Social media usage in schools is no longer a head turner, and while some teachers worry that it may be a distraction, many are also finding it to be increasingly useful as a way to connect with other educators, share information on a larger scale and enable students to learn more interactively.
One study, which was carried out by researchers from the University of Science & Technology of China and the City University of Hong Kong, found that social networking sites can help students to become academically and socially integrated, and may even improve learning outcomes.
The researchers held discussions with college students in order to gain an insight into their online social networking experiences and attitude towards using social media for education. They found that networking websites were used for both social and educational purposes.
Students reported that social media enhanced their relationships, helped them maintain friendships and enabled them to build and establish virtual relationships.
On the learning side, they reported that social networks allowed them to connect with faculty, share knowledge and commentary, and collaborate with other students through discussions, course scheduling, project management, and educational applications to organize learning activities.
The study, which collected data from students aged between 16 and 18 over a period of six months, found that social networking sites helped students to practice their technology skills, develop creativity and communication skills, and be more open to diverse views.
Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher for the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, commented that social networking sites enable students to practice and develop the kinds of 21st century skills that will help them be successful.
“Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout,” she said. “They’re also sharing creative original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology. The Web sites offer tremendous educational potential.”
Greenhow also pointed out that the study’s results have implications for educators, who now have the opportunity to support what their students are learning through social media.
“As educators, we always want to know where our students are coming from and what they’re interested in so we can build on that in our teaching. By understanding how students may be positively using these networking technologies in their daily lives and where the as yet unrecognized educational opportunities are, we can help make schools even more relevant, connected and meaningful to kids.”
The study also found that many students are still unaware of the academic and professional opportunities that social media can offer; highlighting to the need for teachers to spend more time highlighting these opportunities and working with students to enhance their experiences on social networking sites.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to social media usage, and Wisconsin Center for Educational Research (WCER) researcher, Mark Connolly, points out in a WCER news release that although social media can be valuable in educational settings, it is important to use them prudently.
Researchers have found that heavy internet use may result in greater impulsivity, less patience, less tenacity and weaker critical thinking skills, which may result from the need to rapidly shift attention from object to object online, as this can weaken an individual’s ability to control their focus.
Connolly believes that it is important to help students learn how to use social media in an instrumental way, learn how to think deliberately about their use, and consider the sorts of outcomes for which using social media are proper.
He points out that knowing when, where, and with whom to use social media, may be the most important learning outcome of all.