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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Help Students Use Social Media to Empower, Not Just Connect

Students get it. They understand how easy it is to connect with one another, but don't fully realize the greater potential. As educators, we have all benefited greatly from our personal learning network or critical friends group. Some of us have garnered a job, found great content area resources, or tuned in to a conference. But are we transferring that potential to our students? And if so, are we giving them the proper guidance to travel down these varied paths?

There is no denying that students see the potential in using social media, but are they really using it to their advantage? A colleague of mine shared with me a sentiment one of her students said this past week. The student said, "Could you check my Facebook profile, I want to make sure it is appropriate for colleges to view." Eureka! One student gets it, however this sentiment while encouraging to any teacher, is not using social media networks to their full potential. It is only scratching the surface. In short, it's like hearing, "What do I need to know for the test?"

Connect Effectively

Instead of this student asking whether or not his or her Facebook profile is "acceptable" to view by colleges alone, why don't we flip this question around, "How can I strengthen my voice and my abilities better via Facebook so I can market myself to colleges and beyond?" This is what we should come to expect from our students. Let's not only help them connect, but connect effectively. And when they do connect, let's not limit the scope to "What colleges will think."

Connecting is easy. There are various outlets for students to connect and most of them engage this way every day. Simply connecting a student to another classroom via skype, a blog, or a wikispace is not groundbreaking classroom practice. We get it, the classroom is flat and there is no excuse for connectivity, but what are we doing to promote critical thinking, questioning, and constrictive criticism during these lessons?

Qualities of a Strong PLN

A graduate student asked me last week, "What is the criteria for someone joining your PLN?" I really never thought about it too hard, but after brief deliberation I came up with a few ideas. I want someone in my PLN who is going to give me constrictive criticism and also accept it. I want someone in my PLN who is going to share both professionally and personally (i.e. picture of his or her dog). I want someone who has a sense of humor. I want someone who wants to learn, listen, and consistently share. I want someone who provokes my thinking.

What I don't want in my PLN is someone who is going to blindly re-tweet something I post. I don't want someone who is going to cheer me on when my material isn't that good. I don't want someone who is going to bully or criticize without any context or insight into the topic at hand. I don't want someone who is going to give me an award.

PLN as an Engine of Support

And this must be transferred to our students as they begin to connect regularly both inside and outside of school. As educators, we must model positive use of learning networks and groups, and give students the proper foundations in the effective use of social media. Let's move students beyond the simple connections that they get, and really empower their voices, abilities, and talents. Teach students to not just join a PLN or hashtag, but also become an active member. Promote debate and constrictive criticism. Encourage students to find ways to improve the work they post and share. Part of being in a PLN is having that constant drive to provoke thought, accept constrictive criticism, and debate freely. Simply allowing students to connect is only the beginning.

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