Siphoning the Fumes of Teen Culture: How to Co-opt Students’ Favorite Social Media Tools
Todd Finley defines social media as the new frontier, and adolescents are the early frontierspersons.
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. For 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.