Social media - education plague or exciting new opportunity?

By Callan Paske

My mum hates Game Boys. She always has.

In fact, she hated any type of gaming console that entered our house in my youth. Nintendo, Playstation and X-Box were all lumped under the Game Boy label and all were considered a waste of time.

It strikes me that many parents are still battling the Game Boy plague just as my mum was back in the early 90s, only now that plague also includes social media and i-gizmos and is an intrinsic part of the lives of students. It’s also something that is now offering new job opportunities in the fields of public relations, community management and marketing.

Is this a plague in need of extermination or is this mobile-connectivity the dawn of a new age of education? Is it, in effect, a new and useful tool for achieving educational outcomes?

Brian Solis, a leading new media expert from America, defines social media as “any tool or service that uses the internet to facilitate conversations.”

These tools include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google Plus, Instagram and any number of other niche platforms.

Using dialogue or conversations to educate is not a new concept. Debates, classroom discussion, even that most wondrous of things ‘show and tell’, centres on sharing stories and ideas in the hope of providing context and understanding.

Social networks could be a new avenue for show and tell, allowing family members abroad and the wider school community to share the moment virtually.

So why are parents, teachers and schools reluctant to utilise these cutting edge technologies for the benefit of education and engaging with students?

Just as Game Boys have been found to aid the development of hand eye coordination and problem solving skills, social media too has many positives often overlooked.

It can allow for open and transparent communication as well as enhance understanding and debate. It can allow students to interact outside of the classroom, opening the classroom to the world and shining a light on issues beyond the immediate community.

The keys to enjoying these benefits are moderation and ensuring there is adequate monitoring in place to deal with issues in a proactive manner as they arise.

Ensuring the right boundaries are set between teachers and students when it comes to social media is important and having a social media policy can help to inform the placement of these boundaries. There are many issues to consider but one of the most widespread is “can I be a friend with my teacher/student on Facebook?” I would suggest not.

Addressing the issues of privacy, cyber-bullying and what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour from both students and teachers should be top priority for any school developing a social media policy.

A social media policy must:

clearly state the school’s position regarding use of social media both inside and outside the workplace
clearly define what is acceptable and what is prohibited use – preferably including examples
clearly specify the consequences in the case of breaches.

Harnessing these technologies

Research on social media usage in Tasmania shows that 92 per cent of 18-24 year olds are using some form of social media. Despite having no data on younger demographics it is reasonable to suggest that this high usage is also prevalent in teens across the State.

So how can educators and institutions take advantage of these new tools to aid successful education and communication?

Firstly, teachers and parents must understand these technologies and take the time to ask children how and why they use them.

The roll-out of the NBN across Tasmania is a major opportunity for educators and students alike to reach out to the world via high speed video link-ups and social networking.

Locally, it may also solve some problems regarding access to quality education in regional areas of our State through online tutorials and video chats.

A 2010 research paper by Miriam Firth (Can Facebook Engage Students in Critical Analysis of Academic Theory) from the United Kingdom suggests that the use of social media can see students open up and be more direct in the way they address issues.

“One interesting consequence of web 2.0 is changing the emerging patterns and methods of communication. With time constraints inhibiting many students’ face-to-face interactions, they are frequently turning to social networking services within computer-mediated communication (CMC) to develop peer relationships. This CMC may be viewed within websites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter and allows individuals to create an on-line identity in which to communicate with.

Tidwell and Walther further found that students who do communicate via this medium tend to use more direct questions and self disclosure than in face-to-face conversations. CMC within web 2.0 can clearly enhance and increase self disclosure and freedom of opinion, something which is sought after in many a university session.”

Dr Colin Jones from the Australian Innovation Research Centre in Tasmania uses social media in a number of different ways to engage with and educate his Entrepreneurship students.

“I am a lecturer in charge of seven to ten units per year,” said Dr Jones.

“Before using social media I would be inundated with emails, especially from international students arriving late or needing additional guidance.

“Social media has cut down my rate of email enquiry by more than 90 per cent.

“Now, I have all my teaching resources for each unit located on my own website and I can track via Google Analytics how often my students access the resources.”

Dr Jones uses videos, along with a blog and Twitter, to discuss theories and concepts talked about in the classroom so that students can go back to them if they need further understanding or clarification.

There is no doubting the benefits that these tools provide for educators. Now more than ever resources on any topic are available, many freely, at the click of a button.

Social media communities are ready and willing to share and contribute to research and debate on any topic you might care to name.

What we need to ensure is that understanding, not fear, of the potential value of these tools informs how we utilise and deal with Facebook, Twitter and the many other “Game Boys” of today.