How social media can improve learning

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The downside to social media is well documented, with the likes of Facebook and Snapchat supposedly responsible for everything from cyberbullying to pupils not getting enough sleep. But a leading academic argues that social networking platforms have vast pedagogical potential, writes Chris Parr

How social media can improve learning

While social media is increasingly seen as a valuable CPD tool by teachers, you get the feeling that most in the profession are still not too keen on its use by students. Whether it is pupils Snapchatting through science, pastoral fallout from Instagram or bullying via the latest must-have app, social media just seems to bring trouble.

The research, though, is not as conclusive in backing that view up as you might think. While there are certainly studies that find links between social media and poor mental health – in August, an article published by researchers from Imperial College and University College London found that frequent use of social media can lead to sleep loss, cyberbullying and reduced physical activity – others have argued that the link is correlative only. Moreover, some academics have argued that the self-report nature of most social media usage studies is problematic in providing reliable conclusions.

And it turns out that some teachers are not as negative about social media use by pupils as you might think.

An increasing trend of adopting social media for learning is starting to emerge. Matt Bower, associate professor in the department of educational studies at Macquarie University in Australia, says there are now numerous examples of teachers capitalising on the pedagogical potential of social networks.

“They’re definitely very valuable in education, and there’s all sorts of things you can do with them,” says Bower, whose research specialises in the innovative use of technology for learning purposes. “If there’s a teacher who says, ‘Look, I’ve never used social networking because of the connotations,’ I think they’re only seeing one side of the story, and then not seeing how many great things you can do.

“I suppose those teachers really need to hear more about the great success stories, and there really are a lot. Unfortunately, the success stories don’t get nearly as much press [as the scandals].”

That’s possibly because the term “social network” is usually attributed to open-access platforms such as Instagram. What Bower is mostly talking about – and what schools are mostly using – are private, school-run platforms that are accessible only to teachers, pupils and parents. Examples of off-the-shelf school networks include Edmodo and Seesaw, both of which allow teachers to set up groups for pupil interaction, and share progress reports and other relevant information with parents.

“A large majority of parents really like having access to see what their children are doing in the classroom, evidence of their work and a way to communicate with the teacher – that’s something that’s really valued,” Bower says.

These school-only networks have the potential not only to ensure a better quality of work (particularly homework), more efficient learning and workload benefits for teachers, but also to ensure that parents are more easily involved in the education of their child – something that the evidence frequently points to as a crucial part of doing well at school.

Opening up

Such is the success with the closed networks that some teachers are now adopting mainstream social networks, too. Facebook, for example, has been used relatively widely to enable pupils to share resources and participate in discussions about homework tasks, Bower says.

“And it’s being used within [school-based] classes, too,” Bower continues. “One of the studies that I did ... looked at how [Facebook] could be used in business studies, so people could communicate about the different topics that they were working on, create portfolios, and provide each other with feedback.

“All of these are positive pedagogical things that we can use the technology to facilitate ...often more efficiently, and more flexibly, extending the boundaries of the classroom.”

Bower also cites examples where schools have set up social networks to support whole year groups, whole schools, and even clusters of schools.

“Typically things happen within one class, but if you’ve got a sort of a social network underpinning a year level, or even a group of schools, then everyone can be sharing much more efficiently and effectively,” he explains. “You can even ... undertake assessment within the social network by having people upload their writing tasks, and then other people can give direct feedback to it.”

Surely, though, such a communal approach to learning could be fostered in a traditional classroom setting – so why the need to go online?

“One of the other great benefits that has been shown out of technology generally is the ability to learn vicariously,” Bower says. “So, by seeing what other people are doing, rather than just working away individually, you can understand what high-quality responses and submissions are all about. And that’s something that’s really easily facilitated in a social network. But with a pen and paper, you’re not going to be able to do it as easily.”

Online conversations over a social network can also be more inclusive, Bower says. “Sometimes when the teacher’s talking and dominating a classroom, it’s not possible for great conversations to be happening,” he explains. “But often the conversations that happen in the social network are sort of democratised, and less hierarchical. Students can have a greater sense of ownership.

“Some people feel a lot more comfortable contributing in a social network where they can prepare their response; they might be shy to raise questions or respond to people in a regular classroom environment.

“It also enables greater learning agency, they can have more of an input into the design of what happens in the learning environment – and a lot of children find it really motivating as well. So there’s a whole lot of extra benefits that come from using social-networking technology.”

Bower concedes, however, that there are legitimate concerns about the use of external social networks in particular.

“It’s not all rosy,” he says. “There are often technical issues [with] using technology in the classroom – you’re going to expect that there will be some.

“There’s also distraction. People can be off task because they spend their time sending silly messages to each other, or sometimes people have negative dispositions towards using technology.”

Context is key

Endorsing platforms in the classroom that are the basis of problems you are dealing with pastorally is also problematic.

Even on the closed networks, there can be problems, admits Bower.

“The one thing that makes the news is a parent who was shocked to see ... that a photo of her child had inadvertently become visible to another parent – or something like that, and they felt that that was a breach of their privacy,” he says.

Bower is not trying to cover up these problems, but he does believe that they need to be viewed in context. “Very often what you hear about are negative things, and yet, there are probably 20 times more benefits, and positive things going on,” he argues.

But is there really any proof that social networks add real learning benefits?

“It’s not like you can say ‘using a social network will result in better learning outcomes’ because it all depends on how the teacher uses the social network,” Bower explains. “With teachers who just stand back and let it all happen, the interaction within the social-networking environment can be very superficial and less related to the learning outcomes and higher-order thinking.

“It could be that those teachers who are sort of against the use of social networking, and don’t think it can work, are the ones who are probably going to think less about the design [of their classes] and be less involved. It also almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“But I think good teachers who think it through in advance are engaged during the process and have every chance of seeing some real benefits and even improvements in learning outcomes from using social networking in their classes.”

He adds that just ignoring social networks does not mean you are dealing with the potential issues any better than embracing the networks in schools – so why not try and use social networks responsibly in school for learning, with the knock-on lesson in responsible usage, too?

“If you, as a teacher, decide to never use the sorts of tools that are so much entrenched in children’s lives, then you throw away every opportunity to help them understand how to engage more positively,” Bower says. “You destroy the learning opportunity out there, and the opportunity to show them how much benefit you can get from using these sorts of tools effectively.”

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 20 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…social media and learning”