people from online that they have never, ever met in person. So it is really amazing. I see myself as a connector, or a bridge, you know? Interlinking the industry and practice and professionals and educators. Bringing all the necessary resources for my students and social media has just made everything so much easier and make myself so much more relatable to my students.

- If you don't mind me asking, why do you think that you were later to adopt social media as a pedagogical tool? Were you scared, did you not know where to start?

- Yes, that's a great question. Definitely I was scared, I didn't know how to get start. And I think my biggest block was the assumption or the misperception that I always assumed my students as more digitally savvy than myself. I always assumed they knew everything about social media. After all, they grew up within this digital generation. So I always assumed that they knew Twitter, they knew Instagram, they knew the ins and outs and they knew how to use those social media sites for strategic communication purposes. But I was wrong, I was so wrong. I was so wrong and later I said "Do more research in this area." I noticed that our students they mainly use social media as a toy, as entertainment. And they are very quick learners and they use social media. They know how to use it but if you ask students to use social media for business and strategic communication purposes and they need lots of coaching from professors. So that was also kind of a transformation or wake up call for me.

- It's interesting because I think that is the number one question that professors, educators, business, administrators, I mean everyone I just feel like asks the question, what can a student learn from a professor about social media, aren't they the parseltongues?

- There is a lot, you know. The students they learn, they use social media like to chat with their friends. Like "Hey, what's up, what do you want for dinner?" "Grab some whatever." But they don't know how to use the analytics. You know look at the audience insights and this content calendar and strategic usage of social media, they had never been exposed to this layer of social media. So I think that involves lots of teaching and coaching from the professor. Which goes back to what we were talking about earlier meaning that professors, we need to walk the talk. Whatever we ask our students to do we need to do this ourselves. And we need to understand the platforms ourselves. Like blogging, a personal brand, the artage, and analytics and everything and HootSuite. Everything I incorporate into my classes I do it myself so that I can relate, or sometimes I can learn if this is something really new. I tell my students, "This is new to me as well and let's learn this together." It's like a journey and they appreciate that.

- It sounds like in a lot of ways the prevalence of social media in your students' lives has changed the way that you teach and it's allowed you to really get them enthusiastic about social media in a business context. Any other examples of how you've bridged that gap to get your students to be excited about learning and learning social media in the classroom?

- Yes, yes. I see a huge difference in my students. Before I was just like, this probably boring professor standing in front of my students and talking about NBCDE. But now social media I use Snapchat a lot with my students and when they first heard that

- How do you use it?

- Oh many, many ways and one way I really love is to kind of do virtual office hour. I really get to know my students because I don't know maybe for other professors, I don't have students who come to my office hours all the time. I don't know, they just don't come unless during a major assignment that is due or midterm or final exams, those were the times that I have high traffic during my office hours. But throughout the semester, like most of the time I'm just sitting in my office and doing whatever I need to do. So by using Snapchat for example really allows me to get to know my students and answer their questions on a one to one basis. Which is amazing and once I truly get to know a student and the students starts to disclose their personal lives, their personal interest, their personal struggles, which I love, that is when I can really coach my students. I can really offer personalized teaching, personalized coaching, and use my personal connections to share those connections with my students after I truly get to know them. And I also love Snapchat because it is just fun, you know? Like I can send an emoji, and being really cute. I think I can relate to students better. And social media in general humanizes myself as the teacher and they truly get to know me as a person, not just a professor. You know traditionally professors, they come to a class, they talk, and they say "Goodbye students, I will see you next class." But social media is different. I feel like I am almost with my students 24/7 if I want. So I can always coach them and share articles with them, and chat with them, and listen to them, and I really love that. I really love that. And I think I make them more interested in learning, especially proactively, you know? Building a sense of community and students are more willing to share articles on their own, and to find case studies on their own, and using our class hashtag to share those learning resources with the class. And I think, I love to see that agency from students. They are more active. They take more ownership in their own learning, so I love that.

- Do you have new metrics now in what you consider a successful course and how you measure engagement? For some folks it might be number of questions answered, or homework assignments completed, or classes that you've shown up in. And I wonder if those metrics have changed now that you're engaging with students in different ways or are they the same?

- Definitely changed and... like I think the biggest change is discussion with my students, you know? Like before I incorporated social media into my classes and we have an internal system that we use for discussions and I only see discussion happening when I require students to do certain discussions. But now with social media I see discussions happen all the time on social media. And many times when students ask a question before I even have a chance to answer their questions, I see that students they are helping each other. Which is really nice and I see that happen all the time. You know, students engaging in discussion with themselves and engaging discussions with professionals who join our class hashtag. And just sharing resources and helping each other. And those discussions, and even on the 10 minutes sometimes students come to class earlier, I overhear them talking about "Hey did you see that I shared, someone shared an article like on Facebook or on Twitter." And so I hear discussions like that. Which before I never heard anything like that, you know? And I see that students overall take a more active role in learning.

- Do you think that the fact that you work in the US but live in South Korea makes you more motivated to bring connectivity in the classroom? I'd imagine that it would and to break down those barriers of communication and make it not just about physical space.

- Oh, yeah definitely, definitely. But when I was teaching, 'cause right now I'm on sabbatical, on leave. But when I was teaching I was still in the US. But I can see this, I think this is the beauty of social media, you know? That's why I have my Facebook live show, it's called Classroom Without Walls and I think social media makes learning possible. Makes learning happen anytime, anywhere, any location. Which is truly amazing, you know? Like I do Twitter chats a lot and so there's one semester and instead of having guest speakers come to my classes, so one semester I have this influencer, she was so nice. So she hosted a Twitter chat with my entire Intro to PR class, which was amazing. When she did that she also brought her own personal professional network to the chat and would have people coming from across the globe join our chat. It was such a amazing learning experience for my students and also to interact with the global community. It is just truly amazing. So I think if anyone is teaching an online, a pure online class, and social media and this can be really amazing to enrich learning at so many different levels. And definitely something that is impossible a few years ago.

- What are some of the concerns that professors have had about using social media in the classroom?

- A lot! And I think the biggest, because I am an advocate of this and I shared this with my friends all the time, especially those who have not yet embraced social media. One of the biggest concerns I heard is that "I don't have time, I don't have time for this." and the second I heard is "Students they already know "Everything about social media, "They don't need me to do this." So those are some of the concerns I hear all the time.

- And so how do you, you already talked about one of them which is that students might know how to play around with some social media but they don't know how to do business things with social media. How do you respond to the other one, which is I don't have time?

- Yes and this is a big one. I think there are several ways, and also recently another professor Karen Friedberg, we finished another research project and we developed a model to implement social media pedagogy into the classroom and I think to really do this successfully, just have a buy in from professors is not enough. And this involves a whole system, you know? Like a professors we face so many challenges, responsibilities, and things that we need to do when we're teaching research surveys and coaching our students and I think it's really important that we have buy in from higher up, you know? They see the value and the recognize that professors are working really hard to incorporate social media into their classes to give them the necessary recognition, resources, or grant, or whatever. So that professors feel appreciated. They feel like they see something that is valued by the higher up so that they have the incentive to really do this. Otherwise it is very hard to implement this at scale.

- Was that something that you saw transformation in at Stockton? As you started to do more social media that administration was on board afterwards? Were they on board beforehand? What was that like at Stockton?

- Definitely after, not before this. I also started to do more workshop at my school. Teaching other professors at my school in terms of using social media as a pedagogical tool and incorporating certain tools and apps into their classes. Definitely see an increased interest. And again it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, you know, walk the talk. Be the change you want to see in the classroom.

- That's tricky though, because what you just said is like "Okay if you believe in this, you've gotta jump" and "You've gotta go first." and "You've gotta try this." But for a lot of people they might need outside help to make that jump. I don't know, that's a tricky one. What about those folks in the middle?

- I think for me I'm just, I enjoy and love change. I'm not afraid of change. I just love technology, I love learning and I love sharing. I love putting myself in public. It is not too challenging for me to do this. But for some others, you know, maybe people who are more introverted or who just don't naturally love social media like for our research projects. We learned that it takes certain characteristics for a professor to become a social media professor. Even teaching a social media class, we don't think it is like everyone can teach such a class. You definitely need to have certain characteristics and personalities to teach such a class. So I think it really depends on also personality comes into play and I think for someone like me, and I'm just naturally "Yes this is exciting, more change! "Yes I love it!" And I just embrace it without thinking much, yeah.

- It's so funny you say that because earlier you mentioned "It's like I'm with my students 24/7." And I can imagine there's some professors that are like "That is my nightmare." "I don't want that to be the way that I teach anymore." But maybe it just takes a certain kind of professor.

- Exactly, exactly. Which I heard that a lot, you know. And even though some professors, for me when my students send me videos on Snap I just love it and sometimes I respond 11 P.M. or 10 P.M. What I truly love about getting to know my students and humanizing myself is that students they will share all those special moments with me. They will call me like, "Dr. Ai I got that intern!" "Hey Dr. Ai guess what happened, I got this interview!" and I became the first person to share those special moments. You know how easy it is to share something on social media they will send me a voice, or a video, or a text and I think there's nothing more rewarding than that. Teaching by textbook is so different from teaching based on my personal experience, you know? Before I talk about influencer marketing and now I share my personal

- You live it! Exactly! Like I have connection with this influencer. "Guys look what happened, my blog got 500 views because "it's posted on this influencer's website." It is amazing and the students can relate to me much better. They say "Oh yeah this can happen to Dr. Ai "And maybe it can happen to me."

- You've shared so many victories and so many wins and transformations with us. Anything that didn't work?

- Absolutely, there are definitely apps and tools that I don't know, or my understanding is not as deep as my students'. Overcome my own mental block and by saying that "I don't know, I don't have an answer to this question." So I think that's the biggest thing I learned. I don't know everything and I can learn from students. So it's really like, try it and fix my mistakes. And try to improve and listen to my students and try it again. It's really an ongoing, repetitive process of being willing and not being so afraid of making mistakes. Especially when it comes to assignments.

- Awesome. It's good to hear both the good, the bad, the challenges, the victories. I want to thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and for sharing your experience.

- Thank you so much for having me and I hope my story can inspire many other educators. And I really see myself as no different from any other educator out there. Many of you in the audience I think, definitely smarter and better than me. So I think if this can happen to me it can happen to every single professor. Social media truly energizes me as a teacher and expanded my professional career substantially.

- Any final words of advice for those that might've been afraid to take the leap of faith?

- Just do it.

- Thanks again.

- Thank you so much for having me.

- All right folks, this has been the Teacher's Lounge. Hubspot's podcast for the Education Partner program. I'm Isaac Moche, your host for the show. Thanks again for listening.

Ai Zhang

Ai Zhang is a professor, blogger, liver-streamer, and social media (pedagogy) 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 is an Associate Professor of Public Relations at Stockton University, New Jersey. She also serves on a number of social media committees at national communication organizations. Ai conducts and publishes research in social media pedagogy, service-learning, and culture and public relations. Ai is the host of a weekly Facebook live show, Classroom Without Walls: Using Technology to Reimagine Education, where she interviews leading professors and professionals regarding how they use social media as an educational tool. 

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