A year after seventh grade teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom, 20% of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50%, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third. For the first time in its history, the school met its adequate yearly progress goal for absenteeism.
At a time when many teachers are made wary by reports of predators and bullies online, social media in the classroom is not the most popular proposition. Teachers like Delmatoff, however, are embracing it rather than banning it. They argue that the educational benefits of social media far outweigh the risks, and they worry that schools are missing out on an opportunity to incorporate learning tools the students already know how to use.
What started as a Facebook-like forum where Delmatoff posted assignments has grown into a social media component for almost every subject. Here are the reasons why she and other proponents of educational social media think more schools should do the same.
1. Social Media is Not Going Away
In the early 1990s, the Internet was the topic of a similar debate in schools. Karl Meinhardt was working as a school computer services manager at the time.
‘There was this thing called the Internet starting to show up that was getting a lot of hype, and the school administration was adamantly against allowing access,’ he says. ‘The big fear was pornography and predators, some of the same stuff that’s there today. And yet…can you imagine a school not connected to the Internet now? ‘
Meinhardt helped develop the Portland social media pilot program after Delmatoff saw his weekly technology segment on the local news and called to ask for his advice. In his opinion, social media, like the Internet, will be a part of our world for a long time. It’s better to teach it than to fight it.
Almost three-fourths of 7th through 12th graders have at least one social media profile, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey group used social sites more than they played games or watched videos online.
When schools have tried to ban social media, now an integral part of a young person’s life, they’ve had negative results. Schools in Britain that tried to ‘lock down’ their Internet access, for instance, found that ‘as well as taking up time and detracting from learning, it did not encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions.’
‘Don’t fight a losing battle,’ says Delmatoff. ‘We’re going to get there anyway, so it’s better to be on the cutting edge, and be moving with the kids, rather than moving against them…Should they be texting their friends during a lecture? Of course not. They shouldn’t be playing cards in a lecture, they shouldn’t be taking a nap during a lecture. But should they learn how to use media for good? Absolutely.’
2. When Kids Are Engaged, They Learn Better
Matt Hardy, a 3rd and 4th grade teacher in Minnesota, describes the ‘giddy’ response he gets from students when he introduces blogs. He started using blogs in his classroom in 2007 as a way to motivate students to write.
‘Students aren’t just writing on a piece of paper that gets handed to the teacher and maybe a smiley face or some comments get put on it,’ he says. ‘Blogging was a way to get students into that mode where, ‘Hey, I’m writing this not just for an assignment, not just for a teacher, but my friend will see it and maybe even other people [will] stumble across it.’ So there’s power in that.’
Delmatoff says that at first her students were worried they would get in trouble for playing because they actually enjoyed doing activities like writing a blog.
‘But writing a blog, that’s not playing, that’s hard work,’ she says. ‘Karl and I started thinking we were really on to something if kids were thinking that their hard academic work was too much fun.’
Her students started getting into school early to use the computer for the social media program, and the overall quality of their work increased. Although Delmatoff is adamant that there’s no way to pin her class’s increased academic success specifically to the pilot program, it’s hard to say that it didn’t play a part in the more than 50% grade increase.
3. Safe Social Media Tools Are Available — And They’re Free
When Hardy started using blogs to teach, he developed his own platform to avoid some of the dangers associated with social media use and children. His platform allowed him to monitor and approve everything the children were posting online, and it didn’t expose his students to advertising that might be inappropriate. He later developed a similar web-based tool that all teachers could use called kidblog.org. The concept caught on so quickly that his server crashed in September when the school year started.
Many mainstream social media sites like Facebook and MySpace are blocked in schools that receive federal funding because of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which states that these schools can’t expose their students to potential harm on the Internet.
Kidblog.org is one of many free tools that allow teachers to control an online environment while still benefiting from social media. Delmatoff managed her social media class without a budget by using free tools like Edmodo and Edublogs.
4. Replace Online Procrastination with Social Education
Between 2004 and 2009, the amount of time that kids between the ages of 2 and 11 spent online increased by 63%, according to a Nielson study. And there’s no reason, Meinhardt argues, that schools shouldn’t compete with other social media sites for part of this time.
He helped Delmatoff create a forum where she would post an extra assignment students could complete after school every day. One day she had students comment on one of President Obama’s speeches; another day she had them make two-minute videos of something on their walk home that was a bad example of sustainability. These assignments had no credit attached to them. ‘It didn’t get you an A, it didn’t get you a cookie. It didn’t get you anything except something to do and something to talk about with other students.’
About 100 students participated. Through polls taken before and after the program, Meinhardt determined that students spent between four to five fewer hours per week on Facebook and MySpace when the extra assignments had been implemented.
‘They were just as happy to do work rather than talk trash,’ Delmatoff says. ‘All they wanted was to be with their friends.’
5. Social Media Encourages Collaboration Instead of Cliques
Traditional education tactics often involve teacher-given lectures, students with their eyes on their own papers, and not talking to your neighbor.
‘When you get in the business world,’ Meinhardt says, ‘All of [a] sudden it’s like, ‘OK, work with this group of people.’ It’s collaborative immediately. And we come unprepared to collaborate on projects.’
Social media as a teaching tool has a natural collaborative element. Students critique and comment on each other’s assignments, work in teams to create content, and can easily access each other and the teacher with questions or to start a discussion.
Taking some discussions online would also seem to be an opportunity for kids who are shy or who don’t usually interact with each other to learn more about each other. A study by the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, however, found that this wasn’t the case. The study found that using educational social media tools in one of the Institute’s courses had no measurable impact on social connections.
Delmatoff argues that with her students, however, new connections were made. ‘If you’re shy or you’re not popular or any of those hideous things that we worry about in middle school — if you know the answers or have good insights or ask good questions, you’re going to be really valuable online.’ she says. ‘So I started to see some changes that way.’
6. Cell Phones Aren’t the Enemy
69% of American high schools have banned cell phones, according to figures compiled by CommonSense Media, a nonprofit group that studies children’s use of technology. Instead, Delmatoff’s school collected student’s cell phone numbers.
Delmatoff would send text messages to wake chronically absent kids up before school or send messages like, ‘I see you at the mini-mart’ when they were running late (there’s a mini-mart visible from the school). She called the program ‘Texts on Time,’ and it improved chronic absenteeism by about 35% without costing the school a dime.
‘The cell phone is a parent-sponsored, parent-funded communication channel, and schools need to wrap their mind around it to reach and engage the kids,’ Meinhardt says.