Social Media for Learning in the Classroom and Beyond

May 02, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom, Students

The question of how to effectively—and safely--incorporate social media into school curriculums is one quandary academics and educators have been discussing for years. A Brookings Institution’s new report, “How Blogs, Social Media, and Video Games Improve Education,” aims to make things a bit clearer.

The paper, by Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings, dissects the use of emerging medias and points to untapped resources that social media can offer students and educators.

Digital tools represent new ways for participation, engagement, and collaboration to take place,” writes West. “Through digital communications, students, teachers, parents, and administrators can share insights and reactions and develop a better understanding of instructional activities.

West also finds that many teachers are experimenting with new ways of using blogs, wikis, social media, and video games in the classroom. These platforms, which students are already using outside the classroom, are engaging kids on new levels.

Digital media and social networks also have the potential to realign and personalize education—an “iEducation” if you will. Alan Daly, at the University of California at San Diego, predicts that education innovation “will shift away from experts and capacity building to focus on networks. Particularly in this budget-slashing era, digital media and the at-our-fingertips learning opportunities can help to fill the gap. Daly believes education “is moving away from large-scale prescriptive approaches to more individualized, tailored, differentiated approaches”—personalized learning, in other words.  

His colleague at Stanford University, communications professor Howard Rheingold, sees a positive “disruptive” force at play as well. “Up until now, ‘technology’ has been an authority delivering the lecture which [students] memorized. If there is discussion, it’s mostly about performing for the teacher. Is it possible to make that more of a peer-to-peer activity? Blogs and forums and wikis enable that. So a lot of this is not new, but it’s easier to do [and] the barriers to participation are lower now.”

Yet contrary to the “digital native” claim, students are not hardwired to know how to best use digital media and social platforms. We must familiarize students with these emerging technologies and teach them how to use them productively and wisely. Doing so will broaden not only how teachers deliver information, but how students engage with learning.

"Simply shielding students from social media is not going to stop them from seeing it," Rebecca Randall, Vice President of Education programs here at Common Sense Media, told the Portland Press Herald this week, because teenagers will always have access to the unfiltered web at home, and on tablets and smartphones. "We have a saying: 'You can't always cover kids' eyes. You have to teach them how to see it.' "

In a prosaic, but important, example, using student networks to deliver particular lessons or reading assignments can enhance student interest in the subjects at hand, West argues, and increase the likelihood that they will read the material, as well as strengthen their trust in that material.

Some schools have already begun doing what these scholars are talking about.  Quest to Learn, a games-based charter school model in New York City and Chicago, has implemented “Being Me,” a custom-designed social networking program – or as they call it “social learning networking.” This platform has similar features and functionality of popular social networking sites, and allows students to have an ongoing dialogue through consistent blog postings, debates, and discussion threads. Through Being Me, students are able to share perspectives, critique each other’s work, create blogs, find peer collaborators, and participate in community building, all with support from adult mentors. The network is also only accessible to those in the school community. 

“Remix Learning” is another educational social networking platform that was originally developed for the Digital Youth Network (DYN) program in Chicago, but is now being marketed via subscription to schools, nonprofit organizations, museums, libraries, and cultural institutions, or “anywhere and everywhere youth are engaged in learning.” This platform provides an easy-to-use, customizable, cloud-based social learning network for primary and secondary education.

Both platforms provide innovative ways for teachers to use social networking tools to give feedback to students, and to enable peer-to-peer discussions outside classroom doors, an option that it is imperative now that students are spending more and more time in front of mobile devices that can instantly connect them with information.

Are there any particular ways you connect with your students using social networking tools? We’d love to hear your ideas on how to get kids engaged via school-based networking platforms and other online tools.

Plus, see our post on how The Consortium for School Networking is stepping in to help teachers and administrators create and revise policies around mobile and social media use in schools: “Banning Mobile Phones in the Classroom is Not the Answer Says New Report.”