Knowing your Students

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:
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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.
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One Learning Environment

I have always felt drawn towards Vygotsky’s socio-constructivist views on how learning comes about. He establishes that communication is critical to the development of thought and behaviour and puts forward the notion of the “zone of proximal development”1 or ZPD.

The ZPD is defined as the greater range of tasks that a child can complete with the guidance and assistance of others – be they adults or other children – as opposed to the tasks a child can complete independently.

Thus, according to socio-constructivist views, close contact between the learner and those within the ZPD helps individuals make sense of what is being learnt and stretches the learning beyond what any single student would have been able to construct in isolation.
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Through the Right Channels

Anuj Bidve, a 23-year-old Indian post-graduate student at the University of Lancaster, was cruelly and as of yet inexplicably shot dead on Boxing Day while he was out with his friends enjoying Manchester’s Christmas celebrations.

I’ve been following closely news reports of his murder to keep appraised of the developments in the police investigation, hoping that the perpetrator of this heinous crime might be arrested and brought to justice without delay – if only to provide his family back in India with a reason for their tragic loss, if ever one can be gleaned.

Huw Edwards, news reader at the BBC, highlighted yesterday that Anuj’s father had learnt of the tragedy on Facebook. He raised an eyebrow and the tone of his voice changed slightly, a tad pejoratively, as he pronounced the word Facebook.

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A Short History of the Pillar Box

Sending and receiving mail used to be a very public affair. Senders had to take their letters in person to a receiver at a Receiving House or to a Turnpike House where their mail waited to be picked up by the Royal Mail coach. Receiving a letter was the same procedure in reverse. Who was posting or receiving mail was public knowledge.

When the first pillar boxes were introduced in Britain from mainland Europe in the 1850s, the instinctive reaction of many was one of concern. Concern because now there was a way in which letters could be sent anonymously by slipping them into the now iconic red pillar boxes. The contemporaneous introduction of the Uniform Penny Post, complete with postman deliveries, ensured that receiving mail became a simplified and private business too.

Many worried about the consequences of such postal reforms: The public would begin to send letters anonymously and cheaply and nobody would know who was writing to whom and for what mischievous purpose. This clearly marked the beginning of the end of Victorian moral rectitude and heralded the breakdown of civilised society.

Needless to say, despite the unfounded initial concerns, the ensuing revolution in interpersonal communication heralded, not the collapse of civilisation, but the dawn of a new era of democratised transmission of information.

I cannot help but draw many parallels between this and the adoption of social communication technologies in schools.

What do you think?

Many thanks to wasabicube for his picture.

Facebook as a Social Learning Platform

Many schools now use web-based learning platforms to support and supplement the delivery of teaching and learning. Although they are undeniably useful in the educational context, learning platforms do lilttle more than support – and thus attempt to perpetuate – the traditional model of teacher-centred pedagogy and, as such, fail to deliver the kind of transformative change that would place students at the centre of their own learning.

Many will argue that learning platforms do facilitate teaching and learning. This, in my view, is unquestionable and a positive step in the right direction. But few are able to say hand on heart that the learning platforms they are implementing succeed in engaging their students beyond low-level transactional interactions: here’s my homework, here’s your grade.

In many cases, communication is only allowed to take between teachers and students, but not among students. In fact, the one factor that would ensure student engagement is often blocked out of those platforms which do support it: social networking. Schools remain by and large terrified of allowing their students to communicate among themselves.

The levels of user engagement on which commercial social networking sites like Facebook thrive therefore remains utterly unattainable for school learning platforms that attempt to reproduce faithfully traditional models of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, this pill comes with substantial side-effects: without this coveted student engagement, learning platforms tend to become overpriced and unwieldy repository of word documents and powerpoint presentations.

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