“The first step is to communicate via social media… and then we can start talking about using these new tools as a platform for education.” – Social Media Schools.com
The connection between learning and technology is nothing new. Public radio has been a source of education for citizens of the U.S. for decades (think NPR). The television significantly revolutionized the way American children learned in their early developmental years (Sesame Street anyone?). Texas Instruments’ graphing calculators greatly impacted the way math and science teachers taught important math-based lessons. Computers…well, computers do everything it seems.
If we’re using history as a gauge, it’s safe to say social media – the hot new technology development of the decade – will benefit American learning, too. In fact, there are plenty of educators and education-based institutions and organizations already realizing the benefits of going social.
Among them is Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey. Eric can be found on Twitter @NMHS_Principal. If you’re on Twitter (or join today) and begin following him, you’ll join the 13,000-plus others who’ve already done so. A sample of some of his recent Tweets show that he’s found some interesting education-focused blogs and he’s connected with fellow educators around the country to share technology tips.
In sharing why he has made Twitter such an important aspect of his education career, Sheninger said the social networking site was, “the most powerful learning tool that I’ve ever experienced in my education career." And he would know; Sheninger is a Google Certified Teacher, co-author of "Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals", an education writer for the Huffington Post, and was named to the National School Board Association’s "20 to Watch" list in 2010 for technology leadership.
Now not every principal or teacher will be Twitter-savvy and become education industry celebrities in the way Sheninger has over the past two years - his blog, A Principal’s Reflections, earned first runner up in the Best Administrator Blog category in 2010 from Edublogs. However, this shouldn’t mean that you should hesitate to join the popular social network and begin absorbing education content and insights yourself.
Some may look at Twitter and say to themselves, “wait a minute, you think this thing that celebrities and pro athletes use to talk about taking their dog for a walk could be a good tool for education?” My answer is 100% yes. Why? Because Twitter is all about listening and sharing: two of the most important things teachers help students learn throughout their academic careers. Listen to instructions. Listen to what the speaker is saying. Listen to how we came up with this geometry answer. Share with your fellow students. Share something about your science fair project. Share with us why you think Hamlet was so conflicted? If all the bells and whistles of Twitter are reduced to these two functions, we can immediately begin realizing the inherent value in having a 24/7, round-the-world social tool to listen to what’s being said and share things you believe have worked in the classroom. Best practices, case studies, lesson plans, curriculum ideas…all of it is up for grabs on Twitter.
There are approximately 150 million Americans on Facebook, many of whom are likely teachers and, millions more, students. Where Facebook is viewed as a personal destination, something done away from the classroom, Twitter – thanks to Sheninger and the thousands of other teachers on the site – is ready-built for professional purposes.
Rockdale, Texas, school superintendent Dr. Howell Wright can be found @howellwright and he has 762 followers. Jill Geiser, a middle school principal in Massachusetts, has 245 followers. Mary Beth Hertz (@MBTeach), a K-6 technology teacher in Philadelphia, has 7,000-plus followers. Whether you have a dozen followers or 12,000, Twitter just may be that powerful learning tool Sheninger referred to.
In late 2010, a study analyzed how students performed when asked to use Twitter to do assignments and found that students who were asked to "contribute to class discussions and complete assignments using Twitter increased their engagement over a semester more than twice as much as a control group." Another study, this one by the University of Minnesota, found that students who are already on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter could benefit from having those sites incorporated into their curriculum.
And it’s not just curriculum that educators can tap into social media to improve classroom performance by students. Edutopia.org writer Fran Smith once wrote, “Schools have always taught kids how to present themselves -- that's why we did oral presentations in the classroom. Now we need to teach them to present themselves electronically. That's why it's so scary to lock these technologies out.”
Karen Cator from U.S. Department of Education tends to agree. "Think about not only incorporating technology into your lessons, but creating more and more compelling assignments so that 21st century skills, the kinds of things students will have to develop in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, global participation -- that these are incorporated into assignments. The best spaces will incorporate social media, and interacting with others. "
A Mashable article titled, The Case For Social Media in Schools, detailed multiple benefits in using social networking in the classroom including the story of Portland, Oregon, 7th-grade teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff. Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her class and 20 percent of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50 percent, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third.
While some readers may be thinking that sites like Facebook and Twitter are limited to high school and college students, the reality is that more and more young students are hopping online. Between 2004 and 2009, the amount of time that kids between the ages of 2 and 11 spent online increased by 63 percent, according to a Nielson study. Matt Hardy, a 3rd and 4th grade teacher in Minnesota, has used blogs in his classroom since 2007 as a way to motivate students to write. “Students aren’t just writing on a piece of paper that gets handed to the teacher and maybe a smiley face or some comments get put on it,” Hardy said.
All this being said, the choice to use social media as a way to improve the way you effectively teach students is yours and yours alone. There is no social-media-silver-bullet in education theory or practical implementation. There isn’t a website that has “Facebook-fied” your entire lesson plan for today or presented a top-ten list for standardized test score improvements made possible through Twitter.
Still, Liz Dwyer, an education writer for Good believes, “America's students deserve teachers who've been taught well themselves, and right now, Twitter is the best way for educators to get a continuing professional education.”
For now, all you have is a few examples and case studies like those shared above. It’s up to you to discern the value from these and figure out precisely how you can tap into these social networking sites and develop some social media best practices for the way you teach. The first step, however, is to follow your students (and fellow educators) online and start using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the like to communicate. If you do choose to get on Twitter, feel free to use the hashtag #ITeachIAm.
After all, this campaign’s true purpose and value is to live on through you, teachers, as a resource for concepts, content and communicating about what it takes to be an effective teacher. Using Twitter and other social media channels effectively, as Principal Eric Sheninger has, is but one way to get started.