Laptops and beyond: Learning in the 21st century

Schools are embracing social networking as an effective teaching tool

If your child is logged on to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it could give them a leg up educationally as more schools are using the sites as learning tools.

Rob Greene, an English teacher at Nashua High School South, has been using blogs in his classroom for several years. This year, he started to integrate Twitter as one of his primary ways of communicating with students about assignments and linking to articles.

When a budget crunch in the district required teachers to limit their paper usage four years ago, Greene responded by turning to blogging and tweeting to get word out to students.

He hasn’t looked back since.

At the end of the every day, Greene will type up what was learned in his creative writing and journalism classes, then tweet out a link to his student followers to the blog he created for class. The blog is also used for Greene’s “Publish or Perish” project, where students post their work for their peers to critique. From Greene’s perspective, knowing how to use Twitter, Facebook and blogs is something his students are going to be expected to know how to use appropriately regardless of what fields they choose. Part of his job is to help them learn those skills.

Greene said he makes sure to keep parents informed about how he uses social networking in class. He talked with parents about it during a recent open house and said there was a lot of interest about the process. Much to his surprise, Greene said there was a learning curve for many students about how to use the networking tools appropriately.

“I found I had to do a lot more education about the power of social media than I expected to,” Greene said. “The problem with social networking is that the kids really don’t know how powerful it is. They don’t know how to use it. They think it’s just someplace where you can post funny pictures.”

Greene isn’t alone, as many schools and educators are starting to change their attitudes toward finding a place for social networking in schools. Initially resistant, schools are slowly but steadily embracing the technology, while at the same time making sure policies are put in place to make sure parents are involved and the communication is appropriate.

Jennifer Seusing, principal of Nashua South, has dipped her toes into the world of Twitter, creating a school account at NHSSPanthers. She updates it regularly from her iPad, tweeting about student accomplishments, upcoming events or just random, humorous thoughts. Seusing sees it as a way to connect the school to students and parents in a way they are comfortable with.

There may be something to that, as some researchers have found educational benefits to social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. A 2008 study conducted by the University of Minnesota found students who used social networking reported learning technology skills, creativity, communication skills and how to be open to new or diverse ideas. The study included students ages 16 to 18 in 13 urban high schools.

“What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st-century skills we want them to develop to be successful today,” said Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher in the University's College of Education and Human Development and principal investigator of the study.

In her study, Greenhow said that by embracing social networking as part of the school culture, teachers have opportunities to connect with students in ways that can enhance the learning experience.

“As educators, we always want to know where our students are coming from and what they're interested in so we can build on that in our teaching,” Greenhow said. “By understanding how students may be positively using these networking technologies in their daily lives and where the as-yet-unrecognized educational opportunities are, we can help make schools even more relevant, connected, and meaningful to kids.”

Greene teaches writing, but is also a writer himself. In addition to his Twitter account for his classes, Greene has a separate personal Twitter account that he uses more for his own writing and sharing links. It just became a natural way to divide his personal work from his classroom work.

“My 900 followers don’t need to know what my students are doing for homework,” he said.

Not all schools have been so eager to open up to social networking. Judy Johnson, a marketing teacher at Memorial High School in Manchester, said one her biggest frustrations has been the school’s unwillingness to allow sites like YouTube and Twitter to be used for educational purposes. Both of the sites are blocked on the district network.

“In teaching marketing, those are essential skills students have to learn to understand social media,” Johnson said. “That’s really the biggest piece missing. I think we’re doing a disservice to our students.”

One of the most challenging questions for school districts has been how and when students and teachers should interact on Facebook, if ever. Last year, the Manchester School District took a hard-line stance against students and teachers being “friends” on Facebook, arguing “such conduct may be immoral or illegal” or “demonstrate lack of appropriate boundaries that may lead to discipline or dismissal.”

In its policy, Manchester discourages inviting students to be “friends” or accepting such invitations from students. It also discourages socializing with students on blogs and social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

Following Manchester’s lead, school officials in Nashua initially took a similar zero-tolerance approach last year, but more recently, Assistant Superintendent Brian Cochrane said there has been some reconsideration about the role Facebook can play in communication among teachers, students and parents.

As a model, Cochrane said the district is using the “T.A.P.” measurement as a gauge for determining appropriate communication on Facebook: transparent, accessible and professional. The district is in the process of coming up with a new policy about social media communication.

Cochrane said the district is taking the approach that with so many students and teachers now on Facebook, it was a matter of setting the ground rules instead of simply turning a blind eye and hoping nothing inappropriate happens. If the district is going to allow teachers to communicate with students on social networking sites, Cochrane said it’s imperative to keep parents in the loop.

“Parents should know it’s going on,” Cochrane said.

Teachers have started to come up with their own personal guidelines for interacting with students on Facebook. Many teachers won’t accept friend requests from students until after they graduate. But Greene said he has accepted requests from students as long as they are the ones to initiate it. His position is that as a teacher, he can be a role model for students on how to use Facebook appropriately.

His rule of thumb for students is not to post anything they wouldn’t be comfortable with his mother seeing. That’s been effective for Greene, considering his mother is one of his Facebook friends. Greene predicts as more schools open up to the idea of social networking as part of the learning experience they will see there’s nothing to be afraid of.

“In time, they will definitely see the value,” he said.

Michael Brindley is an award-winning journalist, who can be found in the pages of the Nashua Telegraph.

Categories: Technology and Social Media