Why your school should embrace social networking New ways of gathering together and getting things done

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.

The importance of community to learning is always implied but rarely stated as a significant context in education. We all understand at an implicit level that interaction between members of the school community deepens their understanding of each other and leads to learning.

So, is a social network a substitute for community? Would the use of social networking be detrimental to the wider school community? The answer to both questions is no. Of course not. If the concept of community were not important for learning, schools and universities would have little reason to exist. The critical role of interaction in learning is reinforced by the addition of social networking to the school community, not undermined. Therefore, the addition of the social learning network augments the learning community rather than provides an alternative to it, resulting in the overall enhancement of the learning environment. It also – very tantalisingly – points towards how teaching and learning within this environment can be transformed into previously inconceivable practice, not simply enhancing it.

Research suggests that individuals join social networks to associate with others of like interest or vocation, or who know more, or who would like to learn similar things. This contrasts sharply with schools’ imposition of learning management systems on their students. Some educators have pointed out that many students tend to avoid using the school-managed virtual learning environments because they either find it difficult to use or irrelevant to their daily learning needs. It would appear then that a loose network of willing participants is better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students.

Using social social networking, students all over the world are forming online communities which seem to be augmenting, not replacing, the more traditional concepts of community. They see the virtual world as an extension of the real world, not as its surrogate. These networks of similarly minded and often indirectly connected people contribute to the acquisition of knowledge of individuals by creating awareness between its members and making such knowledge transparent to the rest of the community.

Transparent information and cooperation among individuals foster the creation of personal learning environments in which participants wish to engage due to the potential benefits each can acquire. Schools and other learning outlets have thus far shied away from encouraging the development of such personal learning environments using the host of Web 2.0 and social media tools available, preferring instead to impose learning management systems –  virtual learning environments (VLEs).

VLEs do have their strengths: they do foster dialogue and collaboration. However, a virtual learning environment which consists solely of students and is, by and large, managed by teachers cannot profit from the benefits derived by a social network because it lacks transparency of information and deep engagement between students and teachers.

In my own experience, VLEs 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. Less often do students appear to willingly engage in more meaningful forms of cooperation such as peer review and assessment of each other’s work.

The adoption of social networking can, therefore, 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 passive co-operation to the school context, where students and teachers can share information transparently using social media and networking sites to filter internet content and direct users to relevant, commonly interesting material.

Personal experience supported by well-established learning theory assures me that learning by doing and learning from one another are the deepest forms of learning our students ever experience. When social networking is effectively implemented, schools can 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.

Photo by tanakawho


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  1. Excellent post,Jose. I agree that social networking in classrooms would be beneficial to both teachers and students.Students today are accustomed to using social networks and technology in general and most would like the opportunity to collaborate with their teachers and peers. Students also learn at home, so a social network would serve students that have questions or want to discuss something related to school with their teachers outside outside the school. I also agree that student learn better by doing and from one another, something that social networks can help provide for them.

  2. I do not yet understand how this would work in practice. Students see Facebook, for example, as a social, not a learning tool. I have found that students are reluctant to blog spontaneously, even if they will happily post when you ask them to.

    So I have yet to grasp why a SOCIAL network can be an EDUCATIONAL one.

    In principle I would have nothing against FB pages for educational cooperation, but I have not yt seen it in practice and there are obvious potential pitfalls.

    1. I understand your position. Let me address the points you have raised in turn to see if I am able to change your mind:

      Students see Facebook as a social, not a learning tool You are right in essence. Many do argue that most students are just wasting time and utilising social media sites for low level purposes, such as gossiping online, and that young people’s engagement with social media tends to be unspectacular and unremarkable. Students may even perceive work which is set or undertaken online as a game or less serious than real work, therefore failing to confer the activity the appropriate significance.

      But I think none of this is the students’ fault. As we the teachers have consistently ignored the obvious educational potential of online social networking and communication, leisure has become the focal point of our students’ use of social networking sites. In their minds, using social networking sites for academic purposes has simply never entered the equation. By ignoring the rise of online communities and online social interaction, schools have essentially abandoned their students to teach themselves how to use social media. Students have developed their own codes of practice, which often collide head-on with their school’s ICT user agreements, leading to frequent transgressions that can result in terrible consequences for the students, such as temporary suspension or, in some cases, permanent exclusion from their school.

      2)I have yet to grasp how a social network can be an educational one

      Many teachers harbour considerable doubt as to their utility in the teaching and learning context, remaining unconvinced of the pedagogical benefits  that the internet may be able to bring to their classrooms. It may even be suggested that they may fear relinquishing control, preferring instead more familiar tried and tested practices in which  the teacher is firmly in control. Many teachers may even see the implementation of social networking as a capitulation to what they perceive as a lack of discipline, absence of self-control and preference for immediacy among the current generation of students, establishing, in my view, a false dichotomy between technology implementation and academic rigour.

      3)Students are reluctant to blog spontaneously 

      I just don’t think so. And, since you mentioned facebook, I’ll use it as a case in point. Creating content, sharing, collaborating and networking online is what Facebook is all about. Students everywhere are using Facebook and other social networks to log their activities on the web – they are essentially blogging all the time. They may be reluctant to blog for academic purposes, but I refer you to the point above in which I claim it is not their fault at all. 

      Solutions to these problems? Well, I think we need to start by ensuring schools embrace social media as a positive addition to the learning environment. We the teachers need to ensure that we do not abandon our students to teach themselves and then wag our fingers at them when they don’t get it right.

      Many thanks for your comment Steve.

      1. Many thanks for responding. I am not really a sceptic on this issue and I have used blogging with students. I suppose I would like to know how using a social network would work in practice. I also remain concerned about the overlap between social and educational. I imagine there would need to be strict permissions and security in place for the distinction not to be dangerously blurred.

        In practical terms, to take Facebook as an example again, I can envisage students wasting too much time in a school environment just messaging about trivia. Am I less trusting than you? Or more realistic about the extent we need to contro
        what students do. I have no problem with control and see is as what we are paid to do.

        1. I think it is perfectly conceivable to use social networking to facilitate learning (which is what I get paid to do). In order to do so, one doesn’t need to be somehow too trusting or naïve, one simply must remain open to the huge potential benefits that making the most of the most widespread means of communication among young people would confer their education – if in doubt about how wide spread, ask any Year 8 when the last time was that they sent a non school related email – whilst at the same time being mindful of what you term dangers and pitfalls.

          We need to start educating children from the word go about the appropriate use of what essentially constitutes a new form of literacy, rather than constantly seizing upon instances of misuse to justify a non interventionist approach.

  3. I think Facebook could be used fruitfully in education. In fact, it already is. I know of one university where FB is used by language students in connection with the year spent abroad. Students who are about to go abroad can engage in discussions with students who are currently abroad and with those who have already been abroad. It’s quite a successful initiative, apparently. You can imagine the frank exchanges that take place between students about the pros and cons of different universities and  university towns. Teachers do not intervene much in the discussions – only when they are asked to provide information or if they need to correct inaccurate information. The discussions are managed within a closed FB group.

    I belong to several groups in FB. Some of them are closed groups and others are open to anyone. They all have a serious function and I have learned a lot about the topics on which they focus. One group in particular has been a great source of information and inspiration to me. I have a very rare form of cancer, pseudomyxoma peritonei. There are only 50-60 new cases each year in the UK, and my chances of meeting someone face-to-face with this rare disease are negligible. Finding out about different types of treatment is difficult, but thanks to FB I am now in contact with nearly 300 fellow-sufferers worldwide.

    In general, however, I use FB to keep in touch with my nutty family and nutty friends all over the world – around 200 in all. My wife and I tend to post mainly humorous messages and family photos.


    1. Facebook is already being used fruitfully in education. You are absolutely right. It’s just that, by and large, schools and teachers aren’t yet aware of this fact!

      Thanks for your comment Graham. Best wishes too.

    2. Facebook is already being used fruitfully in education. You are absolutely right. It’s just that, by and large, schools and teachers aren’t yet aware of this fact!

      Thanks for your comment Graham. Best wishes too.

  4. José: How, exactly, are you using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking platforms in your Spanish classes? I would like to read about actual ways that they are being used. Thanks!

    1. As ever, I detect a tone of incredulity in your comment. 😉 Yes, I can walk the walk as well. Take a look at the links below:

      1) Teachers at my school who use Twitter in the school context:
      As you can see these range from the Headmaster himself to Heads of Year, Heads of Department and teachers.

      2) Facebook pages set up by some of our departments:
      English Department http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nottingham-High-School-English-Department/180573328648490
      Music Department http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nottingham-High-School-Music-School/186698168023572
      MFL Department http://www.facebook.com/pages/Modern-Foreign-Languages-Department-Nottingham-High-School/183918331623478

      3) For the past four years I have used Edmodo, a private social network, to communicate with my students from Years 7-13. The following blog posts illustrate our experiences:

      4) The social networking effect can also be achieved by harnessing the commenting facility in blogs, for example, to achieve effective peer assessment, as illustrated here: http://www.nottinghamhighmfl.co.uk/2011/01/year-10-publish-their-storybird-books/ 
      The use of peer assessment in this way was praised by inspectors in our recent school inspection – link to report here http://www.isi.net/schools/6750/

      Social networking, as you can see, does not only mean Facebook or Twitter, as you and some of the other commenters have assumed, perhaps understandably. It really means “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”

      This is just what goes on at my school. Plenty of other examples of practice involving social networking is available for perusal online. Just Google-search it.

      We are trying – taking baby steps if you like – and, in doing so, learning from our experiences and developing good sound practice as we go. We don’t just sit there, shake our heads and mutter “it’ll never work”.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. LOL!  I didn’t mean to suggest a tone of incredulity.  On the contrary; I am sincerely interested.  It helps me to read examples of exactly how teachers, and in particular, MFL teachers, are using these tools.  I think that if enough of us can show our HODs and Heads of School that students and teachers can and do use these tools for meaningful teaching and learning experiences, via hard data, and not just anecdotes, it goes a long way to legitimizing these tools within the teaching and learning context.

        Thank you for your detailed and informative post, and, for not responding with an air of sarcasm. LOL!

      2. LOL!  I didn’t mean to suggest a tone of incredulity.  On the contrary; I am sincerely interested.  It helps me to read examples of exactly how teachers, and in particular, MFL teachers, are using these tools.  I think that if enough of us can show our HODs and Heads of School that students and teachers can and do use these tools for meaningful teaching and learning experiences, via hard data, and not just anecdotes, it goes a long way to legitimizing these tools within the teaching and learning context.

        Thank you for your detailed and informative post, and, for not responding with an air of sarcasm. LOL!

Your feedback and comments are very welcome