Embrace Social Technologies

When computers arrived on the consumer market, they were tools for programming hobbyists. By the mid-1990’s consumer and educational computers came with Internet protocols and modems as standard parts. As massive numbers of users went online, the Internet was predicted to be “the infinite library.”

While traditional publishers moved content online to begin creating this library, web 2.0 technologies emerged that allowed users to create this infinite library. Social networks, a subset of the web 2.0 technologies, gained popularity in the 21st century. In these social networks, we can observe the transition from computers as information devices to computers as interaction devices.

At first, educators demonstrated what can best be described as a fear of social networks and media. Several high-profile cases of cyber bullying and stalking on these sites fed this fear. In addition, teachers found little connection between their work and the social web sites. “What do I have to blog?” was the response I often heard when suggesting teachers blog ten years ago.

While I was able to convince many educators that blogging was a easy way to publish information useful to their students (such as homework assignments and curriculum links), they continue to be reluctant users of social media. Given the misuse of tools such as Twitter by celebrities, their reluctance may be reasonable, but it seems educators are avoiding a very valuable tool for communicating with parents, students, the community, and each other when they avoid Twitter and other social media. Consider these cases:

An athletic director has created a Twitter account and uses it to make announcements for student-athletes’ parents. Last minutes changes to schedules are tweeted as are updates during games. Perhaps the most interesting use is when storms interfere with games. He and officials huddle in safety, and each time the hear thunder or see lightning he tweets an update. Families sheltered in their cars or otherwise waiting in safety can have updates about game status.

A parent group creates a FaceBook page to announce fundraising and other events. The site is available only to those who have created FaceBook profiles with their real names, and the group has a well-understood rule of netiquette for participating. The site allows for the participation of parents who work during the regularly-scheduled meetings of the parent group. In the first year they use the site, about 50% more families participate in the group’s activities.

A group of teachers each travel hundreds of miles (from different directions) to attend a conference. They begin chatting after a session, and find they have a common set of problems and are interested in each others’ solutions. They follow each other on Twitter and become valued long-distance colleagues.

A math teacher encourages students to work problems in groups. After students present their solutions to the class, a model (or several models) solutions are selected. If the solution was done on a tablet (or other technology) a picture of the screen is tweeted by the teacher. If the solution is on a piece of paper (or other media), a picture is taken and then tweeted. The teacher’s feed of solutions becomes a permanent resource for students.

A librarian has students write reviews of their favorite books under pen names. She posts them on a Shelfari account, and the bookshelf with the reviews is embedded in the school website.  In the same school, a student volunteers to set up and monitor a webcam so that concerts can be streamed to the web, the student gets permission to create a YouTube channel for concerts and other school performances.

All of these examples are drawn from real situations that have been observed in New England schools. By using social media, these educators have:

  • Found easy-to-use methods of updating school web sites. By using the widgets available from many social media sites, the updates or posts from any user can show up anywhere on the web. (A colleague once referred to this “automagic” updating of the school website.);
  • Discovered social media to be useful for connecting with students and their families as well as the greater community;
  • Joined a community of connected educators who value social media and use it frequently.