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Social Media in Education: The Power of Facebook

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As a teacher and a new mom, it didn't take long for me to find Facebook as a supplement for my stunted social life. And as any FB user knows, once you join, you become inundated with photos of new babies, comments about friends' recent bodily functions, quiz results, and mysterious requests for farm equipment or mafia weapons.

But beyond the posts I saw that made me laugh, cry, and wince, I soon learned that Facebook was also a place of professional learning and development.

I began sharing with other teachers and educators what were working, what news I'd read, what blog post I'd written, my indignations, and my victories. Soon my small pool of professional friends bled into my small pool of personal ones. And so I also discovered that Facebook was more than just a means to learn about friends professionally and colleagues personally: It became a way to publicize the issues each of us felt deserved advocacy.

Potent Proof

A couple recent models of this education advocacy on Facebook that come to mind may be different in intent, but they both have something in common: the use of 21st century tools to move mountains.

Example One: Buffelgrass shall perish

To say the Buffelgrass Shall Perish fan page is the mastermind of Tucson teacher, Brian Kievit would be inaccurate according to the enthusiastic middle school science teacher. It was, he admits with a smile via Skype, "one-hundred percent student created." In true problem-based learning format, the science teacher asked a group of eighth graders at his school to pick a problem in their local community and solve it.

They picked Buffelgrass, that fast-growing, flame resistant menace which is cheaply imported by some states (listen up Texas!) as inexpensive erosion control and cattle feed. But, like something out of a B-horror film, it devours the natural habitat, stealing water and sucking the nutrients from the ecosystem, and has a shelf life seemingly longer than a Twinkie. In other words, after we're dead and gone, it will be Twinkies, cockroaches, and Buffelgrass left behind.

But once the students had discovered the plague-like weed, they weren't sure how to spread the word of its horrors. One student declared that they "needed to get the word out." After all, "knowledge is power." Which was when they decided to create a Facebook page devoted to the threat. They soon posted a a rap song on YouTube and using Facebook, the small group of grime fighters update on their progress in educating the nation about this ground cover of evil.

Brian Kievit's project was all about student choice, the scientific method, and getting the word out to different states -- courtesy of a little 21st century know-how. In so doing, he created a learning community, and nurtured what many teachers scratch their heads to achieve: students who love the learning process.

Using the social networking tools of our age, this one Tucson teacher and his small group of students began to educate politicians, farmers, and Facebook fans like me. Using 21st century tools, they have become advocates for their own local community.

Example Two: Teachers' Letters to Obama

And then there are those who are using Facebook to be advocates for their larger educational community.

Anthony Cody began his Teachers' Letters to Obama Facebook campaign as a personal outlet, a diary entry that soon grew into a movement. And as a result of that movement, twelve of us have been granted a conference call with Arne Duncan himself to discuss concerns and suggestions for Obama's blueprint for revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Perhaps you've heard of the Teachers' Letters to Obama campaign. Perhaps you've even submitted a letter. If you have, you should know that you've become a part of a chain that has led to Arne Duncan's office itself. For from the time you added your thoughts to the discussion post, your drop in the puddle joined with others to create a pool of possibilities.

What began as a discussion page for teachers to write their experiences, concerns, and suggestions, soon found their way to a congressman and bada-bing, bada-bang, a door opened and a conference call was scheduled between Duncan, Cody, and company -- a small panel of teachers representing all walks of education life from all over the country.

The group doesn't represent a particular political group, union stance, philosophy, or agenda. We come from different educational backgrounds and paths, from all regions and economic brackets. Some are award-winning teachers and some represent everything from rural to urban, from high performing to "failing" schools. In all, we are a slice of the teacher profession in a snapshot.

But while twelve teachers will be speaking, it is almost 2,000 educators whose voices will be heard. And it's all due to the use of 21st century tools. On Facebook, Cody sent out a survey using SurveyMonkey asking teachers to help whittle down the list of topics most frequently brought up on the Teachers' Letters to Obama page to the ones they found to be the most important. The group formed a ning to help hone in on issues, to analyze the phrases from the ESEA blueprint together, and discuss the most innovative solutions from teachers in order to suggest to Duncan. They used Elluminate to meet each other on a virtual platform, planning this collaborative conversation with the secretary of education, bringing the voices of teachers to the policy table.

Our discussion is waiting to be slated, and I assure you, Edutopia reader, that I will update you with its results.

Advocacy in Action

We are no longer "just teachers." We each have the power to change our small and greater worlds by using social networking to get our voices heard. The power of social networking can at times be unforeseen, but it is clearly a tool for advocacy at every level in education.

The bottom line is this: Anyone can be involved in solving the problems of our era. With 21st century tools, a small group of students can stand up to the devastation of nature, and a small group of teachers can be strengthened by the shared opinions of a larger group and take a stand against the devastation of certain policies that may control our practice.

Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Karl Klint's picture

Indeed, the ability to use social network sites to empower a classroom is tempting, but I would like to caution against the use of Facebook as a classroom outlet.

I actually do use facebook to share political agendas that I am passionate about, but there is danger beyond the spread of buffalo grass that can grow through the crossing of the classroom and facebook.

I love the passion that arises, and the positive atmosphere such a discussion can create; unfortunately Facebook should not be used for education.

Reason 1) The politics of Facebook's anti-privacy action. As many have read in recent weeks, Facebook is indeed making individual privacy more difficult to control. This means that one of your students might write something that goes against the standards of your school or program. Now what? Well, a lawsuit could extend out of this due to the connection the student now has to the classroom.

Reason 2) Future employment could be terminated for the student. Here is an example, you ask the students to write something for a political science class. They may write what is not technically their viewpoint (or possibly a forming viewpoint that might someday dissipate). The class assignment ends, but the words do not disappear. Employees now search databases to find out about their workers. I know this from personal experience. The student's words follow them into the future; and even if their viewpoints change, the employee has no way of recognizing that they have changed. I lost a position I was applying for (personal connections informed me later of the reason) based on a political blog I once authored (for a class assignment). Though I was role playing as a student, the employer didn't want to hire a political loose cannon.

Reason 3) I will end with this: Though Facebook was originally designed as a place for people within education to connect, it has become a social mecca. Students do not fully enjoy having their personal/social lives connected with the subjective world of the classroom. We, educators, see great opportunity in connecting to our students by extending the classroom into Facebook. Unfortunately, we have to also ask ourselves if we have crossed a fine line between school and home. I teach rhetoric at the University level. I have asked students if they would be bothered by the use of Facebook as part of the curriculum. One student asked me this in return, "Do you feel strange if you run into a student while out having drinks on the weekend? Thats how I feel when a teacher wants to be my facebook friend."

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Your advice is well-heeded. There's just a few things I want to point out here:

1. It isn't Facebook, so much as social media, that is important to begin to use in education. The reason is because it is a reality whose literacy must be taught, whose awareness of transparency, of responsibility and power must be taught. We must be a voice in our students' heads, helping to make good decisions in their writing and communicating. Avoiding the technology in fear of what could be, does not help teach them how to function. But, I agree that while Facebook may not be the best option, it is one of many that might help us achieve that goal of literacy in social media.

2. What teacher is asking to friend a student on Facebook? I'm sure it's perfectly fine for some, but I am not personally friending my current students on Facebook. I know many want to, but I agree with that student you cited that it's uncomfortable for some to mix professional with personal. This post, however, was about targeted Facebook pages with specific purpose, not social pages.

3. Facebook's privacy policies are uncomfortably disappearing, you're right. But even with no privacy settings, it is no more or less private than functioning online. And we must be a voice in any of their online practices. It is a literacy that we must play a part in teaching.

Thank you so much for your comments, and your reminder about the seriousness of the transparency of all forms of social media. It is not something a teacher should enter into lightly. But I believe with specific scaffolding and ramp-up, we can harness its power to be advocates, to teach critical-thinking, and to teach internet literacy.

Thanks again,

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Karl Klint's picture

I question if instructors do need to cross into the realm of online social spaces, at least within their role as a classroom teacher. Within their personal life and agendas, no problem. In the classroom is a different story. Also, this is not an issue of literacy, for in this context the term "literacy" is improperly utilized. Sorry, the use of literacry in this way is one of my three personal pet peeves.

If one is teaching critical and rhetorical processes along with how action can create greater awareness, then I can forsee valid reasons for entering into these spaces as a way to work within real-time settings. I just get a sense that education is willing to enter into online realms with good intention, even when the k-12 education system is itself in a broken state. This creation within dis-creation could lead to weakened educational outcomes through expansion of educational space into social medias. You mentioned the word fear. I wish I was fearful. In retrospect, I am simply looking beyond the positive nature (and it is beautifully positive) of this article towards the reality of what already is/has happened due to educational expansion into social network media.

Understanding how to teach online and within social network sites is an art in and of itself. This takes special training and an understanding that, yes, needs to be scaffolded. But do the resources to construct scaffolding exist within contemporary k-12 education funding?

I'm a proponent of teaching within social network platforms if individuals have received training to function and lead others effectively within these spaces. I agree that critical-thinking can be harnessed within these spaces. I'd go as far to say that critical-thinking should be the corner stone of all education. The truth is though, with the current teach-to-the-test mentality of gov't aptitude programs, I do invision a lack of resources available to support educator training for online social mediums (within a large majority of American schools).

I thank you for sharing social experiences that have strengthened activist outcomes for educators. For adults, heck yeah connect and advocate and share and strengthen goals within S.N.Sites. One can, however, educate students about social networking without entering into these realms. It is at this point I have to wonder if the advocacy goals desired by the instructor have moved too far outside the boundaries of the classroom, and beyond a need to teach critical thinking skills.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Thank you once again for your thoughtful reply. But I believe that helping students think critically (and I agree with you that critical thinking is the corner stone of all education) both online and off is within the definition of our job to prepare all students for their futures.

Here's what we do agree on: we are underfunded and undertrained. Dead on.

But teachers have always been a resilient lot, have we not? Despite funding, despite professional development (which is hit and hiss to begin with), we have worked beyond the mandates to help guide our students in the skills that they need for their futures.

In a perfect world, we would have money and funding given to us, to be sure. But in the meantime, we cannot allow our students to fall even more behind because we lack those things. That is what our own background information is supposed to do. That is what second career teachers, veteran teachers, and new teachers bring to the party: a maturity in their decision-making to help students' learn their own.

Thanks again, and it's a pleasure agreeing and disagreeing with you!

-Heather WG

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Hey all you STEM and social networking fans, have you checked out this website?

I am not the science maven of the year, but it looked like it really combined your content with the concepts from my post. Someone pointed it out to me, and I thought I'd pass it along. If you want to check it out and give feedback on what it's all about, post it here in the comment section.

-Heather WG

Karl Klint's picture

I've tried to ignore this statement, but cannot. You used the word "mature" within your response. I'm sorry, but using the technology because it is available and may supply an outlet for teaching is not a mature action for an educator. Looking closely at how the inclusion of new technologies will impact a students future is a mature act of any instructor and teacher (at any level of their career). You mentioned background information in your response to me. I agree, our background information becomes very important within education. Unfortunately, the inclusion of technologies because they are available may be an act of educator resiliance. My concern for the use of these technologies and the idea of teaching new "literacies" without an indepth review of both the positive and negative aspects of this inclusion is true educator maturity. Simply remediating educational concepts into new technological outlets is only a portion of the maturity required to teach students within/about social network communications. I'm sorry, but hit and miss education because one sees a need that is not being fulfilled can, in my opinion, become mature education once a teacher moves beyond the postive aspects of the new tech and also looks at the other side of the coin.

Stacy Haroutunian's picture

I am a Facebook user, but I have only used it for socially interacting with friends and family. I will now explore opportunities of professional networking on FB. Thank you for these ideas.

Julia Morales-Solis's picture
Julia Morales-Solis
Kindergarten Teacher is Georgia

I would love any ideas for using FB as a tool for parental communication at our elementary school. After our accreditation visit, one of the areas that needed improvement, was communication with parents. At a meeting, we realized that most parents are emailing us through FB accounts from their phones. We are brainstorming ideas on how to reach these young parents. It doesn't seem like they go read the newsletters or visit our website, so we need to deliver it in a different way. We are thinking either by texting, FB, or twitter. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

I think creating a fan page with FB might be a great idea. In fact, why don't you ask for some help from those very FB-using parents to start it up. Make sure the privacy controls are set at a comfortable place and go to town! Also, I know that I've been encouraging my district to have a twitter feed on our main website. I got our superintendent to start an account for the district, and while she tweets every now and then, my vision is to have someone tweeting news and events, quotes, and questions that just pop up on the feed throughout the day.

Currently, we have a podcast on our main page from one of our computer classes that kids rotate to give news and events, but it's not as social as we're talking about here. We all need to communicate with the parents better so I think all schools are scratching their heads on this one.

Hope this helps!

-Heather WG

nadenemorgan's picture

Social Network is a very powerful tool through which most of the world communicate. Many of our students today are so consumed with this medium of communication.Therefore, it is very impoortant that we get more educational information on these network that will be beneficial to the learning process.

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