Gail Marshall
From taboo to trending: Formerly restricted, social media is the new learning tool in classrooms

It’s the first day of kindergarten in Williston, Vermont, and Sharon Davison is sitting beneath a tree outside the classroom, sharing treats with her students.

“What kind of sounds are you hearing?” she asks her little tribe.

The wind, cars and some birds, they observe.

“What are the birds doing?” she asks.

“They were kind of talking,” one child says.

“No, they were going tweet, tweet, tweet!” says another.

“Perfect,” Davison replies. “Oh, my gosh! Everyone look up. These trees are their home. These trees are like their platform, so when they are on their platform or their home, that is where they are talking to each other.”

She explains that is what her students, too, will be doing together in kindergarten, making connections with others in just the same way but with a little different platform.

“That platform we’re going to be using is called Twitter,” she says.

She turns around her MacPro laptop, letting them see what Twitter looks like and shows them the feed.

“Co-o-o-o-o-o-l,” comes the response from the children.

“You know, when we are having conversations with each other, we are also going to be tweeting like birds. Except we are going to be using words, and Mrs. D. will be the one who will be typing the words.

“Why do you think this might be important for students to tweet or to share things that we are doing in the classroom with the world?

“So why do you think we might want to talk to other people outside our class?”

The kids think about that and surmise, “Just to talk about what we are doing and maybe what we could ask them.”

“I think that is a great idea,” Davison says. “Anything that we’re tweeting or we’re sharing with the world is always about things we’re learning or observing in our classroom.”

Novel applications

And so begins big adventures in social media for one class in the United States. How far we have come from the days of forbidding educators to use Facebook at work or to “friend” a student or parent. In many schools, there is an entirely new and fresh approach to social media.

What’s behind this trend of not only tolerating but teaching the effective, appropriate and responsible use of social media in learning and teaching? According to teachers both nationally and internationally, many schools are discovering novel applications for this tool that is now clearly trending rather than taboo.

The ISTE Standards clearly support the notion that students must learn the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in an increasingly global and digital world. Social media is becoming more prevalent in that world every day.

Take Davison’s classroom on a recent afternoon. Helen Knauf, Ph.D., a university professor from Germany, has traveled thousands of miles to visit and see these children at work with their Twitter. She read about the students in Davison’s class on a blog.

Davison puts a schedule up on the board every morning so the children see what’s ahead for their day.

One of the things the students asked right away: “Mrs. D., do we have any tweeties?”

“Yes, we do have some tweets!” Davison said.

One of the children in the class was out sick last week. “Hi, we miss you,” the children tweeted her. “We hope you feel better.”

She wrote them back.

Another classmate was also out that day, so the children said, “Mrs. D., why don’t we just tweet her?”

“Let’s do that!”

They used the class Twitter page to tweet not only the student about their upcoming plans for the day, but also her mother, who became a new Twitter user to understand the platform. Quick answers came back.

Davison was introduced to the idea of tweeting with her kindergarten students via her own Twitter connection with another kindergarten teacher who became a technology integration specialist in New York City.

“It really opened my eyes to what was possible,” Davison says. “Here I am as a professional using Twitter to learn a variety of platforms and connect with other people. I am also able to model this kind of etiquette in a safe and responsible way, so it is always about learning.”

Encouraging conversations about learning

Tweeting from kindergarten can pretty much signal the end of the two-word “Oh, nothing,” answer to parents’ queries about what their student did in school that day. Davison finds it phenomenal that early learners are using social media to have conversations about educational topics outside the classroom. It is a way to share their lessons, accomplishments and emotions with parents and the community.

But it takes some time to teach the children what is appropriate for Twitter, Davison has found. The first week of school, for example, someone suggested, “I want to tweet my mommy and tell her that I love her and I miss her.” That sparked a conversation in the class about what is appropriate.

Davison thanked the child for her request but posed the question, “Is that something you can tell your mom face to face when you see her today, or is that something we should be sharing with the world?” The children discussed it, and the kindergartner decided, “Oh, no, I’ll probably just tell her that when she picks me up today.”

“That would be a great idea because, remember,” Davison said, “all these people who are following us are following because they’re really interested in what it is that we are learning.”

Set apart by social media

Knauf says she was most impressed with her day in Davison’s classroom, expressing surprise and enthusiasm for how natural the interaction was among the children, the teacher and the social media platform.

Germany is behind the U.S. in this arena, Knauf says, but in her daily life as a university professor who teaches teachers, she is working with young interns who are very excited about getting into early childhood education. She was intrigued by the idea of using social media with children of such a young age and had never seen it in practice, so she wrote a grant asking to spend time in Davison’s classroom and study her techniques.

Now Knauf cannot wait to show her education students what is possible.

Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent for learning for Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts and an ISTE member, was recognized as one of three national Digital Principal Award winners by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Sophisticated social media skills are something that can set students above their peers not only in class, he has found, but in the competitive world of college applications and jobs. Most students applying to the top colleges will have good grades, a fine essay, lots of activities and plenty of recommendations. Their social media presence can set them apart – for good or ill.

Students who are careless with their posts can hurt their chances of going to that dream college or getting that great position.

“Our students will be judged on their ability to use these tools proficiently enough to leave a mark that will allow others to find them, see who they are and learn what they are capable of doing,” he wrote in a recent column titled “Social media presence is the new resume.”

Larkin believes in teaching his students that lesson in a very practical way early on. One year, he watched the Twitter postings of many students in his school to keep tabs on what was circulating. One weekend, he found profane tweets going around about a New England Patriots football game.So the next week, he pulled all the upper classmen into the auditorium for a meeting. He put his own picture up on a screen with a speech bubble that repeated the four-letter word a student had used in a tweet.

He then asked the students what they thought a stranger’s first impression of the him would be if the stranger did a quick search and found the offensive tweet. After a group conversation, he then said, “This came from one of you this weekend,” and there were a lot more examples.

“They didn’t really understand how easy it was for somebody to find a Twitter stream and that information,” he says. “And it was from a pretty good kid.”

Starting the conversation

Larkin understands that the student was just talking the way he and many young men would have talked 20 to 30 years ago in the locker room, in a closed area among their friends. Except now, they’re putting it out on the internet where anybody can find it.

“I did it to show them how easy it was to find this stuff and warn them they should be more careful. I think they appreciated it. I wasn’t calling people in to yell at them. I was calling them in to teach them because I think it’s very prevalent today. People jump on [social media], and they still don’t understand how far and wide these things can go,” he says.

It is an eye-opener to most students.

“If I’m a high school kid with 75 Twitter followers, do I understand that an admissions director at Brown University is going to do a Google search of my name, find my Twitter account pretty quickly and maybe that’s going to be the one thing that gets in my way? Even though I have perfect SAT scores and a list of activities second to none, that’s going to stop me from going where I want to go,” Larkin says. He believes K-12 schools that don’t have these kinds of conversations are doing kids a disservice.

Conversely, students who are taught to manage social media well and become adept can get some exciting breaks.

In addition to ongoing conversations with students, educators can turn to Common Sense Media for curriculum and resources they can use to empower students to think critically and behave safely in the digital world. Students can also experience real-world scenarios related to digital literacy and safety via the Digital Driver’s License (goo.gl/H4K9mB), part of the Open Tools for Instructional Support initiative at the University of Kentucky.

The student perspective

Timmy Sullivan, 17, attends Burlington High School in Larkin’s Boston-area school district. After being encouraged to put up his resume on LinkedIn, he was invited to present at a conference of ed tech teachers and he got an internship at EdTechTeacher, an organization that provides professional learning on incorporating technology into the classroom, in Dorchester, Massachusetts.

LinkedIn captivated him.

“I was fascinated by what I saw,” Sullivan says. “Experimenting, I created my own account and filled it with all the information that I felt made me a competitive student. I then started connecting with professionals and responding to job requests.

“Some of the employers were very surprised to see a student on LinkedIn, let alone [one] willing to work. Then, through a combination of Patrick Larkin’s reference, Twitter and LinkedIn, I was offered a summer internship with EdTechTeacher.”

Sullivan says his social media experience has not been with traditional projects or classroom assignments but is a way to collaborate with his peers, have further discussion with teachers and discover learning opportunities in the global community.

His high school has a student-run help desk to give tech assistance to students in their 1:1 program. He frequently uses Twitter in his work on the help desk and Spanish classes. In Spanish, he uses social media to communicate with native speakers and to practice writing and reading the language in a contemporary way.

He sees social media as having changed the dynamic of Burlington’s online community. By interacting with teachers via the web, students become more aware of their posts and generally improve their online behavior.

His advice to schools is to simply allow social media to be. Blocking access doesn’t help.

“Students need to be aware that these tools exist,” he says, “that professionals use these tools, and how to use them like professionals. Skip the lectures. Lecturing students too often will develop a counterculture. Instead, display positive online culture and allow students to emulate it themselves.”

Making social safe

As educators continue to harness the possibilities for use of social media in the classroom, they also grapple with ensuring its safe and ethical use. That’s where the ISTE Digital Citizenship Academy comes in. The academy’s six online modules provide a comprehensive understanding of the issues surrounding digital citizenship and how to address them. The courses also provide ideas for collaborating with other groups, such as families and community members, to help students and parents become better digital citizens.

Raphael Raphael, Ph.D., co-author of the ISTE book Let’s Get Social: The Educator’s Guide to Edmodo, is a big booster of social media. He lectures for the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and has taught for 20 years in the United States, Asia and Europe in K-12 settings, international schools and universities. Currently, he’s working in Athens, Greece.

With safety and digital citizenship in mind, he prefers to use Edmodo, a social network designed specifically for learning communities. Some people call it “Facebook for schools,” but he doesn’t agree. Yes, it provides personal connections, but it shelters students from mistakes that cannot be taken back.

For example, he explains, no data within the groups created in Edmodo are searchable from the internet. Personal information is not required, and teachers are in control. They can moderate, edit and delete any post by students. They can also control the amount of access students have to their digital classrooms, whether posts need to be moderated or whether they can post at all or are limited to reading posts by the teacher and/or other students.

Before Davison uses Twitter with students, she puts safety measures in place. She gets permission from parents before the year begins. She does not post the children’s names with any photos. The children draw pictures of themselves to post with their comments. She is in charge of everything that gets put up and types it in herself, since most kindergartners cannot write yet.

Guided social media experiences are crucial, Raphael said. They allow teachers to sculpt young peoples’ digital citizenship consciousness so they are informed of their rights and responsibilities and set on a positive path as digital citizens.

“A guided social media space can have all the Utopian benefits of [open] social media spaces, yet cull out some of the ills of the open web.”