Social media: What options do schools have?

Students entering secondary education in the last five years would not have known life before social media. The use of the internet has become an integral part of our lives and, as a result, we are communicating with each other on an unprecedented scale.

The use of social media is not a substitute for more traditional forms of relationship but rather an extension of them.

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:

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

It won't always be dark at six…

As somebody who hails from more Southern and sunnier latitudes, I’ve never really got used to just how early night falls in the late Autumn and Winter months in these Northern parts. After just a few weeks of driving to and back from school in the dark, we can all be forgiven for thinking that it will ever be thus.

Only two or three years ago I would have thought it impossible for schools to be opening Twitter and Facebook accounts to interact with the wider school community – including their pupils, of course. Such was the negative feeling among teachers that I would have been derided and lampooned  -and indeed I often was-  for having the deluded audacity to suggest that social networking could be harnessed by schools to be potentially beneficial to both teaching and learning.

As somebody who hails from more Southern and sunnier latitudes, I’ve never really got used to just how early night falls in the late Autumn and Winter months in these Northern parts. After just a few weeks of driving to and back from school in the dark, we can all be forgiven for thinking that it will ever be thus.

Only two or three years ago I would have thought it impossible for schools to be opening Twitter and Facebook accounts to interact with the wider school community – including their pupils, of course. Such was the negative feeling among teachers that I would have been derided and lampooned  -and indeed I often was-  for having the deluded audacity to suggest that social networking could be harnessed by schools to be potentially beneficial to both teaching and learning.

Why your school should embrace social networking

Clay Shirky captures the essence of social networking rather succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.

Theories about socio-cultural situated learning have deep reaching consequences in the appliance of social networking as the principal means of communication, collaboration and cooperation in an educational setting, not just for individual students, but also for the whole school community. Interaction between individuals, teachers and students, co-operating in a community lies at the heart of social cognitive learning theory.

Clay Shirky captures the essence of social networking rather succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.

Theories about socio-cultural situated learning have deep reaching consequences in the appliance of social networking as the principal means of communication, collaboration and cooperation in an educational setting, not just for individual students, but also for the whole school community. Interaction between individuals, teachers and students, co-operating in a community lies at the heart of social cognitive learning theory.

Teaching and Learning with Social Networks: Barriers to Adoption

What early adopters see as tools that can help refine and develop teaching and learning can sometimes be perceived as undermining by teachers who remain sceptical about the adoption of emerging technologies because of the demands placed upon them of learning and understanding the new pedagogies involved and because they often feel constrained by the contexts and pressures in which they work (Conlon and Simpson 2003). As a result, teachers often view these new technologies as superfluous or simply not conducive to better learning outcomes.

Loss of control is also an important factor for many teachers who might see the adoption of social media, not only as extremely disruptive, but also as a further erosion of academic rigour and, ultimately, of their traditional role and relevance. This may be because the tools that are familiar to our students are not so to teachers who might therefore feel unable to control their students online. King, Duke-Williams and Mottershead (2009) suggest that teacher resistance to the adoption of Web 2.0 is present because of “the little place it plays in their lives, personal or professional, and their poor perceptions of social networking”. In this context, the challenge for teachers would be to develop new teaching and learning strategies that incorporate the use of social media and that allow them to focus on learner-centred strategies, rather than the more traditional teacher-centred use, which is still widely preferred by teachers in general (Scrimshaw 2004).

What early adopters see as tools that can help refine and develop teaching and learning can sometimes be perceived as undermining by teachers who remain sceptical about the adoption of emerging technologies because of the demands placed upon them of learning and understanding the new pedagogies involved and because they often feel constrained by the contexts and pressures in which they work (Conlon and Simpson 2003). As a result, teachers often view these new technologies as superfluous or simply not conducive to better learning outcomes.

Loss of control is also an important factor for many teachers who might see the adoption of social media, not only as extremely disruptive, but also as a further erosion of academic rigour and, ultimately, of their traditional role and relevance. This may be because the tools that are familiar to our students are not so to teachers who might therefore feel unable to control their students online. King, Duke-Williams and Mottershead (2009) suggest that teacher resistance to the adoption of Web 2.0 is present because of “the little place it plays in their lives, personal or professional, and their poor perceptions of social networking”. In this context, the challenge for teachers would be to develop new teaching and learning strategies that incorporate the use of social media and that allow them to focus on learner-centred strategies, rather than the more traditional teacher-centred use, which is still widely preferred by teachers in general (Scrimshaw 2004).