Social Media in the Classroom

Some fascinating articles/posts I have come across recently about using social media to help advance the level of discussion in the classroom. An article in the NY Times talks about how teachers create “back channel” discussions using twitter and other platforms that allow students to discuss the topic in class online even while the lecture is taking place. I also came across a blog post titled “Why Social Media Tools Have a Place in the Classroom.”

As someone who is generally a proponent of trying new things, and finding places to insert technology in the classroom, the arguments for this practice resonated with me:

1) It will redirect device addicted students to communicate via text, tweet, etc., on the topic itself.

2) It will encourage those students who struggle with ‘real world’ participation in class to open up and contribute to the discourse in a manner that is less threatening to them.

3) It encourages students to more closely analyze and ‘listen’ (read) their fellow students comments, often resulting in a new found respect for the intelligence and depth of thought of their peers.

However, as noted by the blog post, what was very interesting to read where the comments  posted on the NY Times article. They contained very passionate arguments both for and against the use of social media in the classroom.

The argument against this approach generally centered around the concept that encouraging students to communicate electronically during the class, especially in short twitter or twitter style posts, will prevent students from learning how to deeply engage in a topic, as well as how to communicate, face to face. As one commentator wrote (in a post that was actually the most recommended of the bunch) :

“I’m speechless. How many ways can this be wrong? It needs to be explained to teacher Erin Olson that teachers should be encouraging students to extricate themselves from all the electronic gadgetry and to pay attention. You know, expand their capacity for patience and thoughtful consideration. How can they be twittering their thoughts on something that they’re not paying attention to? And they’re not. Nor are they learning how to interact well with other people, unless this teacher foresees a brave new world where people never actually talk to each other. Children need an alternative to the seduction of technology, not adults pandering to it, and them.”

This approach seems to lament the end of an age where deep and thoughtful discourse ruled the day, similar to what I understand to be the point of  “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”

So what is the answer? Are these two approaches contradictory?

I’ll throw in my take: I think that, once again, this issue underscores the need for putting real time, energy, and thought into the way we integrate technology into the class. I think most people understand this intellectually. But practically, it’s hard to do. It requires trying to anticipate all of the possible different ways the students might use the tech tool (for good and bad). It’s also difficult because since there are so many tools that are easily accessible (not to mention free or very low cost), there is a temptation (I won’t speak for others, I feel a temptation) to sign up for an account and start using it right away, sometimes not taking into account if it is in fact advancing the learning.

I think in the case of social media, I agree with the approach of Kate Weber, a 4th grade teacher in Exira, Iowa, who “uses the technology for short periods almost daily (emphasis mine) with her fourth graders. “You’d think there’s a lot of distraction, but it’s actually the opposite,” she said. “Kids are much quicker at stuff than we are. They can really multitask. They have hypertext minds.””

Using this tool in limited spurts, a teacher can help bring about the positive components of social media cited in the articles, while still leaving time for encouraging more face to face and in depth discussion. Hopefully, if done well, the short discussions on the social media back channels can actually bring about more in depth verbal discussions in the classroom.

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