So what good is social media?

By Anne Collier

I hadn’t seen this figure: Social media use is forbidden in 52% of US classrooms, writes writes Prof. Todd Finley at East Carolina University in Edutopia. He suggests that this prohibition is working about as well as did Britain’s royal decree in 1763 that North American colonists were not to settle west of the Appalachians. Professor Finley doesn’t stop with why today’s containment effort is misguided: “1) facility with social media tools is critical to learning and working in the 21st century; 2) 75% of online adolescents are already social networking outside of school; 3) many students hack through Internet filters during class; and 4) exploration of social media sites is part of the adolescent identity.”

More helpfully, he moves on to explain how social media are “transformational” and “perfectly aligned with what American educational philosophers imagined for our schools.” As I read the ensuing paragraphs, I came up with this list of what’s good about teaching with social media. It fosters…

* Self-expression – Finley writes that “students increasingly compose within social media environments” in their offline lives, so it stands to reason that – to eliminate the gap between formal and informal learning – they should be composing blog posts and wikis (essays, commentaries, etc), producing podcasts and videos, and discussing and debating in virtual worlds and educational social network sites, to mention only a few ways to employ new media, in school!
* Collaboration – “Social media, by definition, involve co-creation,” Finley cites author and researcher Tom Webster as stating; and Arizona State University professor James Paul Gee explains to PBS Frontline the value of collaborating “cross-functional teams” in the 21st century, which is how our youth function quite naturally in social media.
* Developing and practicing media literacy – Both Profs. Reynol Junco at Lock Haven University (who found in a study that his students “used Twitter and other social media tools to increase their overall grade point averages”) and Howard Rheingold at Stanford University “view new literacies as additive rather than an annihilation of traditional literacy practices.”
* Civic engagement – Finley writes that social media are “a democratized and democratizing space…. Twitter dismantles authority [and empowers participation], as witnessed by its use in Tunisia.”
* Transparency – “[Sociology] Professor Zynep Tufekci … writes that, to our advantage, the inherent chaos of new media contrasts with the ‘opacity of modern production systems in which everything is delivered to the consumer shrink-wrapped, ‘cleansed’ of hints of its origin and the process by which it was produced’,” Finley writes.
* Social justice – “Ultimately, these technologies give classrooms a real shot at social justice. The trick is for instructors to avoid ‘teaching’ new media tools with old media practices,” Finley writes. I often hear him and K-12 tech educators say that they’re not teaching new media tools, they’re using new media tools to teach (or better, to facilitate the learning of) history, literature, social studies, science, etc.

Before he gets to his “Ten Guidelines for Integrating Social Media Tools and Spaces into the Classroom” at the bottom of his article – which I wish all teachers could read – Finley offers three vignettes illustrating “how social media meshes with teen culture, complicates identity, and subverts authority.” The key takeaway I gathered from them is how vital it is to respect students’ own use of social media in order to use social media effectively in school (as well as at home, I firmly believe). Finley cites writer, theorist and professor Howard Rheingold as describing young people’s explorations in social media as “sacred journeys where teens find themselves.”

One important part of that respect is knowing students have a lot of experience with what makes a media tool effective. Finley says he has learned that “I should always encourage best-in-class technologies when permitted” because less-functional ones schools buy because “safe” or because some other feature is aggressively sold can be much more frustrating than engaging for students, which defeats the engaging, unifying, and collaborative purpose school-based social media has.

Related links

* “Ten ways schools are using social media effectively” in eSchool News
* “A student’s view of informal learning’s value”
* “To bring learning back into school”
* “Students learning with digital tools in spite of school”
* “School helps its students practice social networking”

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