Why Schools Must Teach Social Networking

Following my response to Sir Michael Wilshaw’s call to ban mobile phones from the classroom, further questions need to be asked about the direction we are taking regarding the way our students communicate and the means they use to do so. Drawing from previous posts and subsequent comments, I’ll set out below why I think schools need to deal with the real reason why smartphones have become ubiquitous in our classrooms: social networking.

The use of social networking is increasing in all areas of society but, although students have been active in social networking for almost a decade now, during this time, schools and teachers have largely ignored their students’ clear desire for peer interaction and communication outside the classroom.

Even though the time has passed when students entering secondary education do not remember life before social networking, many schools continue to ban, block and firewall its use, failing to grasp the important role that social media plays, not only in the private lives of their students, but also in the wider school community.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this alienation has resulted in what many teachers describe as sporadic and unspectacular engagement with technology, thus proving in the eyes of many sceptics that social networking is unfit for academic purposes.

However, as an increasing number of schools and faculties are beginning to open accounts in social networking sites – principally in Facebook and Twitter – to take advantage of the benefits of the networked and transparent transfer of information, and as students continue unrelenting in their use and enjoyment of social networking sites, a greater understanding by both parties of the educational potential of these services is beginning to emerge.

Students have discovered that learning is no longer bound to the confines of the school building and schools are beginning to realise that teaching students how to use these technologies effectively for academic purposes is essential if they want their students to engage in the use of social networking appropriately, less sporadically and more spectacularly.

The rising importance and availability of online social networks and their popularity among young people are undeniable facts. The use of the internet is becoming an ever more integral part of young people’s lives and, as a result, they are communicating with each other on an unprecedented scale.

In my view, teaching and learning need to reflect these social changes and conform to the needs and expectations of today’s young people. Using ICT with a focus on the C for Communication allows us to bring the learning online and to blend the use of traditional tools such as textbooks or dictionaries with more up-to-date, relevant and authentic multimedia materials from the web. Technology itself may not be a motivating factor, but familiarity with the technology certainly is.

Online social networks provide teachers and students with a platform in which they can interact beyond the constraints of the school walls, and with which the teacher can provide personalised feedback, peer review, assessment and support beyond that which is possible with the already existing virtual learning environments, which, in my experience, quickly become repositories of institutionally approved teaching materials and effectively discourage cooperation and interaction among students, fostering instead less meaningful, transactional interaction such as the setting or handing in of student work or the communication of assessment grades.

However, there remain many preconceptions regarding the use of online social networking in education and there is a distinct lack of an alternative, more positive discourse highlighting the many benefits modern means of communication can bring to education.

Thus, those of us considering the use of social networking tools are often discouraged by sensationalist horror stories in the media. Sadly, the teacher-got-the-sack-because-of-Facebook headline is all too common and, as a consequence, most schools and teachers have decided that online social networking sites are simply not worth the trouble.

Am I saying that it is ok to be friends with pupils on Facebook? Let’s answer that clearly: no, it isn’t. Your private life should remain private. Being friends with pupils on Facebook is not ok as it exposes you and your pupils to unacceptable risks.

That is not to say, however, that we shouldn’t use social networks to enhance teaching and learning – by establishing school or departmental pages, for example – or, indeed, that we should tarnish all the internet’s potential for social interaction with the same brush.

The vast majority of teachers using online social networking tools manage to do so perfectly appropriately, pedagogically soundly and safely, improving learning outcomes as a result. Sadly, they seldom hit the headlines for these reasons.

Furthermore, traditionalist approaches to institutionalised education have continued to assume that knowledge can only be obtained within the school’s walls. Modern technology has shattered this notion and has presented us with a different paradigm: the information is everywhere and it’s freely available.

Handling all this information has suddenly become one of the most precious skills we can hope to pass on to our students. How teachers and schools react and adapt to this new paradigm will bear direct consequences in the future success of their pupils, for remembering facts and figures may not be as important to them in their lives as being able to successfully acquire, manipulate and exploit information. I don’t buy into the skills vs. knowledge argument. It’s not one or the other: it’s both.

The adoption of social networking could conceivably provide the school community with a low-cost / high-value platform in which teachers and learners can remain in close contact and interact beyond the constraints of the school walls, and within which the teacher would be able to provide the learner with further personalised feedback and support to that already provided in the physical learning environment. A social network expands the learning environment to wherever the learner happens to be and acting as a bridge between school and home, between formal and informal learning.

With this in mind, an obvious symbiotic relationship between social media and learning begins to become apparent. It then becomes relatively easy to imagine the transfer of this kind of communication, collaboration and cooperation to the school context, where students and teachers can share information transparently using social media and networking sites to filter internet content and where teachers can direct students – or vice versa – to relevant, commonly interesting material.

Personal experience supported by well-established learning theory has shown me that learning from one another is one the deepest forms of learning our students ever experience. When social networking is effectively implemented, it allows our students to continue learning from one another, under our guidance, beyond the school’s walls.

This is why it remains perplexing to me that schools have generally reacted by blocking social networking sites and social media, effectively abandoning children to learn about their use on their own, without our guidance and without appropriate models of good practice.

Schools ought to separate the notion of safety from that of appropriate behaviour, allowing them to tackle these issues independently so that the pedagogical potential of social networking can be explored in depth.

What do you think?

Many thanks to Talie for the photograph