Mar 16 2012

Has Social Media Become a Realm of the Haves Versus the Have-Nots?

Research suggests a class divide between those who produce media content and those who consume it.

Where do we draw the line between creating safe learning environments for students and being educationally negligent?

Believe it or not, some of our most widely used social media tools are still less than a decade old. I fondly remember the early days of YouTube and Myspace, which I found exciting because they allowed educators to bring more of the world into the classroom in a very authentic way. My art students became video pen pals with artists in other countries, for example, through YouTube. They created Myspace profiles of famous artists and used those profiles to interact with galleries and historians.

Then, suddenly, my school (like countless others) banned social media in the classroom, presumably because administrators feared the potential dangers lurking within these sites. Of course, the bans didn't deter us from using social media; we just used these tools at home instead.

Us Versus Them?

Luckily, over the past few years, many educators, school administrators and other district leaders have discovered for themselves how powerful social media can be in facilitating their own learning. And so the tide is beginning to turn, with more and more schools lifting their bans on social media.

In the interim, two profound questions emerged concerning the subject of equity: 1) What did banning social media in schools do to students who lacked home access to a computer and the Internet? and 2) Which schools were first to recognize the educational importance of social media: those serving mostly privileged students or those serving students with limited economic means?

A few years ago, Henry Jenkins, former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's comparative media studies program, coined the term "production gap" to describe a second-level digital divide. Whereas the digital divide once was described largely in terms of who had access to technology, today, with few exceptions, the divide is in how people use technology.

While Web 2.0 and social media brought with them the promise that everyone could produce and consume content at home or on the go, recent research has revealed a correlation between different social classes and whether they are using these tools to produce content. Although social media ostensibly is available to everyone, members of the upper classes tend to be the ones creating content using these tools and members of the lower classes tend to be the ones consuming it.

Did the way our schools responded to the emergence of social media contribute to this gap? Are we negligent if we don't teach students how to produce content using these tools?

In my experience, schools with the most prohibitive social media policies typically serve the poorest students. And their instructional methods typically stress content consumption, rather than content creation and project-based learning.

Unfortunately, most schools' current acceptable-use policies, coupled with these dominant, yet outdated pedagogies, are ensuring that a digital production gap will exist for years to come.

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