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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Social Media in Education: The Power of Facebook

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.

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