Social media in the classroom: +1 or -1?

By Anne Collier

Not entirely unlike using chalk and a blackboard, whether or not using Web 2.0 tools is a positive or a negative has a lot more to do with how a teacher views and uses them than with the tools themselves. Two college professors who do use social media as teaching tools “view new literacies as additive rather than an annihilation of traditional literacy practices,” writes Prof. Todd Finley of East Carolina University in an Edutopia blog. There’s a lot to be learned from teachers who have pushed past the “classroom-management nightmare” cliché.

Studying a class’s Twitter use

One of the professors Finley mentions, Dr. Rey Junco at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, did a study involving Twitter and teaching first-year college students a seminar in a pre-health professional program. Professor Junco worked with two groups of students, one with and one without Twitter, and measured their engagement levels at the beginning and end of the seminar, reported (and Finley cited). He found that “the Twitter group had significant increases in engagement as measured by a scale based on the National Survey of Student Engagement and significantly higher grades by half a point – that’s the difference between ad 2.3 and 2.8 GPA,” Junco says in the video at the bottom of the Mashable piece.

Even more than a blackboard, Twitter was like a Swiss Army knife in all the ways it was used in the course: for giving and discussing assignments, reminders of tests, creating study groups (often formed as quickly and spontaneously as protests in the Middle East), and providing academic and personal support to students, Junco said, adding that using Twitter also “democratized roles in and out of the classroom.” Students in the video said using Twitter helped them get past shyness, participate more, and get to know each other and their teachers at a deeper level than usual and with less judgment (judgment probably based on appearance, since class participation involves appearance + shorter and less frequent responses by a few; while Twitter participation involves text, isn’t directly connected to appearance, and reportedly engages a bigger cross-section of students). One student said in the video that “people can express themselves to the best of their ability without getting judged.”

How to avoid ‘creepy treehouse’

[Important caveat: Teachers will want to avoid “creepy treehouse” uses of social media with students. Prof. Jason Jones at Central Connecticut State University explains how weird it is to students when teachers use democratizing media in an authoritarian way or – conversely – in a way that’s so studiedly “democratic” that students feel like the teacher’s trying to be one of them. That’s the best reason I’ve seen for why it’s inappropriate for teachers to *require* students to interact with them on Facebook. “One way I’ve tried to minimize the creepy treehouse aspect in some of my social assignments,” says Professor Jones, “is to encourage class-related personas, and to have assignments be a kind of game [he links to a piece of his about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education]. That way, there’s never a sense that I’m trying to elicit information about their lives and so forth – which does seem creepy.” The bottom line: Classroom use of social media needs to be “bottom-up,” says Professor Jones at Central Connecticut State – see his “four best practices for faculty who want to use social media” at the bottom of his creepy-treehouse-avoidance piece.]

What these educators are saying to me is that effective use of new-media learning tools, just like old ones like blackboards, means focusing on the subject, not the tool and not the sociality afforded by it. The social part supports the learning because collaborative learning increases learning’s relevance to people growing up in a social, or collaborative, media environment.

Play is learning … and assessment

The social piece also makes the learning more fun, less dreaded. The same goes for assessment, it seems. What I heard in Professor Junco’s video was that Twitter use in his classroom allowed for a continuous class-related conversation between teacher and students and among students that was shaped by the participants’ interests and the subject’s requirements. It got them closer than traditional class communication to the kind of continuous problem-solving and assessment that happens in videogames, according to Arizona State Prof. James Paul Gee in this video, another Web 2.0-style teaching tool. “In a weird way, a videogame is just an assessment,” Gee says. “All you do is get assessed every moment as you try to solve a problem, and if you don’t solve it, the game says you’ve failed, and you try again and then you solve it…. You pass the test…. The thing that is probably the most painful, ludicrous part of schooling is a lot of fun in a game because it’s handled in a very different way. One thing games don’t do is separate learning and assessment. They’re giving you feedback all the time.”

Baby steps past resistance

So maybe there are a couple of baby steps for teachers who find teaching with new media daunting: becoming users of social media themselves in their personal lives, if they aren’t already, and using these media with eye to the effects they might have on their own teaching and learning (for a bit more on this, see the 2nd paragraph of this post of mine) – see what social media have to teach us about how learning can be playful. It might also help to get inspired by considering a whole bunch of examples of creative new-media uses for K-12 and college; here are 100 of them.

Says Professor Finley in Edutopia, “by forbidding the use of social media sites in 52% of our nation’s classrooms, schools are suppressing a learning revolution that is characterized by several truths: 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. Teachers might not value, use, or understand social media tools, but they need to.”

Why am I such a strong advocate of social media in the classroom? Because our digital-media gamers, socializers, and communicators deserve schooling that makes learning as engaging and relevant to them as their media use is and because it’s protective. Marianne Malmstrom, a teacher in New Jersey, says it better than I ever could: “Keeping social media out of school is actually putting our kids at greater risk as they are being left on their own without any modeling or mentoring. I believe leaving kids on their own [in new media] without caring adults’ guidance is irresponsible and more about protecting adults against imagined lawsuits than addressing the real needs of kids today.”

Related links

* A new survey of 380 district tech directors found “growing acceptance of Web 2.0 and collaborative technologies among district leaders and educators. However, student safety and lack of teacher knowledge about how to use Web 2.0 effectively remain issues for many districts.” See “Digital Districts: Web 2.0 & Collaborative Technologies in US Schools.”
* Thanks to a tweet from my friend and colleague Tito de Morais in Portugal: “Experts say digital literacy is about thinking — not gadgets”
* Thanks to a tweet from my friend and teacher Vicki Davis in the Atlanta area, Mr. Kaiser’s “5 Fake Facebook templates and pages for student projects”
* Also from teacher Jeremy Kaiser: “11 ways to use fake Facebook applications to enhance student learning” in science, math, social studies, and language arts”
* “Revolutionary New Technology + Old Teaching Methods = ?” at

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