Ask Reading Kingdom: What are the pros and cons of using social media in the classroom?

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New, important tools bring with them a range of complex changes and opportunities – both positive and negative. The key issue is how this complexity is handled. For example, when software programs became available some decades back, they included a large number of educational programs. There was a real feeling at the time about the power of these programs to achieve good results, but choosing the right ones was critical. It was in this atmosphere that I wrote a book offering guidelines to parents that would enable them to select the best educational software. The potential was enormous. Unfortunately, it was never realized. Instead, software games took center stage and educational programs fell to the wayside. There were many reasons. For instance, teachers did not know how to incorporate them effectively into the curriculum. I saw many classrooms where children were steadily given traditional paper and pencil materials and then “allowed” —on an erratic basis—to go to a computer program, as a “reward” for correctly completing the traditional materials. In other words, instead of being used as powerful learning devices (that could also have saved schools lots of money), software was used as a treat for good performance. Even more importantly, commercial interests dominated and took control of the market. It was far easier to sell computer games than academic content.  In the end, a huge educational opportunity was lost.

Today, social media presents similar challenges. Schools need to get on the social media train and find ways to successfully integrate these tools into the classroom. What we need to do is start by acknowledging their power and then determining how can we can best use  them to create learning opportunities while limiting the potentially negative aspects. Hopefully, parents and teachers will be the driving force in figuring this out. Unless they do, commercial forces will, by default, take full control—with our children being the ultimate losers.

That being said, it is useful to review what the advocates and opponents are saying.

PROS

Educational Tool:  Capitalizing on the proficiency of today’s students in social media, instructors can use it to foster collaboration and discussion, create meaningful dialogue, exchange ideas, and boost student interaction.

Enhance Student Engagement:  In contrast to classroom discussions, social networking platforms enable teachers to establish “back channels” that foster discussion and surface ideas that students are too shy or intimidated to voice out loud.

Improve Communication Among Students and Teachers: The opportunities here are great.  Educators can use social media to answer students’ questions, post homework assignments and lesson plans, send messages and updates, schedule or announce upcoming events, and share interesting Web sites and multimedia content. Students can get help from instructors or other students and engage with other students about issues discussed in class.

Preparing Students for Successful Employment: Students entering the workforce can use social networking sites to network and find employment. Schools can help them in this regard by teaching them how to establish a professional web presence, post a resume, research companies and schools, and connect with other job seekers and employers.

CONS

Social Media can be a Distraction: Educators commonly report that social media is distracting in the classroom because they divert students’ attention away from what’s happening in class and are ultimately disruptive to the learning process.

Cyberbullying: As has been highlighted in the press and on TV, social networking sites can be a weapon of malicious behavior.  For example, in a study about cyberbullying at Indiana State University, researchers found that almost 22 percent of college students admit to being harassed online. Of this group, 25 percent report they were bullied through a social networking site.

Discouraging Face-to-Face Communication: Young people often report today that they feel more comfortable in interacting via media as opposed to actual face-to-face discussion. It would be tragic if we lose the phenomenal power and excitement of “live” conversation and discussion.

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