Over the past two years I have been making a case for the constructive use of online social networking tools in education. This is an area of study, however, that engenders strong opinions both against and in favour of the use of social media for teaching and learning. Those in favour generally focus on the perceived benefits of improved communication among members of the school community, whilst those against tend to focus on instances of inappropriate use to justify their stance.
My own opinion is that schools ought to embrace social networking not just as a means of communication, but rather as the catalyst to transform the way we teach and learn – so you can count me in the in favour camp. This opinion is shaped by both academic research and classroom practice, and it is this marrying up of research and practice that led me to ask myself a year ago how much I actually knew about my students’ use of online social networking tools.
It suddenly struck me that schools were producing rules and regulations governing the use of social media without really understanding what role, if any, social media played in the life of their students. It struck me that anyone who was in charge of strategic planning for teaching and learning – at classroom, faculty or school level – had the responsibility to make informed decisions regarding the use of social media as a teaching and learning tool.
Yet, despite lacking crucial information, teachers, schools, educational authorities and governments, by and large, continue to ignore the fact that those entering secondary education today do not remember a life before social media. There is only a handful of schools out there that are learning by using social media and adapting their user agreements and codes of conduct to reflect new realities, in which new technologies ensure that knowledge is no longer exclusively accessible within the school walls or imparted by a single person and that this knowledge can be accessed on demand by anyone, anywhere.
So, with this in mind and with the support of my school, a year ago I decided to inform myself and ask my students a few questions to try and understand their habits and attitudes towards social networking. You may be surprised at some of the findings. Here is what they had to say:
Habits and attitudes questionnaire
Given the single sex nature of the my school, all 231 students who answered the Google Docs questionnaire were male and, as Figure 1 shows, they were all in secondary education between the ages of 11 and 18:
Over two thirds (69%) of the responses came from Key Stage 3 Students (Years 7 to 9). Since these are precisely the students who do not remember a life before social networking, it is particularly interesting to gather their views. When asked, an overwhelming 98% of students declared that there was a computer in their homes (Figure 2) and 56% stated that they had their own computer in addition (Figure 3).
Although this high incidence of computer presence cannot be extrapolated to other schools – my school is a fee-paying independent school – it nevertheless highlights that the overwhelming majority of my students have access to computers at home. However, social networks and the internet are no longer restricted to a personal computer, as they can now also be accessed from a variety of mobile devices. It was then important to ascertain the percentage of students who could access the internet on the go. 73% of those polled acknowledged that they had a mobile phone capable of connecting to the internet (Figure 4) but, interestingly, 83% of those who answered that they did not have one declared that they would like to have a mobile phone capable of connecting to the internet (Figure 5).
The picture emerging is that very high proportions of my students enjoy internet access either at home or though their mobile devices, as well as at school, where free access to computers is granted to students before and after lessons and during their breaks. The next factor to establish is whether students use social networking sites in their private lives. Figure 6 confirms that 85% of students use social networking sites – those who weren’t sure as to whether they were regular users or only used our approved social network (Edmodo) were asked to tick Other (15%). Facebook is revealed as the most popular site after being ticked as preferred choice by 86% of students who admitted being regular users of social networks.
Students were then asked to declare how they prefer to access social networks. Figure 7, below, shows that 85% of students prefer to use a personal computer to access their preferred social networks (33% prefer to use a computer mainly supported by occasional mobile access), whereas only 15% declared a preference for mobile phone access. Interestingly, only 3% declared using mobile phones exclusively to access the internet. It would be very intriguing to see whether or not this figure increases in the future.
Having established the regular usage of social networks by students, it is then important to determine how students use these social networks and whether any student has considered the possibility of using social networks as a catalyst for academic learning. Figure 8 appears to critics’ assertions that students’ use of social networks is limited to relatively low levels of interaction. They are mainly pursuing their own non-academic interests and sharing information with friends and family, including photos and videos.
Previous experience has led me to suspect that students prefer to keep work and play separate and that the school sanctioned use of social networking sites may be rejected by them on the grounds of intrusion and impingement on territory which was thus far free of academic responsibilities. I therefore set out to poll students to see whether they used their private social networks for academic purposes and to establish whether they viewed schools’ rejection and banning of social networks negatively or positively. Figure 9 shows that only 5% of students admit to using their social network regularly to obtain help with school work. However, a larger proportion (67%), admits to having considered using social networks for academic purposes at some stage.
It is important to note that only 28% revealed that they had never considered resorting to their social network for academic help. This means that the majority of the students polled (72%) is, at least, open to the possibility of doing so. This is good news for those advocating the integration of this kind of technology into school life, as, with appropriate teaching, training and modelling, it is possible to imagine online school communities of willing participants supported by the use of social networking technology. So, if students appear to be open to the possibility of using social networks for school purposes, how do they feel about the ban on social networking in school? And, for what school purposes are they prepared to use their social networks?
Figure 10 shows a complex mix of attitudes raging from those who feel bad about not being able to access social networks in school (41%) and those who side with the school and are pleased that the ban is in place (13%). The largest proportion (44%) represented those who are not interested in using social networks in school and a smaller proportion (10%) did not mind the ban because they could still access social networks on their mobile devices regardless. This appears to contradict earlier findings (Figure 9) that students are open to the possibility of using social networks for academic purposes.
In my opinion, however, the results shown in Figure 10 represent a recognition and acceptance of the widespread ban on social networks and depict how students have adapted to using social networks for their own purposes because and despite of it. The results show how students’ attitudes are shaped by school regulations. This implies in my mind that students’ attitudes towards social networking in schools may improve if a more sympathetic set of school rules governing the their use were to be implemented.
Given the status quo, to what extent do students feel comfortable with hypothetical school attempts to communicate with them using their own social networks? In order to answer this question we need to take a very close look at Figures 11 and 12. At first glance, it appears that just under half of students (49%) would react adversely at school’s attempts to use social networks for curricular purposes (Figure 11) and that just over a third (35%) would even react adversely to school’s use of social networks for extracurricular purposes (Figure 12).
However, both sets of results show that a larger proportion of students is obtained by combining those who would want to interact with their schools in this way with those who are not sure (52% and 65% respectively). This strengthens the notion that students are ready for schools to take on the task of educating those in their charge in the appropriate use of social networks. Furthermore, extra curricular communication emerges as a tentative first possible step for those school communities who wish to add a social networking dimension to their learning environments.
In a previous post, I have explored some of the reasons why schools have historically denied their students access to social networks. In my opinion, this has meant that schools have generally not educated pupils in the appropriate use of social networks. So, what other factors can influence students when developing attitudes towards social networks? Figure 13 demonstrates that most students have been left to fend for themselves when it comes to learning to use social networking tools. 62% admit to having had no external guidance and embarked on the process alone. Only 3% mention being helped by a teacher, adding support to the case being built for a greater and more constructive involvement of schools in the digital lives of their students.
Can parents or adults in general be positive role models in students’ digital lives? In principle, it appears that most students (57%) live in households where at least one adult is a member of a social networking site (Figure 14). However, that still leaves 43% of students without the possibility of appropriate adult role-modelling, as the adults in their household do not engage in social networking activities. This negative aspect is compounded by the fact that the adults themselves may lack appropriate role models for appropriate use of social networking. Many students qualified their questionnaire choice by indicating to me verbally that their parents had often joined social networks after their own children had. To what extent this is the case, however, cannot be verified by this study, but it does strengthen the notion that children generally lack appropriate modelling from adults.
This notion is further supported by the fact that, although 40% of students are connected to or are friends with their own parents on social networks, 60% of students are not, as shown in Figure 15. The reasons given are not surprising and mainly highlight the wish to hide their digital whereabouts from their parents (Figure 16). A slightly greater but similar proportion of students (52%) to those admitting being friends with their own parents, also revealed they are friends with other adults in their families (Figure 17), whilst the number of those claiming to be friends with teachers is minimal (4%).
The data clearly indicates that over half the amount of students polled are not connected to the adults present in their environment because they either do not wish to be or they cannot be connected, as said adults are not partaking in social networking activities. I have also inferred that whatever connections may exist do not appear to be conducive to modelling of good practice because the adults involved lacked the experience and skills to take on that role.
A criticism frequently levelled at social networking sites is the apparent lack of safety and the increase in risks to which we might expose ourselves and our students. I find this notion of risk troubling because my personal experience indicates that interaction with others via social networking sites is mainly benign and mutually beneficial. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Figure 18 confirms that, despite schools’ preoccupation with safety, 91% of students felt safe when using social networking sites.
That is not to say that students have no reservations about the kind of uncomfortable interaction that can occur in their social networks. When asked if someone had ever been rude to them on social networks (Figure 19), a majority answered yes in different degrees (65%). Only 35% answered no. Similarly, when the question formulation was reversed (Figure 20), a similar number (64%) admitted to having been rude to others on social networks.
This data reveals that it is possible to separate the notion of safety from that of appropriate behaviour, allowing schools to tackle these issues independently so that the pedagogical potential of social networking can be explored in depth. As Figure 21 highlights, the vast majority of students (91%) who took the questionnaire held positive opinions regarding the use of this technology, yet these same students believe that most adults in their charge (55%) hold negative views about the use of social networking (Figure 22).
If the students are right, there appears to be a significant generational gap when it comes of grasping the utility of these services that impedes, not just the implementation of social media in schools, but also the exploration of any impact that it may have in an academic context, be it positive or negative.
And all I had to do was ask.
Many thanks to Abbey Hambright for her photograph