Bittersweet News for Social Media in Education | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We live in an incredibly exciting time. My recent visit to @jeffpulver's #140conf in San Francisco reinforced just how exciting a time it is. Twitter, the popular micro-blogging site, has quickly dominated the social media space. In a matter of six months, Twitter has doubled its tweets per month to an impressive two billion tweets. That's worth repeating: two billion tweets per month.

At Edutopia, I spend a good amount of my time on Twitter, connecting with a vibrant community of educators. I'm continually impressed and inspired by the education community of Twitter. Many times, I get asked, "What's the ROI of social media?" Jeff Pulver started out the conference with a great definition of the ROI for social media as Return on Innovation and/or Return on Inspiration. Contrary to what some believe, Twitter's not just about referring traffic to your website, increasing sales, or how many followers you have. As Jeff points out, it's so much more. Twitter truly is the one place I rely on for inspirational and innovative resources/educators in education. The relationships I form with the education community are priceless and more and more people are beginning to realize that you can't quantify this.

Despite the amount of time I spend in Twitter everyday, after attending last week's #140conf I realized much of my experience and views of Twitter tended to be solely based on the education community on Twitter. Every day I'm deep in the trenches of Twitter as it relates to education and until now, I haven't taken a breath to discover the innovative things that other industries are doing with Twitter and how those innovations may effect not only our community of educators but the world as we know it.

The Wild West Social Web

Many distinct communities around the world are using Twitter in very impressive ways. Whether it be religion, agriculture, music, social justice, hospitality, or city planning/public safety, Twitter has opened doors for communication and personalization that previously was just not there. In a world being dominated by sales and media, Twitter has made it apparent that relationships and engagement is key to success in this continually evolving Social Web.

@jefffowle, a cattle rancher, and @raylindairy, a dairy farmer, use Twitter to collaborate with other farmers and customers across the country during their regularly scheduled #agchat and #foodchat.

Virgin America revealed how their two person social media team monitors Twitter so closely that they not only ensure satisfaction of their customers but they've differentiated themselves from their competition by doing so. Some stories worth sharing: By combing tweets, Virgin noticed that an in-flight customer hadn't received their sandwich yet. Virgin's team was able to respond by quickly sending a message to the on-flight staff. The staff was able to get the sandwich to the customer and at the same time Virgin was able to demonstrate their fast response time publicly via Twitter. They've even gone as far as helping customer's celebrate notable milestones while in flight. A customer tweeted casually that they just received their PhD. By simply retweeting their comment and asking people on board to buy the customer champagne, it not only made that customer's day, it showed that a brand truly cared and collaborated with other in-flight customers to help her celebrate!

Twitter's also revolutionizing how telecommunication giants are doing customer service. By embracing the power of crowdsourcing through Twitter, they're able to reduce customer service inquiries and increase efficiencies. Hip-hop artists are also jumping on the Twitter bandwagon and engaging with their fan base with an authentic voice and creative tactics. Hip-hop artist, @quincy started migrating his fans from MySpace and managed to cultivate an engaged base of over 58,000 followers by using Ustream, YouTube, and engaging with fans daily.

Although these communities are all using Twitter in different ways, why they are successful with Twitter ultimately has to do with the same concept: engagement and authenticity. Jeff Pulver also reinforced a very powerful point about Twitter: Twitter is still the only platform where a random person can hear your voice and amplify it by retweeting it.

How Can We Make the Case for Social Media in the Classroom?

Every minute I listened to the many speakers at #140conf, I got more and more inspired but my excitement was bittersweet. My mind kept drifting to the state of our schools. Most of our schools are still using filters to block all social networking sites. Although we're living in an incredibly exciting time, we can't even demonstrate it or get our students involved with it. Many would argue that the purpose of education is to create twenty-first century learners and responsible, active community citizens. I ask you, how can we do this without exposing our youth to the tools that are revolutionizing the web and the world as we know it?

We're purposely creating a disconnect with our youth and setting them up to fail in the digital space by simply hiding social media sites because we're too afraid of misuse. Whether we like it or not, our students are already using social media sites. Seventy-three percent of American teens now use social networking websites, according to new study by Pew Internet on Social Media and Young Adults. Are we going to stand aside and watch them engage in social media with their phones and at home? What about teaching our youth about digital footprints, citizenship, and etiquette in this quickly evolving space? As educators, I can't imagine a more important role to take on. The #140conf reminded me that we all have the ability to inspire, it's just a shame that we can't guide our future generation with the tools to do so.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this. Have you tried to make the case for allowing social media sites in your school? Are you looking for resources to create policies/procedures to help navigate this new space? Please use the comments below to share. I'll be sharing some of the best resources I've found as well.

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Nerissa Lopez's picture

I am amazed at how many parents have set up facebook and other social media accounts for their elementary student(s) as a means for staying connected with family and friends that reside outside the city...

Robin Daniel's picture

I remember attending a presentation at an Ed-Tech conference in Atlanta, GA, in the 90's given by Charlie Brewer, who had this new startup company called Mindspring. He had just offered a free Mindspring Internet account for all schools who called and asked for one. I got up during the presentation and went to the pay phone (This was in the '90's before the cell phone was in everyone's pocket) and called to set up an account. We got one computer connected via a modem. The debate was on. Every Tech Director meeting I went to for 2 or 3 years entertained the question: "Should we allow the Internet in schools?" Eventually we realized the question was moot. The Internet was in schools, now let's decide how we want to use it.

Over time,the administration and parents grew to expect email and Internet access, and the challenge of bringing the Internet into the schools was no longer an issue. I think the Social Media issue is similar. Students and teachers now have access to smart phones with Social Media access. To speed the acceptance among administrators and parents, we can look for specific opportunities to use specific Social Media tools, and then publicize the effect. I like the examples given in this article and plan to share them. Even though I use Social Media every day, I just got some new ideas!

Thank you for the article

Leslie Graves's picture

I hear this all the time, even in regards to using useful websites or sources and resources that would be of such benefit to kids.. I collect interesting and useful resources and share them accross very large giftedteachers listserve, and I am constantly being told they can't use half of them cause their 'district firewall' has blocked them... such a pity.. such a waste.. how can kids learn, if they can't even see what is there...

Sarah Minnick's picture
Sarah Minnick
8-12 Social Studies cyber school teacher, Pennsylvania

@TIC- EXACTLY! Just because they use it, doesn't mean that they know how to use correctly. They're using these tools out there without having read the instruction manual. Our kids are of the age they believe they are invincible. They do not understand that their posts, pics, and comments can have ramifications.

Christopher's picture

To say that social networking is ubiquitous would be an understatement. It is everywhere. But to say that it is a great tool for teaching is to ignore several things that are equally true. Technology provides educators with many other tools, many as useful and much less "dangerous" than social media. But, really, to hear all these professionals talk about how this is the wave of the future (or more appropriately, the present) and we should accept that this is the best way to stay connected with students is, I think, short-sighted and largely unnecessary. The risk/reward ratio for using social media to connect with students is too one-sided. The idea of the teacher-friend instead of the teacher-as-authority figure or teacher-as-adult is really astounding. To think that teachers should teach a student how to interface on a social site and be a participant in something a pervasive as social media is to think that teachers should spend time teaching students how to use forks and spoons the proper way. There are already classes that should be teaching about digital footprints and use of technology. They are called computer classes.

It is simply moronic to assert that there is great and inherent benefit to what is basically a way to gossip on a community bulletin board or receive information about what new fashions a person is wearing or what movie a person is seeing. Many schools already have websites. Many schools already use parental interface technology like edline or something similar. Schools even have forums for parents, teachers and students who are wanting to be involved at a deeper technological level.

One of the uglier facts about the use of tech such as facebook is that it dimishes teachers as professionals when employed inappropriately. And all of the explanations about how great and beneficial these sites can potentially be is really ignoring how they are actually used in real life daily. For every marvelous application of this tech, there are other terrible applications. Teachers who have used these sites as ways to befriend kids and tried to truly help them may have done just that, but they have also exposed themselves to legal and professional landmines in the process.

The problem with the line of thought that social media has this incredible potential for teaching the 21st century student is that many of these students have not learned the basics of education as they have been taught for many decades. There are so many studies out there that the current generation of students are actually less educated by adolescence than in previous decades. This is a societal problem that cannot be overlooked. And it is not made any better by extolling the supposed benefits of sites whose primary purpose for existence is grafitying the selfish nature of a human and narcissism which is plagueing these young people. The idea that there is some nirvana of educational resource in there sites is like saying "jersey shore" should be taught in school for the benefits it has in showing sex education and relationship dynamics.

To be clear, I am not talking about resource and business driven sites like LinkedIn, Edutopia, or sites with both vision and goals. These are not only good for the professionals who use them, but also for people who are looking for the kind of professional who use them. Facebooks and Twitters are another area all together. And it is not as though they don't have appropriate uses, but it is a stretch to say that the educational field is in need of these sites to show benefits to students, this is untenable.

Also, to the poster who asked (very empathetically, might I add) "how can kids learn if they can't even see what's there?" What exactly are we hiding from them? 73% of children are already on these sites. They are not unavailable, but they are restricted at school. That is not censorship anymore than blocking pornography is. These sites do not pose credible educational benefits. It's not like kids are being locked out of a library. Sheesh.

Bottom-line, just because something is new and exciting does not mean it carries any educational benefit that isn't already presented in many different ways.

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

Christopher, I agree with much of what you said. I would differ on the conclusion that this is about things that are "new and exciting." The isolation of the classroom teacher is one of the major reasons for lack of innovation in the classroom, imho. While schools do provide their own little versions of teams and committees, they do not provide that wide ranging access to peers and new professional influences from around the world. Schools have molded our teachers into believing that they must get "professional development" to learn anything. But the very act of networking is an act of self education, especially as can be done with twitter. I can't tell you how many resources and connections I have made with twitter over the past few years. It is a tool that can be used extensively or just once in a while, that is, as the user decides. Learning is a social process in my classroom observations and in my studies, and twitter is one way excellent method for learning and sharing. John Seely Brown recently addressed the notion that our students of today are "less educated" than previous generations. In fact, they are educated in a different way, use information differently, and if anything, have the potential to learn more than any generation before them. I think this is where good teaching comes in, the creation of relevant experiences by guiding adults who care about the futures of the kids, and at the same time, care that kids have a meaningful, socially connected educational experience that is a part of the world today.

Christopher's picture

In thinking on the idea of "less educated" students, what I really mean is simply this, the students in school today have more information at their fingertips than exists in any single library on the planet. But with the sheer amount of information available, there exists a tendency to do "data mining" and not learning. Finding random bits of information for reports, or worse finding entire reports (not that it's surprising, but look up stats on plagiarism and the advent of the internet), these are the things that kids today associate with education. It is up to we teachers to expose them to different educational modalities and sure, social media is in the mix when it comes to many different types of media to which we expose students. I would absolutely show benefit of these sites to find jobs and social connections to people in certain fields (I am thinking specifically juniors and seniors). The professional and industry-based social sites can be educationally and vocationally valuable,therefore, they have a suitable place in the classroom. But, really, not Facebook and not Twitter. I mean, ostensibly, Twitter is a text-messaging app that has it's origin in cellphone messaging with a text count limit. The application for that in the classroom is what? Understand, I use Facebook. I keep up with family members, friends and associates. But there are so many different ways to teach children to utilize technology. There are more than just a few uses of tech that can really teach kids to move in toward where learning can go. Any teacher worth her/his salt is integrating many different applications of real world situations, technology and even problems into every class to present students with the best chance at success, but is this the best way to spend that time; with Facebook or Twitter? At approximately 50 minutes of class time, or double that for block schedules, I feel many teachers struggle to get educationally viable and valid materials in front of students without running out of time. I know it is presumptuous to say that about every teacher, I am just trying to say that there is a point to the whole firewall and limiting the access to that technology during school hours for students. It is in no way a disservice.

monika hardy's picture
monika hardy
facilitating our district innovation lab, all ages learning per passion

With all due respect Christopher.. I urge you to look into schools/teachers/students that are using twitter like Terry describes. It is - among other things - access to individual expert tutors - allowing for differentiation to infinity for whoever, and ongoing 24/7 conversations. I've been in the classroom 20 years...nothing like this access to people per passion. It's amazing... I've experienced it first hand and now get to watch my students experience it. I do hope you get a taste of this essence of twitter, as opposed to the gossip element.

Karl Meinhardt's picture
Karl Meinhardt
Technology / Social Web Strategist

I hate to just type a link and say "go here to read more on social media in the classroom and the school." So here's a synopsis of a social media project at George Middle School (GMS) in Portland, Oregon, "The Portland Project."

+ GMS is a Title One school with a 92% free and reduced lunch population.
+ Due to the Internet Child Protection Act, all major social networks are closed to
GMS. This eliminated Facebook, Twitter, and many of
the most popular social networks. In addition to these limitations, the District had blocked as well. YouTube has recently been made available and is being widely used.
+ GMS suffers from chronic daily attendance challenges. GMS has NEVER made AYP for attendance since NCLB was enacted.

And yet with these limitations, The GMS Social Technology Team was able to create a private social network where only teachers, students, and staff were permitted. The social network was used for individual and classroom assignments, and as for a professional learning community for staff.

As a result of the Portland Project, students spent more time on the school social network and 4 - 5 hours less time on public social networks per week. The Team created a group called "Extra Special" on which teachers posted fun, challenging assignments in a variety of subjects. There was no credit given, only feedback from staff and peers. The student body embraced this; 18% of the school population completed assignments after school hours for no credit. Social media was utilized to encourage attendance. Poor attendance was reduced by 35% and for the first time EVER, GMS made AYP in attendance.

Here's the point. Teachers still had to teach. They had to direct, mentor,and monitor. But because they had tools that made school available 24/7,engaged the students more, and most importantly, because they started thinking differently, they were able to create a better learning environment.

Social networks and media are just tools. They cannot teach. They cannot mentor. They cannot replace what we've learned through the years about education. However, they are powerful and extremely useful when employed with a solid strategy and a creative, passionate team. They can extend the reach of the teacher and the school to levels never before available in public education..

NOW if you want to learn more about the Portland Project visit

Sarah Minnick's picture
Sarah Minnick
8-12 Social Studies cyber school teacher, Pennsylvania

Yes, Monica. I do agree with your points. Many of the main stream social sites have edu equivalents: Twiducate,Socially Learning, TeacherTube, Today's Meet, and I believe that YouTube has an edu version. These and other sites can involve the student with WHAT is being taught, not as a stand alone. As with any activity you do with students you must monitor and model HOW it is to be used.

[quote]With all due respect Christopher.. I urge you to look into schools/teachers/students that are using twitter like Terry describes. It is - among other things - access to individual expert tutors - allowing for differentiation to infinity for whoever, and ongoing 24/7 conversations. I've been in the classroom 20 years...nothing like this access to people per passion. It's amazing... I've experienced it first hand and now get to watch my students experience it. I do hope you get a taste of this essence of twitter, as opposed to the gossip element.[/quote]

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