Digital
7:21 am
Fri July 19, 2013

Hashtag in the Classroom: Can Social Media Improve Education?

Thirty years ago parents had to tell their kids to turn off the television and go to sleep.  Today, it’s their mobile phone.  Teenagers are more socially active than ever before, at least virtually.

A Pew Institute Research study on Teens, Social Media and Privacy found that 95 percent of teenagers use the Internet and eight in ten of them use some kind of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.

Ninety-five percent of teenagers use the Internet and 8 in 10 of them use social media. Can educators find a way to harness that in the classroom?

And it isn’t just teenagers who are avid users.  Social media is shaping society.  More and more sites like Facebook and Twitter are influencing not only how we talk, but what we talk about.  Television programming, legislative bills, fashion, protests and parties are planned, discussed and critiqued online. 

So, what is next?  Education, of course.

This is a scary thought for teachers, administrators and educators, and with good reason.  For decades experts have argued the effectiveness of technology on student learning.  And the results were not always positive. 

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there may even be a correlation between the rise in ADHD and the increasing prevalence of mobile devices since 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of them own smartphones.

A May study from The National Bureau of Economic Research found that providing a computer to sixth through tenth grade students who did not have one at home had “no effects on any educational outcomes, including grades, test scores, credits earned, attendance and disciplinary actions” at the end of a school year.  A similar project conducted by the Texas Center for Educational Research found, after a technology immersion program, that “there was no evidence linking technology immersion with student self-directed learning or their general satisfaction with their schoolwork.”

And just ask any high school English teacher how Internet acronyms—OMG, LOL, smh, ty – have seeped not only into teen vernacular, but also into their writing.  Clearly, incorporating social media into the classroom may seem fruitless and counterproductive to many veteran educators. 

However, when used carefully, mobile phones, tablets and social media can be a very powerful tool.  Kids have more access to information than ever before.  They no longer have to get up and pick up a dictionary to search for a word’s definition; they don’t need to buy the most recent edition of an atlas to find China’s gross domestic product.  All of that information is available to them on their most prized possession, their smartphone.

The challenge is to help them see the power that they have at their fingertips.  Teachers and parents have to help them see that smartphones are not just for texting and updating Facebook profiles and that Twitter is useful for more than posting jokes and song lyrics.

Anyone who doubts the potential world-changing power of social media just has to turn on the evening news.  Remember the Arab Spring?  Most accounts of the political upheaval in Egypt leaked through Twitter and YouTube.  The winner of our most recent U.S. presidential debates were partially measured by Twitter activity.  TV anchor Diane Sawyer recently used the term “selfie” on ABC World News and social media had a huge influence during the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who was accused of killing teenager Trayvon Martin.

In a discussion about how networks are increasingly using social media not only to promote shows, but to drive content, Anne Sweeney, the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group, said that “whether it's Twitter or Facebook, those technologies, those platforms have given them even more say. Because they have come into the conversation in a much more powerful way, it's even more important we pay attention to it.”

The same applies to education.  The Florida Legislature has required that schools deliver half of classroom instruction digitally by the fall of 2015. Already the state requires high school students to take one online course in order to graduate, and many are taking several as schools struggle to offer electives such as foreign language that students need to get accepted to college. And students already take computerized versions of the FCAT and final exams, not pencil and paper tests.

So technology is definitely here to stay.  And teachers have the opportunity to develop how it is used.  Facebook has over 500 million users, Twitter over 200 million.  Both communities get larger every minute. And students are engrossed in them.  

A small study of students at Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania tested whether Twitter could be used effectively in learning.  At the end of the semester, students enrolled in classes where they were assigned to continue class discussions and complete assignments using Twitter were more engaged in their classwork than students who did not and earned a higher grade point average.

Technology alone cannot improve learning and social media can be distracting and even dangerous.  But, today’s teenagers are more tech-savvy than any other generation.

One of the challenges facing educators is learning how we can harness the power of social media in the classroom to keep students engaged and excited about learning so that they begin to see the awesome power of having so much knowledge at their fingertips.