Teachers interested in incorporating social media in the classroom can find no end to suggestions for how to engage students via online learning communities, Facebook pages, or tweets about an assignment or topic. What’s more, teachers can join online communities designed for educators and use social media to engage in real-time, free professional development to learn how to better use technology in the classroom. The issue is not thinking of ways to use social media with students; the issue is how to leverage social media so that incorporating it is meaningful and leads to powerful learning opportunities for students. Just as we teach our students to be savvy consumers of online content, teachers must think critically about how to weave social media into their lessons, or the educational impact can get lost in the misuse or overuse of a fun new tool.
Leveraging the Power of Social Media in the Classroom
What’s the purpose?
Teachers should consider the purpose of social media. The idea behind social media is that users can share information and interact with other users in an online space. Social media is about the interactions that take place—the learning that can occur because of the exchange of ideas. Some educational purposes are more suited to the use of social media than others. For example, it does not make much sense to require students to “hangout” together in a virtual space so that the teacher can show them all a presentation. This might be more suited to an online module that students can access independently. A more suitable activity for an online discussion forum would be engaging in discussion and exchange of ideas after students have viewed the presentation.
What are the needs of my group?
Teachers should also consider the size of groups and the appropriate forum for virtual interactions. An online video chat is easily organized between small groups of students, but quickly becomes frustrating if an entire class is attempting to “chat” remotely. For a larger group, an online discussion board would be more appropriate. On the other hand, social media can help teachers manage interactions when a large group meets face to face. Students can use social media tools to post questions during a lecture—by the teacher or by a guest speaker. Teachers can also ask students to provide a tweet summarizing a lesson as a “ticket out the door” at the end of class.
What other skills will my students need?
Teachers must also think about the other skills that students need for interactions via social media to be successful. Not only do students need some basic understanding of how to use the social media tools—trust me, if they don’t already understand it better than we do, they will absorb it quickly and effortlessly. Students also need a basic understanding of social etiquette in a virtual world. Students will need parameters for what they can and cannot post to an online discussion board. Students will also need to understand parameters and expectations for video chats. There is more to using social media than technological skills. Just as any good teacher would set some “ground rules” for face-to-face classroom discussions and interactions, teachers using social media should do the same.
Am I willing to go there with them?
Finally, teachers cannot just incorporate social media as something the students do. For example, when students have an online discussion to which a teacher never responds or makes reference, the teacher sends a message that devalues the interactions that are occurring in the virtual world. Teachers with very good intentions set up discussion boards and requirements for posting and responding to classmates. But, what are the responsibilities of the teacher in the virtual classroom community? Teachers must be willing to engage in the conversation in the virtual world. Just as we would never expect our students to have a face-to-face discussion without our input and guidance, we should not expect them to engage in online discussions in which we are not a voice of experience and guidance. Social media is a more powerful learning tool when it is truly integrated into the classroom community—and not just something that the teacher has included as a side show.
Students today are from a “wired” generation. Interacting in a virtual world is second-nature to many of them. Educators have only begun to tap into the power of the virtual world for helping students to learn with and from each other. As we forge ahead, though, we need to think carefully about how to best leverage social media to meet the learning needs of our students.