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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Help Students Use Social Media Effectively

Today more than ever, people are capable of publishing their thoughts to a vast audience. Comments, tweets, and status updates are ubiquitous and constant. However, are we really focusing on the quality of the message we are putting out there? Are we really providing useful information or are we just adding to the noise?

Simply giving students a blogger ID and a twitter username is not enough. Unless they are working to develop the skills necessary to effectively convey their message to a receptive audience, then the value of the message is diluted. If that same student stood at a podium with a microphone, yet has not prepared a speech and has trouble using proper grammar, this student's message could be lost on his or her audience. However, in this world of instant communication our students have the opportunity to engage and share with a global audience. As educators, we cannot let this chance slip by.

Keep Standards High

If we are going to enable our students to find and share their voice with the world, we need to equip them with a powerful skill that is timeless: writing effectively. Our students must realize that there is a BIG difference between "your" and "you're" no matter what forum they are using to communicate a message. Consider this, how much effort does it take to edit 140 characters? Not much. I have spent the last eight years of my teaching career combing through student essays that are chock full of common errors: "then" vs. "than", "it's" vs. "its", and knowing when to use an apostrophe to denote possession. These students learn from my feedback that their message is diluted. If I were to let this student move on without correcting his or her errors, this trend would continue and possibly diminish their capacity to reach their full potential. The same principles must apply in all forms of social media.

Educators must model effective writing and editing as well. I comb through thousands of tweets, blogs, and status updates from week to week, and one glaring pattern is typos. Some may argue that this is just a simple error and not a big deal. However, it is a big deal if we want to maintain the sanctity of the English language and get people to connect to our message. If you regularly cannot self-edit 140 characters, do you really think I am going to want to pay to see you speak? Want to buy your book? Or take you seriously as an educator? Not likely.

More Is Not Always Better

The second frustrating element of social media is the perpetual sharing of watered-down guides e.g., "500 Tips for Google" or "100 Ways to Use YouTube in the Classroom." This is not conducive to learning or immediate implementation. Teachers must learn to filter and edit before throwing up one thousand and one ways to use something in the classroom. Focus on the message and think about the practicality of sharing suggestions. Will this help someone in his or her daily practice? Will it engage or entertain someone? Luckily, I have never been to a conference where the presenter gives the audience a book of one hundred pages and says, "Within these 100 pages you will find 100 unique ways to use Google in your classroom." The presenter walks off stage and we clap. This would never happen. Think about your audience when you are publishing a tweet or blog post. We would never teach this way.

I am not trying to be preachy and humbly admit that I have been guilty of putting a message out there without proper edits. However, we must have high expectations of our students' work. We need to get them to understand that college admissions counselors, prospective employers, etc. will not take them seriously if they are putting out poorly worded messages.

Before Posting, Examine Your Motives

Every educator I know is trying to find ways to present authentic assessment and give their students an audience for feedback and reflection. However, we must convey to our learners that a lot more eyes are watching than ever before. We all want our students to blog, connect, and, communicate, but we must make sure they are putting out polished, substantive information. The same goes for Twitter and any other form of social media. The best educators must model this skill daily and practice what they preach. Think about what information you are putting out there and why you're presenting this to your PLN. What is your motive? Can someone really learn from this tweet? Or am I just looking to build my following number and increase the activity of my mentions column? Think about these questions and think about your audience. Are you really giving them something of substance?

As we reflect on how best to refine our students' 21st century skills we must not lose sight of the timeless skill of effective communication. Remind students of the power of digital media and how much their words can impact the lives of others.

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monica longoria's picture

I think they want 'us' to encourage writing etiquette along with sharing thoughts ideas etc.
Great advice!

d griffin's picture

Andrew, I agree with your POV. We're talking about giving students a public audience, therefore attention should be given to all aspects of a post; ideas, grammar and spelling are all components of a successful public post that others are going to read.

Paul Bogush's picture
Paul Bogush
8th Grade Social Studies

If someone had corrected my "it's and its," my "theres and theirs," I would have never entered the blogoshpere, and we would have never met ;)

I have had plenty of people walk up to me, email me, tweet me, etc...and tell me how one of my posts have made a difference. I am guilty of everything in your "Keep Standards High" paragraph. Meaning, passion, emotion, connection...will always be more important than grammar...is it "then grammar" or "than grammar?" Is it grammer or grammar? Simply knowing that you would "judge" me based on my grammar made me shy away from leaving a comment...but I did come back because I kinda sorta know you and know that you do look deeper than just the grammar. My "...s" are ok...right?

But then again...maybe it is my grammar that keeps me in the single digits for blog hits each day.

I did just attend a conference (with no teachers!) this weekend in which small business owners spent the entire day trying to figure out how to use social media. It was great for me to sit there in many sessions and think YES! My kids could step right into their business at age 13 and do exactly what they are looking for, or answer their questions. And then in others think uh-oh, I am not preparing my kids for that! So to put a twist on your post, knowing how to effectively and properly use social media is becoming a necessity as an employee, or as an entrepreneur...not just as a student. Teachers should spend more time seeing how social media is being applied in the business world, not just in the classroom.
Go Filies!

Lyn Hilt's picture
Lyn Hilt
Principal, Brecknock Elementary School, ELANCO

I support your ideas here. I think I'm an unofficial member of the grammar police. I do make mistakes, of course, in my own writing, but I notice usage and punctuation and grammar errors in others' posts I read. If there are too many errors, the author's message is lost on me. For children who are still learning the ins and outs of our language, we have to be tolerant of mistakes. However, I agree that we should expect them to produce their best work for such a large audience. Empowering students with the knowledge of how to use spelling/grammar editing tools in addition to how to compose and organize meaningful content will strengthen their skills as communicators!

Michael Wacker's picture
Michael Wacker
Online Professional Development Coordinator Denver, Colorado

I'm going to push back a little bit here. I would caution against "over-teaching" within this medium. While I see the value in the modeling of proper grammar and spelling, the real value is in the writing process, right? Personally, I wonder if folks need to just get over themselves when talking and thinking about grammar and spelling. We are a global community now, with varying rules and definitions of what grammar can and should look like. Give me content with context and I could care less how the spelling or grammar shows up. There is value in putting out there what you want others to see and read in draft form, too.

Social media is blogs, and microblogs, like twitter; but it's also bookmarks, groups, and communities, too. I want my daughter to be exposed and comfortable in all of these forms of media. If we are truly transparent then the learning process is a big part of the process. I don't want her work sitting on the draft floor; when there could be a body of evidence and growth. This video of a student talking about collaborating in Google Docs is great, it shows how the transparent sharing in draft form is super valuable to kids as they believe their peers are more likely to "get" the meaning, even if it's ripe with spelling errors, slang, and what some might call improper grammar. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcgbIaXgni8&feature=player_embedded Mark Twain obliterated the norms of grammar and spelling and his works are classic. For me attribution, licensing, and understanding of our digital footprint trump the fears of sharing too much, sloppiness, and motives.

Lastly, in an age when we are globally communicating and the possibilities built within google Docs to quickly translate your work into any number of languages is amazing. However, the grammar and spelling of these translations makes English and language teachers cringe, yet the meaning isn't lost and the work is shared and authentic.
Thanks so much for this post Andrew, as we move into more and more "social media" in education these are great conversations to have and your points are valid.

Helen Gettys Michie Med's picture

I also want to thank all the people who commented on this topic. I believe we must teach students best practice in their writing. However, the English language is changing daily, and some grammatical constructions and new words and slang are entering the language which are not even in a dictionary yet. Students have to understand who is their audience, and what language is appropriate for the audience they are trying to communicate with. When students use slang in a blog or article for school they should define the new words or phrases.

I also think that students should be cautioned when they are upset about a life situation, they should be very careful about where and they post. If in doubt don't post it!

Lauren Angelone's picture

I tend to disagree with guidelines of this sort for reasons that I thoroughly describe on my blog here: http://bugsii.com/2010/10/20/social-media-guidelines-and-tyler-clement/, but for now, these are my alternative guidelines.

1) (Keep standards high.) Think, read, talk to as many people as you can, and then think some more. THEN, set standards that you believe are just.

2) (More is not always better.) Write as much or as little as you want about things that you think matter and things that you think don't matter. Writing is thinking (see #1).

3) (Before posting, examine your motives.) Write and share ideas that are half-formed, that you aren't sure about, that make you hesitate. Then, listen to others, read, think and keep troubling those ideas. And then, when you think you have those ideas all settled, rethink (and share) them again.

Linda Aragoni's picture
Linda Aragoni
Publisher of internet educational materials

The social aspect of social media means writers are not writing just for themselves, nor does their writing represent just themselves.

Writing for an audience the writer doesn't know well or know at all is a significant part of social media. That's why social media requires adherence to the writing conventions of standard edited English. SEE makes it possible for people who know each other face-to-face to communicate clearly.

Some typos and mistakes will slip by even the most careful editor. (I blush at some of the whoppers I've put in print.) The real problem, however, occurs when a writer in a social medium has a high proportion of errors and does nothing to remedy the problem.

The most common errors in writing are grammar and punctuation issues covered in elementary school English classes. Students who misunderstand a grammar rule or concept or who don't know how to edit their work for the grammar mistakes they make wind up making elementary school errors as adults.

A writer can say "the ideas expressed are my own," but when either the ideas or the expression are at odds with the mission of the writer's organization, each character and pixel reflect on the organization. (NPR's firing of Juan Williams for expressing his personal opinion is a case in point.)

When a student writes as a student in public (whether on Facebook or the toilet stall wall), the student represents his/her institution. A student whose work is riddled with errors might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says, "My teacher is one of those incompetents the education reformers want to fire."

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