Social Media and the School Sector

Yesterday I went along to one of the Social Media Week events that are taking place all over Glasgow this week. So while Sheila was on one side of the city presenting at the Education Online “Mini MOOC”
session, I was on the other side listening to Ollie Bray talking about Social Media and New Technology in Education. In this instance the education domain in question was the school sector and, although I have very little experience of this domain, it was interesting hearing about the affordances and challenges offered to schools by social networks and media.

Ollie began by suggesting that the aim of education strategy should be to make young people resilient and agile to change, and that this is of ever greater importance as technology is increasingly driving the pace of change. The way children use and respond to technology, even the language they use, is changing rapidly. Take for example different interpretations of the word “friend”. To most adults a friend is a person they know and trust and interact with in the real world on a personal level, to many young people a friend is a more casual online acquaintance. (Tbh I think the distinctions are much more nuanced than that, but the point that technology is driving language change stands.)

There is a tendency for school to ignore the impact of technology on youth culture and to underestimate the ability of technology and social networks to enhance and facilitate learning. Many schools block social networks, such as twitter, facebook and YouTube and ban children from taking mobile phones into the classroom. Ollie argued that rather than clamping down on pupils’ use of network technology, schools should be making greater use of social media as it is socially and culturally relevant to pupils and to society. He then went on to highlight some innovative examples of the use of technology and social media to enhance children’s learning experiences, through real time collaboration and formative feedback. I particularly liked the kids in the classroom in their pyjamas, skyping pupils in Australia to learn about time zones.

At several points, Ollie came back to the value of social networks for showcasing and disseminate children’s school work which, particularly in secondary schools, tends to remain in the classroom in jotters that no one ever sees. Children can use social media to share their school work with people they care about in their lives, and who may have little chance of connecting with their education.

Unfortunately many education authorities are afraid of opening up social networks within schools and, as a result, are depriving children of rich digital media experiences and learning opportunities. Control needs to be devolved to enable individual head teachers to decide on the level of access that can be allowed within their schools.

As is so often the case, many of the reasons given for not allowing children to engage with network technology, have more to do with social and cultural factors than with the technology itself. Ollie noted that the most common reason given for banning mobile phones in the classroom is that teachers say they do not want pupils taking pictures of them. However this is a problem that relates more to class room management than to technology per se. Similarly, while teachers and parents have legitimate concerns about their children’s safety online, surely the best way to teach pupils to manage their privacy and identity online is to open up social media sites within school and teach them how to mange their privacy settings in a safe and supportive environment.

It struck me that much of what Ollie was talking about was media and digital literacy, although he did not use these terms. While to some extent I can understand the sector’s fear of social media and open networks, I also believe that schools have a responsibility to teach children how to safely interact and engage with the myriad new communication channels and the all pervasive influence of network technology on their lives.

I have very little experience of working in the school sector, however my limited engagement with my daughter’s primary school in Glasgow really did highlight for me just how divorced some schools can be from the potential of social media. I tend not to get involved in PTA activities, but I did attend one school strategy planning meeting earlier this year. The school’s website is sparse to say the least, and those involved in running the site argued that they simply didn’t have the time or resource to be able to update it regularly. I suggested that rather than asking for volunteers to write regular news updates for the school website, why not have a school blog that teachers, parents and children could all contribute to. The guy running the discussion looked at me aghast before asking “But who would control it? The kids could write anything!”

Although I found Ollie’s talk interesting and engaging, and admirably focused on the pedagogic value of technology and social media, I would like to have heard more about practical steps that schools, teachers, parents and pupils could take to start changing the attitudes and policies of education authorities who block access to social media and who regard social networks as a distraction at best and a threat at worst.

I did tweet from the event but unfortunately the presentation had an improbably long hash tag. The organisers did apologise for the hashtag’s impracticality but unfortunately it was only onscreen for seconds and I didn’t have time to catch it. I just used the general #smwgla tag instead.

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