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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Applying social media in schools

Bridget McGuinness
Teacher, Sunbury College

This week Curriculum Leadership continues its coverage of social media in schools, as Bridget McGuiness describes how these resources are being applied at a Victorian secondary college. The current feature follows a recent article that provided a more general introduction to the topic, appearing in the edition published 6 August 2010.


Social media technologies allow us to easily create web content to share with others, often on a mass scale, but also in a local context. The rise of social media has brought significant changes to the way people do business, socialise, obtain information and perform everyday tasks, and many educators are exploring the possibilities that the social media can offer for students, teachers and schools. In this article I describe some of these possibilities, based on my own experiences as a secondary teacher.

Using social media for teachers' professional learning

Recently I was looking for an online tool to create a quiz for a class; after spending some time exploring websites I posed the question to my Twitter network and received a prompt, relevant response from another teacher. This experience is typical of the way that many Australian teachers are now sharing resources through Twitter. These interactions also point users to other people with similar interests, so that richer networks tend to develop over time.

Beyond Twitter there are many online spaces devoted to a particular topic or interest, such as eBay, Flickr and Whirlpool (an Australian-based community for discussing some aspects of information technology). Educators have a number of their own spaces in which to share knowledge and resources. For example, there is an online community called Promethean Planet, focusing on the brand of interactive whiteboard used at my school, on which teachers around the world can ask and respond to questions and share resources and ideas. Teachers and education professionals are creating huge amounts of content on such sites every day.

The amount of material available can be overwhelming, but a further set of social media tools allows this content to be sifted and organised. Social bookmarking services such as Digg and Delicious allow lists of favourite sites to be shared, and some services also allow annotations. RSS feeds can be used to obtain a steady stream of information from a site without continually having to return to it. Different RSS feeds can be gathered together for easy viewing using aggregator services such as Bloglines or Netvibes.

Using such tools familiarises educators with the tones and formats of forums, blogs and profiles, the culture and etiquette of the online world, and how it differs from the classroom and school environment. All these experiences also help to prepare teachers to use these applications in the classroom.

Social media in the classroom

In the classroom social media can be used to organise class-wide or small-group discussions and activities through tools such as TodaysMeet. There is an opportunity to invite anyone to join these spaces and contribute. For example, contributors may include another teacher, the principal or an external expert. My students have shown positive attitudes towards this kind of group work and don't seem to mind who else is in the room. TodaysMeet is known as a backchannel tool – other examples are Edmodo and Micromobs.

These online spaces have a number of advantages. Online discussion groups can lower noise levels in the classroom and make classroom management easier. They cater to students' diverse needs, since it is easy to assign different work to different groups of students. After a class students can continue to work on problems, either at home or during a future lesson. Another benefit is that the software records students' input, which the teacher can examine at a later stage.

A further use for social media in the classroom is to introduce students to aspects of working life. For example, one of my Year 10 desktop publishing classes has investigated the experiences of a designer looking for work. The students explored some of the crowdsourcing websites such as 99 Designs which designers and their customers now use to find each other and manage contracts. The students learnt how to present themselves and to communicate as professionals online, and they submitted a design to several contracts on offer. Students were able to check if the client had offered them any feedback about their work, and also to view other designs.

Communications within the school community

The opportunities that social media tools provide for connecting and collaborating are also very exciting for schools and their communities. Schools can use social media to further leverage their traditional communication methods, for example by allowing a space online for parents to comment on items in the school newsletter. This could be particularly powerful if it allowed for direct communication with the principal as it would publicly demonstrate the interest school leaders have in community opinion.

Social media can also be used to create online spaces for specific sections of the school community, for example around particular sporting or academic interests, or parents of students with learning difficulties. They could also enable connections with other schools to share ideas or find ways to work together on specific interests, or for promoting the achievements of the school to the wider community.

When using social media for school communications, mechanisms are needed to remove spam or other unwanted messages. This can be done by having someone to moderate the messages, although with the right policies and planning processes in place unwanted material can be blocked without the need for moderation.

Education about the wider world of social media

Numerous stories in the newspapers and on television have made school communities fearful of the risks posed by social media such as Facebook. Establishing secure, private online environments within the school is one response to these problems, but educators also have an important responsibility to ensure that students are properly equipped to participate in open, global online environments, which students are likely to use on their own. Students need the chance to learn about issues such as copyright and cyberbullying, and they need to know about security settings and how to manage information that is personal or particular to the school.

Students at Sunbury College learn about these issues in various ways, including:

  • Year 7 orientation sessions and workshops dedicated to awareness about online bullying
  • English and other subjects which include a cyberbulling project, a copyright assignment and also cover online privacy
  • online networks to share resources and submit work, which require students to manage account settings and passwords
  • use of email and SMS to communicate with students
  • encouraging the use of internet research, which requires critical analysis of websites for credibility
  • several projects to inform teachers further as to how well students understand these issues, to enable further planning.

Teachers also need to familiarise themselves with the risks they themselves face with regard to social media in areas such as personal privacy, and how these risks vary depending on different online spaces.

Conclusion

There are abundant opportunities for using social media in education and plenty of reasons to do so. The most important is preparing students for careers that will require online proficiency and competency. To use these tools successfully with students, teachers themselves need to become confident with them. This is not a simple task: the social media space is still quite new and the world is still learning how it works and what it all means. The paths for schools to use these tools are still unpaved and there are few precedents to follow. Most teachers have not grown up with social media and their careers have never demanded its use. This means time and support needs to be provided to teachers to ensure they develop these skills.

KLA

Subject Headings

Information literacy
Information management
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Electronic publishing
Professional development
Teaching and learning
Teaching profession
School and community