Stephen Fry recently used Twitter to spark a backlash against Jan Moir's Daily Mail article on Stephen Gately's death. He has also used it to announce the demise of his TV programme Kingdom and reveal that he was stuck in a lift.
Barack Obama became the first US president to run a campaign with an integrated web and social-media element.
Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and other social media are shaping the daily news agenda for newspapers and news websites.
But can social media have a place in the classroom? You bet.
So what is it? Social media includes online tools such as blogs, podcasts, wikis, YouTube, Bebo and Facebook.
There are literally hundreds of social-media tools available on the web, and many of these are already being used by students at home to network, collaborate and learn. By their very nature, these resources are highly engaging for children and if used appropriately present powerful opportunities for teachers.
Why use social media in the classroom?
There are lots of ways that schools can use social media to enhance learning but perhaps the most obvious is how they can be used to share pupils' work.
All teachers know the impact of a good classroom display, yet how many people have a detailed look at children's work on the walls of a classroom or corridor? The people who really want to look at displays are those personally connected to the children - parents, family and family friends. Yet how often do we let these people into our schools? The web allows us to create a worldwide wall display to exhibit and showcase work to a huge audience.
Blog to provide audiences for students' work
East Lothian Council in Scotland was one of the first UK councils to install a WordPress multi-user blogging platform, making it available for all its 46 schools.
Blogs provide a very quick way to publish content to the web and are very easy to use. If you can send an email and add an attachment, you'll be happy writing a blog.
At Law Primary School, staff wanted to be more innovative in their use of ICT. They created a blog to provide information on school life and to encourage a regular dialogue between families, pupils and teachers. Pupils in the upper primary exhibit work and give an account of their achievements in activities in which they have participated.
The blog also helps parents keep in contact with children who take part in the P7 residential trip and let them know about their daily activities.
When the school was recently inspected, the report said: "The development and use of the blog has helped to promote pupils' language, ICT and independent learning skills. It has also proved to be a highly effective way of highlighting and celebrating pupils' achievements."
Law also has a blog for its student council (edubuzz.orgblogslawschoolcouncil) and pupils upload a weekly audio file giving an update on school life. Such files can include podcasts (see feature on page 34-35).
Wiki for cross-curricular collaboration
Wikis are web pages that can be easily edited, the most famous of which is Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopedia.
When Tom Rae took over as the head of Tynecastle High School in Edinburgh, he noticed the school's Wikipedia entry was outdated and short on hard facts. As he was not sure how to update it, he set his senior students the task of doing it. In just under a week, a group of more than 10 students had researched and rewritten it. They became the first Tynecastle students to be published in Wikipedia. How empowering is that?
YouTube and live video streaming
Saltash.net Community School in Cornwall has really embraced the idea of social media and online audiences. As well as having their own YouTube channel, which features lesson resources, videos and extracurricular material, they regularly use Twitcam (an online tool that lets you turn your Twitter account into a video stream) to broadcast in real time from the school's livestock enclosure.
Musselburgh Grammar School in Scotland has used Twitcam to broadcast a show to classrooms, associated primaries and parents at home. Taking part in activities such as these are important in their own right and simultaneously instil a sense of confidence and responsibility in children. Also, because the pupils know the footage is going to be displayed online or broadcast live, they seem to take more pride in their work.
Gather live data with Twitter
Social-media tools such as Twitter also allow teachers to gather "real data" quickly and efficiently. Last February, I was asked to cover a Year 1 class. It was snowing and there were lots of questions about it. One pupil wanted to know why it was snowing and where else it was snowing in the world. I sent a message out via Twitter asking my personal learning network whether it was snowing in their country. Within 10 minutes, we had more than 20 replies from Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and the US.
Armed with my iPhone, I asked one of the children to plot the responses on a Google Map. We then imported this into Google Earth and overlaid the cloud-cover layer. A great discussion ensued about clouds and weather fronts. What made the lesson special was its social nature - the children were amazed by the number of people willing to share information from around the globe.
Some school leaders remain wary of using these and other powerful social media tools in the classroom. But as long as they are used appropriately, wikis, blogs, Twitter and the like present no significant risk.
Indeed, many would argue that schools should be making more use of these resources, not only because of their powerful learning applications but also so the school can teach children how to use them in safe and responsible ways.
The latter is hard to do with school firewalls. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency's Think U Know (thinkyouknow.co.uk) website provides advice on using social-networking sites responsibly. Applications such as www.securus-software.com are also available.
Ollie Bray is deputy headteacher at Musselburgh Grammar School in East Lothian. He is on secondment to Learning and Teaching Scotland as a national adviser for emerging technologies. Visit www.olliebray.com for more information.
THE SOCIAL-MEDIA TOOLBOX
- WordPress - an open-source blogging platform (www.wordpress.org)
- Wikispaces - create, edit and collaborate on your own wiki documents (www.wikispaces.com)
- Flickr - a photo-sharing website (www.flickr.com)
- YouTube - upload and share videos online (www.youtube.com)
- SlideShare - view, upload and share presentations and documents (www.slideshare.net)
- Twitter - a micro-blogging platform for swapping experiences and ideas (www.twitter.com)
TRY IT YOURSELF!
Does your school or class have a regularly updated website? If not, why not set one up for the whole school or a year group or class? It's easy to do, using blogging tools such as WordPress, Blogger or TypePad.
You could start by creating a blog for a school trip, so parents can keep in touch and leave comments while you're away.
Does your school have a Wikipedia entry? Is it a real reflection of your school? Could it be improved?
Anyone can edit Wikipedia. You could use it as a powerful learning opportunity and get your school published in the largest encyclopedia in the world.
Social-media savvy schools and councils
- East Lothian Council (www.edubuzz.org)
- Law Primary School (www.edubuzz.orgblogslaw)
- Musselburgh Grammar School (www.mgsonline.org.uk)
- Saltash.net Community School (www.saltash.net)
LINKS AND FURTHER READING
- Wikipedia social media article (http:bit.ly16SPG)
- Social media in plain English video (http:bit.lyQliUq)
- Social media revolution video (http:bit.lyqCmT8)