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Summary:

The New York Times has an interesting piece on teachers incorporating social media tools in the classroom to prompt more participation from students who might not otherwise speak up. While many criticize the practice, I think these tools have a place in classrooms.

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The New York Times has an interesting trend piece on a number of teachers who are incorporating social media tools into the classroom to prompt more participation from students who might not otherwise speak up. The idea is that by using Twitter and other microblogging platforms, teachers can establish “back channels” to help foster a discussion and surface ideas that kids are too shy or intimidated to voice out loud.

The story has touched off a flurry of comments, with most condemning the trend as pandering to lazy Internet-addicted students, and arguing that it will not allow kids to shed their inhibitions but rather reinforce them. Others say it won’t challenge students to learn how to communicate as adults, and could foster less coherent thoughts that would be delivered in a more impersonal manner.

A lot of these criticisms seem to stem from the idea that there is little real-world value in social media. There is a clear sense of disdain for social-media technology because it’s associated with quiet, introverted kids supposedly avoiding real-world interaction and delaying the maturation process. I can understand these fears to some extent, because we have all probably tried to talk to someone who is barely there because they are absorbed with their phone. And yes, personal communication skills are a must in society and children need to learn how to articulate their thoughts out loud.

But I think that writing off these tools as having no place in classrooms is a mistake. For one thing, this is how students are living now — these are the tools that they use to communicate, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. To suggest that tapping this for educational purposes is pointless also suggests that people mistrust the medium as a whole and don’t understand how it can be used for good. We’ve already seen that Twitter and Facebook can help create change around the world. It can also do a lot of harm in the hands of bullies and criminals. But the technology is neutral. It can be made to work in a classroom setting if you set the right limits.

There’s no doubt that allowing the use of laptops and mobile devices can be an invitation for kids to goof off, so it’s up to the teacher to make sure this is not abused, especially for high school students. But if done right, it really can get more people involved. My colleague Mathew Ingram said the Mesh Conference in Canada used Twitter to elicit questions and comments from those who might be afraid to talk out of shyness or because others were hogging the microphone. That’s often the case in classrooms too, where certain kids often dominate a discussion leaving little room for others.

Many of the critics on the NYT piece seem to assume that all students learn or progress in the same way, but they don’t. Using technology can help with that, by prompting comments from people who might not be able to get into a live discussion. If a teacher is smart, they could promote a good idea that was submitted through these back channels and encourage a student to expand on it. This could encourage more participation and also help some children become more confident with their suggestions.

I was reminded this when I heard a talk by Sal Khan, the founder of the online Google and Bill Gates-backed Khan Academy. He said teachers were able to use student online progress dashboards to zero in on who needs help. In a classroom where half the class is not talking, understanding who needs encouragement to speak up can be a huge tool for a teacher. And students can also encourage each other in ways they couldn’t before. By up-voting an answer online, students might encourage a student to voice their opinions in the future.

I’m not suggesting that social media replaces good fundamental teaching or obviates the need for kids to learn basic writing or communication skills. But it can be a great enhancement if applied well. Will some kids slack off in class. Sure? But I wager many more will lean in to a discussion if they have some familiar tools to get them involved.

Image courtesy of the New York Times

  1. Great points, Ryan. Sometimes the quietest kid has the best idea/comment. SM allows them to be heard.

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  2. It’s a good point and social media tools should 100% be in the class room. I always wonder why we don’t give kids more technology because most of us use it every single day of the week in work. The earlier they get their hands on it the better!

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    1. Exactly, companies are embracing social media. Here’s a story I did about Salesforce embracing Chatter. http://gigaom.com/collaboration/salesforce-embraces-chatter-to-obliterate-and-remake-itself/ To say that it doesn’t have a place in the classroom ignores the fact that many students will eventually use this in their offices one day.

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    2. 100% agree. A lot of great points touched in this article. You can see examples @2450fall2010 and @kni2103 using GroupTweet for their classrooms.

      We enable all students and teachers to communicate under a single Twitter account. A lot of our users find it more intuitive for setting up Group Accounts and fostering group communication.

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  3. Great article. I believe that much of the backlash against social media in the classroom comes from stereotypical misunderstanding of what social media is. It’s use as a curriculum delivery mechanism is unparalleled. Our small project in Portland Oregon has seen some great results from over and under achievers alike. Check out this story Mashable did on our project. If you’re interested in this topic it’s really worth a read. http://mashable.com/2010/09/29/social-media-in-school/

    Karl

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  4. While I can understand the fear of integrating social media into the classroom, I agree with your points about why we should be using it. Not to mention that courses I teach reflect what’s happening in the workplace – tourism marketing is using social media like mad – and I think it’s actually a disservice to students if I don’t integrate it. I’m planning to use a Twitter backchannel in a convention management course this fall – every convention I’ve been to this past year had a back or frontchannel going – so student will get a taste of the “real world”.

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  5. Agreed..It can be a great enhancement IF applied well (/correctly)

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  6. One has to love it when people are offended that children are writing coherent thoughts… Ah, how times change.

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  7. Great article. I am from the school of thought that if you can engage students with their “speak” – and social media is definitely their “speak” – you can capture their attention and begin to open the doors to listening and learning.

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  8. As someone who attempts to incorporate many different types of technology in the classroom (cell phone usage, tablet pcs, promethean boards, response systems, twitter, wiki articles, blogs, etc – see http://www.thechembook.com as an example), I can tell you that some students resist the technology. More interesting, though, is that some kids cannot create a simple MS-Word document (or variant) and that is a skill all students should use during high school.

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  9. I agree with everything you’re saying here. Technology is a tool and if it’s used well it makes the job easier and more effective. Social media is a tool in this case! I think if it’s up to each teacher as to whether they use it or not then that’s fine. Because the fact of that matter is…some teachers wouldn’t know how to use social media effectively.

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  10. The best teacher is still a human but technology enhances many aspect of teaching and learning. Spot on!

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