A study into the use of mobile devices conducted in 2010 (Merrick) found that 97% of Barker students owned at least one personal device of some type (mobile phone, iPad, tablet or laptop). When asked to rank the most popular uses for these devices, social media and playing games ranked third and fourth after making phone calls and sending text messages. Interesting indeed! With students already using these devices to connect and communicate, our challenge is to tap into students’ competence and confidence and to engage them with digital technology in the classroom.
In the book The Shallows (2010), Nicholas Carr presents compelling research on how the internet can affect brain function, while cautioning that due to the immediate access we have to information via technology, our depth of understanding can be limited. Carr suggests that, “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it – and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society” (page 3). Recent research undertaken by Harvard University’s Howard Gardner and Katie Davis in The App Generation (2013) considers how digital technologies have reconfigured the three factors of identity, intimacy and imagination in recent decades (page 3). We can see this playing out daily in a world where students shape their identity via Facebook, build intimacy and relationships by texting and sharing photos on Instagram, and exercise their creativity through YouTube.
Although there are many benefits to this proliferation of easily accessible technology, the authors caution readers by noting the importance of ensuring that users of social media do not lose
their capacity to develop their creativity and individuality in a world where solutions are often found online via an app. They question how the use of social media may ultimately restrict the
thinking and learning capacity of users due to the design of the social platforms being used. This is where the role of the teacher takes on such a critical role.
Using social media and technology at Barker
While there are many keen supporters of social media, critics see it as “busy work” – ultimately unproductive and not engaging students in the development of thinking and understanding. Classroom research developed at Barker and presented at the International Boys’ Schools Coalition Conference in Richmond, Virginia in July 2013 examined social media and the impact it has upon students. Two Barker staff, Music teacher and doctoral candidate Andrew Mifsud, and Design and Technology teacher Nathan Staas, explored the use of social media in two separate classes.
Mifsud’s study, which used the educational platform ‘Edmodo’ (an educational form of Facebook) with a Year 9 class to post and peer-evaluate music compositions, found that students greatly valued being able to offer and receive continuous feedback from one another in this social media context. They also benefitted from receiving ongoing personal feedback from their teacher online while being able to reflect continually upon their own learning and to post comments. Importantly, the students’ creativity was supported in this environment, indicating an increased level of engagement and motivation. Staas’ study used a Facebook page with his Year 12 class to chart the progress of their major creative design project. His research indicates that this had some value but students found limitations in using Facebook for this purpose. He identified that they were unfamiliar with using the site in this way and noted that it is not just learning about “the tools, but in the [importance
of] engendering of right attitudes and behaviours in the learners”. A recent blog created for the 2013 Barker Music Tour to the USA (www.usamusictour2013.blogspot.com.au) saw close to
4,000 user hits over a 17-day period, highlighting the potential of social connectivity across the globe. Here, members of the school community could see reports, pictures and video uploads of performances while also collaborating with tour members and commenting online. This use of social media enhanced the level of interaction between parents, students and the broader community.
Social media is explored daily in both Barker classrooms and across the school. Individual staff and departments employ Twitter feeds to update events and to share a range of links, comments and information. Edmodo continues to be used in many subject areas, perhaps because it is more educationally suited to the classroom setting.
It is clear that digital technology and social media are here to stay. In A New Culture of Learning (2011), Thomas and Seely Brown note that “traditional approaches to learning are no longer capable of coping with a constantly changing world” (page 48). The most challenging task for teachers is to ensure the development of appropriate teaching practices and assessment protocols to safeguard that the use has a purpose and validity in the classroom. Concurrently, Tim Knowles, Head of Learning Technologies at Barker, is also developing policies and practices around digital citizenship that include the whole school community: students, teachers and parents. This signals the importance of the ethical and responsible use of technologies in any situation, not only in the classroom. It is encouraging to see teachers who are using these forms of technology to create new ways of discovering and learning about topic areas, engaging, deepening learning and understanding, and challenging students to think in ways that have often never been considered before.
Sarah Kessler in “The case for social media in schools” (2010) presents several key points:
- Social media is not going away. We must take advantage of the increasing number of tools of the age rather than hoping that it is merely a passing phase.
- When students are engaged, they learn better. Given the large number of students engaged in the use of social media on a daily basis, it would make sense to incorporate these aspects into the classroom.
- Safe social media tools are available and they are free, including Edmodo and YouTube.
There is a need to replace online procrastination with valuable education and meaningful tasks. Schools can provide online tasks (forums, blogs, etc.) to which students can contribute in order to compete with the time social media sites currently occupy with our students when they are not at school.
- Social media encourages collaboration – an essential skill for 21st century learning! It assists in developing communication skills and it also allows students to have a voice when completing work with others.
As Barker continues to create a stimulating and engaging learning environment across a rich and diverse curriculum, it will be essential for teachers and students to partner with one another in the earning experience. Importantly, we will need to remain loyal to our focus on the Teaching for Understanding framework where we put the development of student thinking and understanding at the forefront of our classroom practice.
The only difference may be that the nature of our teaching, feedback and assessments will have to vary continuously to ascertain the level of knowledge being applied and shared, rather than surely evaluating the content itself. Herein lies the challenge for so many of us; where mobile-based technologies prevail and Wi-Fi is part of the daily menu for students and adults alike, there appears to be no easy solution or single approach to teaching and learning that will address these rapid and inevitable changes. In a world that is often defined by a continuous realm of social interaction across many different apps and platforms, Barker is constantly seeking to embrace social media responsibly. Each keystroke or new post creates a digital footprint, and managing this is part of good digital citizenship.
Teachers and educators should continue to be judicious in their application of emerging technologies, ensuring that whatever type of social media is employed, it is always accompanied by considered and purposeful learning.