Social Networking in the Classroom

On March 6th, I facilitated a small discussion regarding social networking in the classroom with several teachers here at ADM.  While many of the tech sessions I offer are training-oriented and lend themselves well to recording and posting on the tech blog, this session was more of a discussion of opportunities and considerations related to social networking and the school environment.

For brevity’s sake, I’ve decided to summarize some of the key points that emerged from that discussion.  Before doing so, I think it’s important to note a few caveats:

  • the ideas represented below are heavily summarized; I know that many of these issues are deeper and more complicated than the information presented here
  • many of the opinions and ideas shared below are my own, and do not reflect an official position of the district.  That official position will (and should) come from thoughtful collaboration between people representing all aspects of the school community

With that said:

social_networking_and_schoolsSocial networking sites can have direct, positive implications for academic work.  There are myriad social networking sites available to students, and the list is constantly growing and evolving.  Each service – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, etc. – fills its own niche, and relative popularity of services changes by the month.  Each of these services, though, can be used by thoughtful teachers to support learning outside (and inside) the classroom, and to deepen connections between students as a community of learners.  Twitter can be used to tweet assignment updates and reminders, exam review questions, and to encourage collaborative study.  Facebook groups can provide a private, accessible community for interaction and content sharing.  Instagram can be used to share art projects and to publish writings, while Vine can challenge students to create meaningful content – how-to videos, study questions, science experiment results – that can be displayed in 6 seconds or less.  

Students use social networking services all the time.  Collaboration is a frequently-cited aim of technology integration programs in schools, but tends to run into a roadblock outside of school hours.  While services like Moodle and Schoology incorporate chat rooms, discussion boards, wikis, and blog elements, a huge limiting factor is that a teacher is lucky if students sign on to this type of site once or twice a day, and there rarely exists the critical mass to create an engaging, real-time community via these technologies.  This is where social networking sites like Twitter have the opportunity to shine.  Many students are accessing and contributing to these sites almost constantly.  As a student, if I am struggling with a homework assignment, engaging in a community on Twitter or Facebook that has been deliberately cultivated by my teacher is far more likely to deliver me immediate results, and thus, to become a valuable resource.

Teacher involvement on social networking sites reduces cyberbullying.  Cyberbullying is a critically important issue faced by today’s schools, parents, and children.  That said, I think it’s important to think of it not as a wholly new concept, but rather as an extension of the bullying that has always existed between children (and between adults, unfortunately).  I do not say this to diminish the importance of cyberbullying, but rather to alter the context from which people look at the problem; cyberbullying is not a technology problem, it is a social problem.  If I think about traditional bullying in schools, I don’t generally think of bullying that occurs directly in front of a teacher in the hallway, but rather of an activity that takes place in the metaphorical “corners” of the school, out of sight of teachers and other school staff.  If we isolate teachers from students in the social networking world, we are just expanding those dark corners.  If teachers take part in social media, actively engage students, and bring social networking into the classroom, the attractiveness of those virtual outlets as a forum for bullying decreases dramatically.  Further, by engaging students online, teachers can model (and directly point out) positive uses of social networking, and can speak with students about the potential pitfalls of social media with more legitimacy.

Teachers are not giving up their privacy by participating in social networking.  Some teachers choose to use a personal account for direct interactions with students via social media, which is a perfectly valid choice.  For teachers who don’t want to mix their professional and personal worlds, creating alternate accounts (i.e., an Adam Kurth account for personal connections on Facebook, and a Mr. Kurth account for student connections) is a simple solution that allows for protection of privacy.

We should open up social networks in the schools.  The percentage of schools in Iowa that block social networking sites has been on the decline for the past five years.  In the early days of social media, virtually everything was blocked on school networks.  Now, the majority of schools have allowed access to some (i.e., YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) if not all social networking sites.  If we are encouraging students to collaborate for educational purposes on these sites, and if schools are creating official Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and YouTube channels, there is a clear hypocrisy in blocking those sites at school.  More to the point, however, the impact of blocking social networking sites on our networks is minimal, and easily circumvented.  Any student with a smart phone can access any social networking site they want through their phone’s cellular network, which schools have no ability to filter or block.  While this is not a justification for allowing open access to the whole internet – there are certain types of sites that we need to take every effort to prevent  students from accessing at school – it becomes an important consideration when balanced with the potential benefits of integrating the school and social networking communities.

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