The New Social Networking Frontier

judith_sotir_80By Judith Sotir

The idea of using social networks in the classroom is still outside the comfort zone of many classroom instructors. Sites such as Facebook, MySpace and  Twitter have connotations that many instructors instinctively avoid. They see the pitfalls, but not the value. There are warning flags all over the place. I’ve heard educators say, “If you allow students to use a site like Twitter in the classroom, students will abuse it and just network with friends.” Sure, always a possibility. But if you allow students Internet access on computers, they can always access sites you don’t want them accessing. It all comes down to the control an instructor has in the classroom. An ineffective instructor with no classroom discipline doesn’t need Internet access to fail. Those are the teachers who would not notice handwritten notes being passed around the classroom in the pre-tech days.

We’ve (reluctantly) moved to acceptance of using academic websites in the classroom. Instructors see the value, and students know and like using them. We’ve found the value in YouTube, but have developed Teacher Tube to combat many of the content concerns. Social network sites are still a new frontier. First, instructors are not all that familiar with them. I think every instructor (and parent) should get on the computer and sign up for one or more of the social network sites, if only to know what it is that the kids are doing. One thing is certain, the KIDS are on them, daily, and even hourly. They can access them from classroom computers or cell phone browsers. I have Facebook and Twitter buttons on my iPhone so access takes less than a second. Of course they also let me know via email when someone has added something new to my page. It’s all about accessibility, and for kids, accessibility is like breathing. They just do it. My nephew once said that if he had to go more than a few hours without Facebook he would implode. I honestly believe him.

(Video source: “Twitter for Teachers” by Thomas Daccord, added to TeacherTube on 20 March 2009)

So how do educators use these tools? Tom Preskett in his article Blogs for Education, Blogs for Yourself referenced the Write4 website, which allows one to publish articles, photos, videos, etc. without set-ups or logins. Your work is published to your Twitter account. What’s the value? Easy and fast access. You give your students one site (such as your classroom Twitter account), and give them the ability to access these sites wherever and whenever they wish. You simply tell them to follow you on Twitter. It’s simple and effective because students are there anyway. Will all students actually read your Tweets? No, but not all students will read the homework you assign or even participate in class discussions. But the point is that students are familiar with social networking and use it regularly. And as educators, we have to believe that most students want to learn and want to succeed.

(Video source: “How Do You Use Twitter” by David Di Franco, added to YouTube on 8 April 2009)

I’ve never been able to understand instructors who believe students want to fail. They may not hang on your every word, but they do listen and know the correlation between work and success. Give them something they can use, and they will pay attention. Will they push the envelope? Of course. But that happens with any age group. Case in point: professional development programs. Put a group of instructors into a professional development class and watch them as they stare out the window, play with anything but the prescribed websites on the computer, and even talk and laugh with each other. In a training setting, most professional educators mirror the behavior of their students. The key to success is the same as the key needed to succeed with students: give them something they find useful and they will pay attention.

2 Responses

  1. Really interesting and thought-provoking article Judith.

    I agree that lack of awareness and knowledge of social networking is a big factor in their lack of use within education. The problem is not that it’s hard to learn but that it’s hard to get them to want to learn. Your key to success of finding something useful for them is important. You need to hook them in with something they can easily see that value of. Then you can expand to give the whole picture.

    This is easier with the resource based tools like youtube and OER sites than it is with the process type stuff like social networking and wikis or blogs. Why? Because the latter challenges the way you teach. Forcing you to reflect on how you teach. Not good for people who teach on autopilot.

  2. Judith and Tom, I agree with you. The key to getting students/educators to adopt or adapt social networking is to somehow make them see their value. When people realize the value of cars, they’re willing to make sacrifices for exhorbitant taxes for gas and road maintenance, for outrageous auto prices, for near criminal auto repair and maintenance costs, etc.

    When they realized the unprecedented value of cell phones, they quickly adopted them. When they learned how much easier it is to produce documents with PCs, they quickly abandoned their typewriters.

    But the next step — to get them to accept online social networking as a viable alternative means to accomplish F2F tasks such as group projects, instructional activities, discussions, workshops, meetings, etc. — is the challenge.

    How do we early adopters accomplish this?

    We can say “Try it, you’ll like it” until we’re blue in the face, but they won’t unless they see the value for them, personally. But the Catch-22 is that they won’t try it to begin with. LOL!

    And when they do finally give in and take a half-hearted stab at it, they’re frustrated by the apparent complexity and convince themselves that they don’t need this added aggravation for a tool that’s of questionable value in the first place.

    I think we may need to be a little deceitful in the beginning to lure them in. For example, offer workshops on how to create and use free social networking services (Blogger, WordPress, Ning, FaceBook, Twitter, etc.) for their personal use: to share photos with family and friends, to keep up with friends, to pursue a hobby or nonacademic interest, etc.

    When they see how easy and effective/efficient SNs are, they’ll begin to see how they could be used in their professional lives.

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