America’s undisputed champion of Social Media in education, Tom Whitby, was recently jolted by an exchange on Twitter with a professional colleague. Big ideas in education were “getting drowned out, ” his tech savvy friend remarked, as a result of the endless discussions about Social Media and the heavy emphasis on promoting “connectedness for educators.” Social Media is a powerful medium that can be used to learn, but our near obsession with it may be at the expense of other powerful ideas. His Twitter friend went even further: ” it’s still all pretty much primordial soup.” http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/social-media-help-or-hindrance-to-education-reform/
Sparked by that intellectual challenge, Tom took to his blog An Island View (May 29, 2012) to make the case, once again, for today’s educators to take full advantage of the Social Media in leading a 21st century revolution in education. As the founder of PLN, the Professional Learning Network, he can be quite passionate about its power to create “professional learning communities” spanning whole continents. Like Canada’s 21st Century Educator, David Wees, he credits Social Media for giving him a new lease on life. It has certainly made a difference in their professional lives spawning #edchat and attracting a legion of camp followers. Whether it is the harbinger of a new age education revolution is more open to question.
Since the explosion of Twitter, early adopters have been mad about its miracle powers. Back in September 2010. Sarah Kessler sung its praises in “The Case for Social Media in Schools.” A year after Grade 7 teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom, Kessler claimed that it worked like magic with kids. Some 20% of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50%, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third. For the first time in its history, the school met its “adequate yearly progress goal for absenteeism.” http://mashable.com/2010/09/29/social-media-in-school/
Social Media was trumpeted as the next great thing in inspiring learning and student engagement. Zealots like Kessler made a compelling case and rhymed off its advantages: 1. Social Media is Not Going Away;2. When Kids Are Engaged, They Learn Better; 3. Safe Social Media Tools Are Available — And They’re Free; 4. Replace Online Procrastination with Social Education; 5. Social Media Encourages Collaboration Instead of Cliques; 6. Cell Phones Aren’t the Enemy.
Her conclusion was a call to action. “Nobody would dispute that the risks of children using social media are real and not to be taken lightly. But there are also dangers offline. The teachers and parents who embrace social media say the best way to keep kids safe, online or offline, is to teach them.”
Since then, educators have become far more tech savvy, and, inspired by enthusiasts like Tom Whitby and David Wees, have adopted Social Media as a primary Professional Development tool and begun to introduce it into the kingdom of the classroom.
Promoters of Social Media can sound messianic. “We all learn from other people….” but now” face to face connections have never been completely replaced, but rather enhanced, by technology.” Borrowing freely from Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenburg Galaxy, they trace the steps from pen and ink to the printing press to electronic media. In Whitby’s words: ” Technology historically allowed learning to expand from face to face contact to distances beyond the limits of both time and space, and the Internet has moved that to a whole new level.” It is, he insists, time we began empowering educators with the Hi Tech tools and preparing students for life in this century.
Visionaries like Whitby are even dreaming of Schools that function like Twitter. ” I wish all educators had Professional Learning Networks like mine, but it is not a style of learning suited for everyone., ” he wrote. “Nevertheless, I began wondering what it would be like if the types of sharing, collaboration, reflection and discussion that are continuing activities on Twitter could at least be attempted in the school building environment.” http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-if-school-was-more-like-twitter/
Promoters of Facebook and Twitter in schools have run into roadblocks on the North American educational highway. In many School Districts, they hit brick walls, especially so in Canadian K-12 school systems. That’s fully documented in my January 2012 SQE study, The Sky Has Limits, a recent look at the impediments to online learning and virtual schools in all 13 provinces and territories. http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/theskyhaslimits Teachers are free to experiment with Social Media and to attend Ed Camps on their own time. Far too many schools are “Out of Bounds” and an amazing number of elementary schools remain under IT lock-down regimes.
Fascination with Social Media is growing rapidly among teachers. Some estimates are that there are as many as 500,000 connected educators, globally using social Media for professional learning. That sounds astronomical until you realize that there 7.2 million educators in the United States alone.
Skeptics about the value of Social Media can still be found everywhere in the “bricks and mortar” school system. High schools are full of contrarians who delight in quoting the latest commentary from Nicholas G. Carr and other leading critics. His Blog, Rough Type, is a veritable treasure trove of barbs and amunition for foes of the high tech revolution. Hot on the heals of his brilliant critique, The Shallows, he is fond of lampooning those addicted to Social Media. His recent post comparing Various types of Social Networks to “recreational drugs” cuts close to the bone. After reading it, Facebook does seem like “pot” and Twitter may well simulate the effect of “Black Beauties.” http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2012/04/social_networks.php
Breaking down the barriers in schools can be exhausting, sucking away energy and draining us of ideas. Many gifted educators seek solace and refuge in the simple pleasures of a good book and a receptive class of students. Pushing Social Media, like flogging IT, is all too often about the process rather than the substance of education, teaching, and learning. Learning how to learn seems to have supplanted the core mission of education — learning something that is worth knowing and actually matters.
Is Social Media a help or a hindrance to improving the quality of education in schools? Is introducing the learning tools crowding out important ideas associated with education reform or, pedagogy, or methodology in education? Is it a distraction rather than a means for transformation? In short, have Big Ideas gotten lost in the scramble?