Why Social Media Tools Have a Place in the Classroom

The New York Times has an interesting trend piece on a number of teachers who are incorporating social media tools into the classroom to prompt more participation from students who might not otherwise speak up. The idea is that by using Twitter and other microblogging platforms, teachers can establish “back channels” to help foster a discussion and surface ideas that kids are too shy or intimidated to voice out loud.

The story has touched off a flurry of comments, with most condemning the trend as pandering to lazy Internet-addicted students, and arguing that it will not allow kids to shed their inhibitions but rather reinforce them. Others say it won’t challenge students to learn how to communicate as adults, and could foster less coherent thoughts that would be delivered in a more impersonal manner.

A lot of these criticisms seem to stem from the idea that there is little real-world value in social media. There is a clear sense of disdain for social-media technology because it’s associated with quiet, introverted kids supposedly avoiding real-world interaction and delaying the maturation process. I can understand these fears to some extent, because we have all probably tried to talk to someone who is barely there because they are absorbed with their phone. And yes, personal communication skills are a must in society and children need to learn how to articulate their thoughts out loud.

But I think that writing off these tools as having no place in classrooms is a mistake. For one thing, this is how students are living now — these are the tools that they use to communicate, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. To suggest that tapping this for educational purposes is pointless also suggests that people mistrust the medium as a whole and don’t understand how it can be used for good. We’ve already seen that Twitter and Facebook can help create change around the world. It can also do a lot of harm in the hands of bullies and criminals. But the technology is neutral. It can be made to work in a classroom setting if you set the right limits.

There’s no doubt that allowing the use of laptops and mobile devices can be an invitation for kids to goof off, so it’s up to the teacher to make sure this is not abused, especially for high school students. But if done right, it really can get more people involved. My colleague Mathew Ingram said the Mesh Conference in Canada used Twitter to elicit questions and comments from those who might be afraid to talk out of shyness or because others were hogging the microphone. That’s often the case in classrooms too, where certain kids often dominate a discussion leaving little room for others.

Many of the critics on the NYT piece seem to assume that all students learn or progress in the same way, but they don’t. Using technology can help with that, by prompting comments from people who might not be able to get into a live discussion. If a teacher is smart, they could promote a good idea that was submitted through these back channels and encourage a student to expand on it. This could encourage more participation and also help some children become more confident with their suggestions.

I was reminded this when I heard a talk by Sal Khan, the founder of the online Google (s goog) and Bill Gates-backed Khan Academy. He said teachers were able to use student online progress dashboards to zero in on who needs help. In a classroom where half the class is not talking, understanding who needs encouragement to speak up can be a huge tool for a teacher. And students can also encourage each other in ways they couldn’t before. By up-voting an answer online, students might encourage a student to voice their opinions in the future.

I’m not suggesting that social media replaces good fundamental teaching or obviates the need for kids to learn basic writing or communication skills. But it can be a great enhancement if applied well. Will some kids slack off in class. Sure? But I wager many more will lean in to a discussion if they have some familiar tools to get them involved.

Image courtesy of the New York Times