The use of online social networking in education – in its widest sense – is an often maligned and, in my view, misunderstood topic which engenders strong reactions both in its favour and against. The picture above depicts movable type from a printing press. The printing press analogy is often used to illustrate the enormous impact that the internet is having in our society and civilisation.
Just like Gutenberg revolutionised the sharing of ideas when he invented the movable type printing press around 1440, the internet has revolutionised the way we communicate today. Today communication is instantaneous and, as more and more devices allow us to communicate more and more information, we have entered an era of information on demand.
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, pedagogy needs 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.
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 and support.
In this post, I aim to challenge preconceptions regarding the use of online social networking in education and to provide an alternative, more positive discourse highlighting the many benefits modern means of communication can bring to education.
As a people, we have a tradition of failing to grasp the transformational impact of innovation and we have often assumed that particular innovations are useless, pernicious or here-today-gone-tomorrow fads.
Douglas Adams hypothesised that…
“…anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
His is a brilliant encapsulation of the feeling countless generations of parents have felt when confronted by the new and unnatural ways of their children. Teachers and schools are not exempt form the occasional lack of insight: when erasers were first attached to the end of pencils teachers believed they would encourage laziness and were often banned in schools. Exactly the same thing happened a few years later when pocket calculators first became affordable.
In fact, we see the same process happening today when disruptive technologies show up in our classrooms, and for the same reasons by and large. The problem is that, whether we realise it or not, the internet isn’t going anywhere.
Like erasers on pencils, calculators in pockets, talking movies and colour photography – both the latter were criticised for somehow detracting from the aesthetic beauty of their forerunners – the internet is here to stay.
The Prensky school of thought distinguishes between digital natives and digital immigrants – that is, those of us who grew up with modern technology and those who didn’t. In my view, this dichotomy is misleading and is unfortunately often used to justify poor pedagogy by promoting the notion that teachers are not able to learn about or understand the new technologies their students use.
Personally, I don’t think teachers are innately incapable of understanding new technologies. The problem is rather one of attitudes: teachers, by and large, still remain pedagogically unconvinced of the benefits the internet is able to bring to their classrooms, fear relinquishing control and see the classroom implementation of new technologies as a capitulation to what they perceive as a lack of discipline and academic rigour, wrongly assuming that they can have technology or rigour, but not both at once.
In contrast to these, more reactionary views, stands an alternative model which promises the delivery of innovative teaching practice: realising that we are learners as well as a teachers and being open to have our beliefs challenged. As Steve Wheeler very aptly put it recently, there is no them and us: “we are in this together”.
However, 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 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 Facebook 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.
Bullying is totally unacceptable wherever it occurs. It sometimes occurs online. However, my pupils tell me that they are much more likely to be bullied on the school bus than they are on social networking sites. They tell me that insults and nasty name calling are much more likely to occur in school corridors and classrooms than it is on Facebook. However, I am yet to know of any school that has banned travelling on school buses or gathering in groups while in school as a result of the threat of bullying.
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.
In a way, as everyone who has left a classroom full of 14 year olds on their own for five minutes knows, the surprising thing is perhaps that social networking is, by and large, a positive addition to our student’s lives by their own admission.
Just imagine how much better it could be if we guided our students rather than leaving them to their own devices. It’s time to stop blocking. It’s time to educate. That’s what we’re here for.
We are very good a building walls and compartmentalising our lives, and not just at a figurative level. We build actual walls, like our schools’ walls, but also virtual walls, like the firewalls that we impose on our pupils.
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.
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 will not be as important to them in their lives as being able to successfully acquire, manipulate and exploit information.
Learning from one another is one of the deepest forms of learning our students ever experience. When effectively implemented, online social networking allows our students to continue learning from one another, under our guidance, beyond the school’s walls.
Social networking can be used to knock down the school’s walls and bridge the gap between home and school, but first we need to knock down the firewalls.
Everything you could possibly want to know, for better or for worse, is only a few clicks away. The internet has changed the rules of the game. We can now watch films on demand, read books on demand, listen to radio programmes and podcasts on demand.
We need to embrace a new philosophy of learning on demand.
The children in this photograph are so poor they don’t even have a classroom. But don’t let your prejudices mislead you. What you are seeing is innovative. Which is not to say new: some of the ideas you see implemented in this photograpgh are almost a century old.
John Dewey, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, among others, developed the concept of children learning from one another and learning by doing. Some exceptional schools and individuals have, through the years, succesfully implemented these ideas, but most have continued with teacher-centred strategies as they have found this philosophy difficult to implement in reality.
But our reality has changed.
The internet – with its social networking and communication – provides us with a way to evolve teaching and learning to a level that better matches our 21st century students’ needs as well as their expectations – although it may be pretty standard for you, you can understand that a child born in the year 2000 might consider writing a letter a bit old-fashioned.
By putting the children first, we can then begin to imagine a new pedagogy in which teaching and learning are upside-down, focusing on the needs of the children, rather than those of the adults tasked with their schooling.
A child’s imagination is boundless. Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a child and imagine. Imagine new possibilities.
And while you’re at it, keep reminding yourself that your job is not just to teach, but also to ensure learning happens.
Your views are always welcome and your comment is very much appreciated.