Sarah Smith-Robbins

Going Social: It’s A State of Mind

Spotlight, January 2013

Sarah Smith Robbins

It’s tempting to think of Sarah Smith-Robbins as someone out on the fringe. She works with games and social media, she is the Director of Emerging Technologies for Kelley Executive Partners, and, yes, she dyes her hair pink. But if you sit down and talk to her, you soon discover that she is rooted in solid pedagogy and very concerned with her students’ ability to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning outcomes of the courses she teaches.  Those learning outcomes and course goals come partly from her, partly from the clients for whom the students are working, and partly (and perhaps most importantly) from the students themselves. Using authentic tasks, giving the students some control over what they do and how they learn, being transparent about expectations, and acting as a collaborator in the whole process have helped Sarah give her students opportunities to do the things that others only learn about.

Sarah teaches both a 400-level class and a 2nd-year MBA class on Social Media: Marketing and Strategy, so most of her students are already on the job market. “I hear all the time from students who have graduated, saying, ‘All the other people in my office have read a book …, but none of them have proof of what they’ve done, and I do’.” All of her courses involve projects from real clients that have included on-campus organizations like the alumni association, large companies like Proctor and Gamble or Nestle, and charitable organizations. That hands-on experience in an authentic setting with real-world tools is invaluable to the students.

Beyond the ultimate reward of a good job, however, Sarah believes that the students find more value in doing the projects when someone is depending on them to provide some kind of product or plan. She also gets buy-in from students by involving them in the goal-setting process for the project and refers to herself as a collaborator in the process. The students make the decisions and shape the project, consulting with Sarah, whose job it is to remind them of the goals they set and to keep them focused on demonstrating that they have achieved those goals.

Students who take her course know that it involves social media, but they still need some instruction and modeling to become proficient. “I teach about, with, and through social media”, Sarah says, so it makes sense to use those tools for learning, too. For each course, Sarah creates a Twitter hashtag and encourages her students to use it. She uses it to post information about the class itself, but more importantly, she uses it to post links to interesting articles that she wants to bring to the students’ attention. After a week or two, they take it over. They are answering each other’s questions and posting links to articles they are finding. What’s more, by using the same hashtag for the course from year to year, former students who are out in the working world sometimes rejoin the discussion, bringing their new perspectives into the conversation.

Sarah uses a number of different social media tools in her classes. Sometimes a new tool really enhances learning; sometimes it doesn’t. She brings the class along on her experiments, inviting them to test and critique new tools and approaches, activities that will be a part of their jobs as marketers. Whatever she’s using, however, Sarah makes sure of four things.

  1. The students understand how to use the technology.
  2. She models appropriate and productive use of the technology.
  3. She sticks with it.
  4. The students see these technologies as a valuable part of the class.

What’s next for Sarah to explore? She’s becoming very interested in location-based social media and its effect on community. For the past two semesters she has found that 100% of her undergraduates have smart phones, and that opens up some possibilities. If students who tweet with the class hashtag discover that a classmate is nearby, will they spontaneously sit down together for coffee and discuss an assignment? Sarah wants to find out. It’s all a part of going social.

Sarah Smith-Robbins is the Director of Emerging Technologies for Kelley Executive Partners. She holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Ball State where she studied virtual worlds. Recognized nationally as an expert in social media and emerging technologies and their application to organizations and education, she is in high demand as a speaker and game designer.