That education and social media will share borders and encroach on each other's area of influence shouldn't come as a surprise. On one hand, education as we know it is very much a social engagement in itself, involving teachers (the channels of new cognitive experiences) and students (the learners of new or restructured knowledge). On the other hand, social media is both a technological tool for communicating different ideas as well as an enriched environment for collaboration. As such, the benefits that social media can deliver to contemporary education can be very tremendous, indeed. In fact, it is now very easy to imagine a virtual classroom that melds the current platforms of the most innovative online universities with the powerfully engaging and personal experience of social media. How the learning dynamics will be influenced by this theoretical setup is still open to debate but it is a possibility that may now have already taken root in some form or another.
While the exciting, positive advantages of using social media in education is a topic that can rouse a lively discussion, the serious ethical issues that result from their melding inspire a much more heated debate. In July this year, the state of Missouri enacted a law that prohibited students and teachers from being friends or contacts in social networks such as Facebook. However, following a strong clamor from teachers who deemed that their fundamental rights are being assailed by the legislation, the original bill was substantially modified, finally granting individual school districts the freedom to establish their own policies on social networking.
Both sides of the argument have persuasive merits. It is no secret that social networks have become a virtual setting for instigating various crimes ranging from bullying, extortion and sexual assault. That there are people with criminal intent who use social networks to plan and execute their series of capers is clearly undeniable. There are quite a number of disturbing stories about them that we encounter almost every day.
In addition, some psychologists and social scientists believe that taking the conventional student-teacher relationship out of the classroom can lead to dire consequences. When taken to the highly informal environment of most social networks, the traditional authority of teachers can be eroded to the point that classroom engagements will be among peers, not between teachers and students whose roles and expected behavior are clearly defined.
The many possible types of interactions on social networks such as liking a particular hobby, organization or place can also lead to inappropriately close relationships between teachers and students. On top of this, the provision for one-on-one messaging between friends or contacts can even encourage sexual misconduct.
That said, the danger of social media is very real. However, merely focusing on the risks will cause us to miss its true potential as a teaching tool/environment. After all, there's bound to be some criminally-minded people just about anywhere a substantial group of people converge, whether online or not. True, social media lends an anonymity and a cloak of security to criminal elements but there are ways of circumventing, restricting or exposing their schemes without altogether banning the use of social media in education. To do so would unfairly clip the tremendous benefits social media can enrich the learning experience with.
A case in point. A pilot social media program for the 7th grade was conducted in a Portland, Oregon classroom. The results were amazingly conclusive:
1. Schoolwide, 20 percent of all students accomplished and submitted extra assignments even when these assignments carried no bonus credits for them.
2. Grades increased by more than 50%.
3. Chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than 33%, allowing the school organization to meet its absenteeism reduction targets for the first time in its history.
In a nutshell, closer collaboration and easier means to communicate encouraged students to participate more. Meanwhile, the very engaging social media environment enabled the students to perform better.
Banning social media in education will prevent schools, teachers and students from reaping its phenomenal benefits. A few decades ago, the Internet created a very similar educational milestone. Many schools in the nineties were hesitant to implement an Internet connection for fear of unleashing unwanted content from the Web to their student population. However, As Karl Meindhart, the developer of the Portland social media program commented, "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...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? “
In yet another display of technology-helping-teaching-become-terrific, the New York Times published a May 2011 article on how a group of English Teachers are leveraging a Twitter-like messaging technology that encouraged 11th grade students to freely communicate their ideas on different subjects, something that might just remain unvoiced without the new technology. Instead of verbally expressing their opinions about a poem, for example, the students and teachers collaborate and conduct discussions using the messaging tool that makes it easy for everyone--even those who have the unreasonable but socially common fear of speaking in front of people--to freely share their opinions. To all the teachers who conducted the experiment, social media tools such as group chat are great instructional aids that give voice to students who do not even dare to raise their hands during a recitation session.
Another plus for social media as a learning tool is that most are free to use and many can be configured in such a way as to restrict the potential for inappropriate behavior. Kidblog.org, Edmodo, Edublogs and ESL Space are just some of the school-ready social media platforms that have been purposely designed for academic deployment.
Clearly, social media--like email and the Internet--has already become a staple in people's every day life. Furthermore, social media is already being used by some innovative teachers to enhance their student's learning experience, even when its unanimous acceptance by the educational system is still tenuous. For teachers who intend to deploy social media tools in their classes, caution and good sense are critical, however. At the very least, the right balance between effective use of social media and behavioral boundaries should be maintained as much as possible. One way to do so is by creating formal social network communities or groups that does not require the teacher to "friend" or follow a student. Keeping all communications within the community page will help prevent teachers and students from getting too "personal". In fact, any other means of making communications transparent within a given group will reduce the incidence of inappropriate behavior.
As social media is here to stay, it's just a matter of time before its powerful sharing, collaborative, and instructional tools will be formally appropriated by many forward-thinking educational institutions. After some time, social networks will become just another technology by which teachers can share knowledge with their students. Even then, the bottom line remains that it is the person using the technology--not the technology itself--that is responsible for any abuse done through it. This consistent fact (as may be applied to similar communication tools such as hand-written letters, telephones and emails) requires all enterprising teachers of the future to establish a social media strategy that will enable the delivery of its benefits while curtailing its potential risks.