One of the biggest challenges in teaching is communicating with students and engaging them in ways they find relevant. We might attempt to use many modes of communication, but we typically rely on the methods with which we are comfortable (e-mail, for example) rather than embracing the tools that today's students are using.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that teens “view e-mail as something you use to talk to 'old people' and institutions or to send complex instructions to large groups.” I was determined to bridge this communication divide between digital natives and “digital immigrants.”
When I attended a state computing conference in February 2009, all the buzz was about Twitter. I had been using Twitter in my personal life for about a year, but I hadn't considered using it in an educational setting. I left the event determined to begin posting daily homework reminders for my students on Twitter.
Before beginning this experiment, we discussed as a group what Twitter was and how we were going to use it in class. We also talked about privacy and safety precautions to take when using social networks. I then sent a letter home to parents explaining what we were doing.
The initial results were disappointing: Only 25 percent of my students were following the class feed. On the plus side, 90 percent of those following the feed found it useful.
Part of the problem, I determined, was revealed in a February 2010 Pew Internet study of teenagers' social media use: Teens don't use Twitter in large numbers. Although 73 percent of them use social networks, only 8 percent are on Twitter. These numbers were borne out by my students: Only 40 percent of them reported having Twitter accounts, whereas 93 percent were on Facebook. So my next step was clear: Communicate via Facebook.
Within a month of creating a Facebook fan page, 60 percent of my students had become fans, and 75 percent said the page reminded them at least once that they had homework. Finally, I was communicating with students “in their world” and helping them be successful in class.
My fellow teachers have reacted favorably to what I'm doing, but many of them are still learning the tools or figuring out how to incorporate Twitter or Facebook into their classes. Parents have been overwhelmingly positive; many are following the Twitter feed or have fanned the Facebook page to keep up with class activities.
It's important for administrators, teachers and parents to understand the difference between Facebook's fan pages and personal profiles. A fan page is a public profile that teachers can create to communicate with (and facilitate an online learning environment for) their students. Fan pages are typically created by businesses, and their public nature eliminates many of the concerns district officials often have about teachers interacting on Facebook. A personal profile, on the other hand, is what individuals create to share details of their personal lives with viewers of their choosing.
While there are benefits to friending students on Facebook, such as being able to make connections that can be brought into the classroom, there are concerns. Teachers need to be cognizant of the fact that what they do online isn't private, and that their actions and activities in the virtual world can have real-world consequences.
Ultimately, administrators need to develop explicit social media policies that satisfy their district or school's unique needs while not inhibiting teachers from using these emerging technologies in effective and appropriate ways.
- Do keep your school administrators informed of what you're doing to ensure student safety and privacy.
- Don't expect social networking to replace all other forms of communication.
- Do keep reminding students to check your Facebook page and Twitter feed.
- Don't get discouraged if something doesn't work perfectly the first time.
- Do explore other social sites as well. YouTube, Flickr and Edmodo are great for sharing student work and motivating students.