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Siphoning the Fumes of Teen Culture: How to Co-opt Students’ Favorite Social Media Tools

In 1763, a royal decree was issued from Great Britain to the North American colonists: Do not?do not!?expand west of the Appalachian Mountains. The colonists resented the proclamation, inferring that the British were trying to contain them along the Atlantic Seaboard where control and taxation could be more easily imposed. The King believed his proclamation to be motivated by good intentions, protecting colonists from instigating any more costly wars with Native Americans, for one. But nothing could stop the westward expansion fever. Frontiersmen had already plundered the fish-rich rivers and fertile lands of the west, unspoiled by settlements and tobacco-ruined soil. No matter how many punishments the King and his court imposed, the rules would be subverted. Unofficially, the revolution had begun.

In 2011, social media is the new frontier. Adolescents are the early frontierspersons because they discovered and embraced social media first.

By forbidding the use of social media sites in 52% of our nation's classrooms, schools are suppressing a learning revolution that is characterized by several truths: 1) facility with social media tools is critical to learning and working in the 21st century; 2) 75% of online adolescents are already social networking outside of school; 3) many students hack through Internet filters during class; and 4) exploration of social media sites is part of the adolescent identity. Teachers might not value, use, or understand social media tools, but they need to. Not authorizing the use of these new tools will lead students to question teacher's relevance in helping teens negotiate the 21st century.

What is Social Media?

Social media refers to the online tools that promote easy transmission of ideas and conversations. Social media tools include wikis, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, microblogs, digital poster tools, chat rooms, photo sharing, podcasts, txts, etc. In "How Do You Define 'Social Media?'" Tom Webster states that social media, by definition, involves co-creation:

"This means that I don't define YouTube videos as social media. You might. I define the comments on a YouTube video page as social media, however, because there is co-creation occurring in that space. Embed that YouTube video on a static HTML page, and you strip it of the co-creation element - it just becomes a TV show."

Social media can contain conversations long and short, critical or casual, studied or whimsical. Social media conversations can be full of folly or powerful enough to throw 112 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles at the sky on a Saturday afternoon. They are immediate, sometimes identity-conflating (think Vulcan Mind Meld) and demand sensitivity and skill to successfully negotiate shifting rhetorical demands.

Doing the "Social" Part of Social Media Requires Intellectual Dexterity

A new synthesis of multiple studies, "Always connected: The new digital media habits of young children," from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop reports that, on average, kids can actually stuff eight hours of media exposure into five hours of non-school time by media multitasking?phone texting while participating in seven separate Facebook chats and posting to Tumblr. Students increasingly compose within social media environments and teachers should capitalize on this affinity, as did Dr. Reynol Junco at Lock Haven University, in a study where his students used Twitter and other social media tools to increase their overall grade point averages (see video). Dr. Howard Rheingold, on his final exam, asked his Stanford students to demonstrate their understanding of the literacies that accompany new media by creating, rather than writing, an essay. Both professors, Junco and Rheingold, view new literacies as additive rather than an annihilation of traditional literacy practices.

The cognitive gymnastics involved in co-creating and interpreting with and within social media spaces are impressive. Yet, engagement is often the prime justification for the integration of social media into curriculum. A Google Scholar keyword search of "student engagement" and "social media" returned 423 articles.

Engagement should not be the primary rationale for classroom application of social media. I make this point for two reasons. First, emphasizing the engagement aspect of social media diminishes its power. After all, teachers can spellbind 10th graders by demonstrating the mechanics of a switchblade, but where is the pedagogical value? Instead of talking about how much teens love their Facebook (and rolling our eyes), we need to articulate the social and cognitive adroitness that kids demonstrate when using these tools and the relevance of these skills for succeeding in the post-industrial professional age. Although New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell argues that the potential is overstated, social media tools are transformational. Media tools, by affording self-expression and cooperation, are perfectly aligned with what American educational philosophers imagined for our schools: a democratized and democratizing space.

Comparing Old Media and New Media

TV puts power and influence in the hands of yacht-owning media magnets, like Rupert Murdock (worth $6.3 billion and ranked by Forbes in 2010 as the 13th most powerful person in the world), who buys up studios and broadcasting stations. Twitter and Youtube empower anyone with access to a computer, phone, or library to publish media. Television celebrates authority. Twitter dismantles authority, as witnessed by its use in Tunisia. Television celebrates the expert. Twitter fosters dialogue among amateurs. Professor Zynep Tufekci, in Technosociology, writes that, to our advantage, the inherent chaos of new media contrasts with the "opacity of modern production systems in which everything is delivered to the consumer shrink-wrapped, "cleansed" of hints of its origin and the process by which it was produced..."

Ultimately, these technologies give classrooms a real shot at social justice. The trick is for instructors to avoid "teaching" new media tools with old media practices in their desire to engage students and teach 21st century skills.

In the last section of this piece, I offer ten guidelines for teachers seeking to positively integrate social media into their high school classroom. If you want some basic tips, skip to that section. Alternatively, meander through the following vignettes where we will peripatetically explore how social media meshes with teen culture, complicates identity, and subverts authority.

Vignette #1: Respect Student Culture

Two years ago, a high school student proudly showed me a new blog that he had created with Blogger at home. After making some positive comments, I went into helper mode, suggesting that he could switch to Wordpress, an open source blog publisher to create a more unique, user-friendly interface. He told me that I didn't understand; everyone in his social circle used Blogger. When I tried to respond, the boy's face suddenly flushed pink and he retreated.

Later, I unpacked the interaction. A middle-aged man who wears Croc sandals had no business debating efficiency and new media aesthetics with a teenager, particularly when the boy correctly understood and mimicked the visual preferences of his reader/blogging peers.

I did not realize that the aesthetics and content of the blog were, to the boy, inseparable from his methods and tools. For me to critique any of those elements, uninvited, was perceived as a desecration of his prized social space. He didn't have the words to explain that I was encroaching on his culture. His silence taught me, ultimately, that students' relationship with certain types of social media can be hyper-personal?paradoxically sensitive and impregnable.

Vignette #2: Don't Fool Kids with Inferior Social Media Tools

Last week, a teacher asked me to give him feedback on his classroom social media site. He uses an online platform popular among teachers in the know, one I've used with my students. Without actually saying this, this online space suggests itself as a password protected (safe) alternative to Facebook. Like Facebook, its colors are blue and white. It allows direct messaging and facilitates uploading pictures and documents. Unlike Facebook, it incorporates grading. When I interviewed one of his high school students, a junior named "Tanya", here is how the conversation went:

Me: "What do you think about [the classroom social media platform]?"
Tanya: (Passionately) "I think it's tacky!"
Me: "Help me understand that."
Tanya: (Quickly) "It's slow and clunky. The design is bad. To talk to your friend, you can't just go to their page and shoot them a message. The search box is worthless; I couldn't find my friend, Tim, even when I know he's in there. Every time you want to post to a particular class?every time?you have to select that class, even when you're continuing a conversation. Ghhhhhhh. It's tacky."

Tanya never mentioned Facebook, yet she was clearly referencing the tools on that site. To her, the different (inferior) social media space vacuumed the fun out of online social interchange and used less sophisticated tools (slower) to trick her into a school approved "creepy treehouse." It's cool, right kids? Teens know the difference between the real tools and the school tools.

Vignette #3: Don't Assign Faux Facebook Assignments

I have observed that local English teachers routinely assign students to describe famous authors using a Facebook template that is Xeroxed and distributed for the students to complete by hand.

At a glance, this activity appears to be a clever updating of the tiresome book report. Unfortunately, the exercise disregards literacies that are fundamental to Facebook, where each page is interwoven with others, and where public and private revelations place the individual's social status among multiple communities in constant jeopardy. This thrilling interchange is impossible to duplicate with a paper graphic organizer.

These three vignettes challenge me, as a teacher, to respect that teens (not all, of course) crave recognition of their social media autonomy in many (but not all) contexts. Howard Rheingold, describes these explorations as sacred journeys where teens find themselves. Therefore, I should wait for students to signal that commentary on their social media processes and products is welcome. I should always encourage best-in-class technologies, when permitted. Lastly, using social media for didactic instructional purposes echoes, After School Specials by underestimating adolescents' intelligence.

Ten Guidelines for Integrating Social Media Tools and Spaces into the Classroom:

1. When social media supplements and transforms curriculum, students should experience this like play. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, defend play as a "modality" of learning. Think of how a handful of kids on a playground engage in fantasy, but also invent and reinvent rules. Imagination, insist Thomas and Brown, is heightened by rules. Social media rules should be directive, but not restrictive.

2. Read Michael Zimmer Ultimate Guide to Social Media for a well-organized introduction to many social platforms and OnlineUniversities.com's 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media in the Classroom. If you want theoretical and practical advice about community building, read and watch Kristen Taylor's How to Build an Online Community in The Atlantic.

3. Many students are online novices. They'll need to be partnered with digital natives who know how, why, and when to use different social media tools.

4. Glogster, Diigo and Ning were championed by educators before they caught on with teens. Since these platforms do not replicate social media hangouts that are embraced by students, they can be taught with little risk of encroaching on teen culture.

5. As a social media researcher, Danah Boyd observes, questions, and celebrates teen identity-building practices and literacies. Her stance towards teens is neither precious nor supercilious. Watch her insightful lectures.

6. Clearly separate the spaces where conversational and formal writing occur.

7. Don't require students to write "correctly" in discussion forums. These spaces should encourage teens to advance tentative theories and experiment with different perspectives. You can always require students to write a traditional summary of their ideas later.

8. Great online discussions thrive when students and instructors trust the community.

9. Introducing too many different social media channels in a semester muddies the role obligations for members of each ecosystem, resulting in withdrawal.

10. Check out Quora, my favorite social networking platform. Former Facebook and Google employees created and maintain this people-powered knowledge farm. They understand the fertile ground that lies between technology and sociology.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

David Polakoff's picture


Your suggestions on using social media in the classroom are great. I cringe when schools do not allow popular sites to be used - even my 5th graders have used proxies to access YouTube and facebook. The bottom line is that kids today use these technologies all the time when they're outside the classroom. Taking them away in school makes absolutely no sense. Instead, we as educators need to find ways to integrate them.

Sarah's picture

I couldn't agree more with the realization that we need to treat both teens and social media tools with the respect they deserve. Addressing the fact that they will be able to call us out when tools are "lame" or inferior can prepare teachers for the fact that their students will not be impressed by the simple addition of a tool. It needs to live up to their standards in order to be engaging or it will become another monotonous assignment that they have to do. Also, social media tools are amazing examples of global connections, collaboration and communication. Kudos to addressing the fact that giving assignments that don't utilize this function of theirs in inefficient. I loved the article and the issue of bringing a greater respect for those teens and social media.

Bob Alexander's picture
Bob Alexander
Consultant for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network

Check out this text:
Bring it to Class: Unpacking Pop Culture in Literacy Learning
by Margaret C. Hagood, Donna El Alvermann, and Alison Heron-Hurby. Forward by Kylene Beers.

Claudia LAmoreaux's picture
Claudia LAmoreaux
Future of Learning Strategist

Hi, Todd. Thanks but Jessica is the author of that visual writing prompt piece you loved. I'm glad you appreciate HippoCampus - it's the first self-sustaining OER project.

Claudia LAmoreaux's picture
Claudia LAmoreaux
Future of Learning Strategist

Thanks for the book suggestion, Bob. Looks great. Ironic it doesn't have a Kindle version. ;D The current IJLM issue has an article about students using Remix World that relates to co-author Alvermann's work and to this thread.

Kevin Weaver's picture
Kevin Weaver
English I and II teacher and yearbook advisor from Fayetteville, NC

I enjoyed the article and agree with much of what you say but, in Vignette #2, you talk about students knowing the difference between "the real tools and the school tools" and insinuated that the school tools were inferior. Teaching at an early college, my students, both current and former, have a unique view of the tools they need to be successful. We currently have teachers at our school using Facebook and the "school version" and our students appreciate both. The Facebook use does allow for more freedom and a use of tools they are comfortable playing with but the school version, to quote a student, "is more like what we are using in college. It's like what the professors want us to do on Blackboard but with some other neat features." I think approach is important. Just as college students don't use their online classes and online workspaces as an open social forum for fun and games, grade level students need to be aware that when using a "school" social network, it is for school. We as educators are still meeting them with tools that they will enjoy using and will probably be using, in at least a familiar form, at higher levels of education. In a real-world view, this "school version" is a lot more realistic for education. Real world jobs and careers aren't always going to allow you to play with your friends and have unlimited tools and conversation whenever you feel. Structure is needed sometimes. Structured doesn't mean inferior and lack of features doesn't mean slow. It just means that students are required to use a program for what it is intended and not for fun.

Julia Hengstler's picture

Thanks for the post. I'd just like to clarify--& perhaps distinguish between the two issues you raise in this vingette. Firstly, "the creepy treehouse effect"--as drawn from the Chronicle article, represents a misunderstanding of the term. Creepy treehouse is actually when instructors began to join/penetrate students social networks--as they were on their native platforms. The studies found that students felt instructors were invading peer group sanctity and that there were undue stresses related to having an instructor in a social network of peers. Due to the power and age differential, it's much like a teacher coming to a 17 year old's birthday party--and expecting to stay when the parents are gone. Trying to develop parallel social networking structures for academic purposes where students could filter their contents was the result of the creepy treehouse effect.

That said, like most non-commercial academic endeavors, the results tend to be less polished and slick than the commercial versions. There is never a good excuse for poor UI design & user experience, but the creepy treehouse effect was the reason that a parallel structure was desirable--to leverage patterns and behaviours and skills that students had developed but employ them in a school monitored virtual environment.
When you are working with post-secondary students--and even senior secondary students, many of the aspects of fully open social networks are not as problematic as at the elementary & middle levels. There is a place for "fenced" social media that allows students to learn the skills and behaviors that make them able to fully and safely participate in open networks as mature individuals.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014


Thank you for taking the time to write this clarification. Your blog, ED Tech Thoughts (http://jhengstler.wordpress.com/) is a rich resource. I particularly like your quotation of Kevin Kelly. His recent book *What Does Technology Want* pushes me to think about how technology is part of us that should be celebrated. -tbf

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