Social media in schools: Can it be educational for kids?

In May 2011, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the educational potential of his site at the NewSchools Venture Fund's Summit, a Silicon-Valley-based summit dedicated to innovation in education. Like a number of today's educators, Zuckerberg believes that in addition to its obvious social purposes, social media may be used for educational purposes, as well. More controversial, however, was his insistence that children under age 13 should be allowed on Facebook.


"My philosophy is that for education you need to start at a really, really young age," he explained at the summit. What he wasn't so clear on, however, was exactly how Facebook could be educational for younger children--something that has become part of a larger debate. What role--if any--does social media have in education and more specifically, in classrooms?

The educational potential of social media

Ever since Facebook, Twitter and blogging became ubiquitous, innovative educators have been seeking ways to tap into social media. Students are spending hours of their own time on sites like Facebook, so why not adopt social media as a classroom tool and enhance student engagement? Currently, the Children's Internet Protection Act prevents public schools from giving access to Facebook and related sites, so classroom-based social media experiences often takes the form of blogs.

Deborah Levy is the Technology Integration Specialist at Chadwick School, a K-12 independent school in Palos Verdes, California, and holds a Masters in Education Technology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She sees blogs as a valuable way for students to self-publish and connect with students around the world:

"I think blogging is a fantastic school tool--a way to truly involve kids in the work they're doing by having them self-publish their thoughts about their material," Levy says. "For example, a 7th-grade English class at our school in Palos Verdes is reading the same book as our school in South Korea. The students are blogging about their experiences with the novel, based on teacher prompts, to connect with one another and gain cross-cultural perspectives on the messages and themes in the book."

Though some teachers worry about Internet security, several student-focused blogging sites, such as edublogs.org, offer protected environments for classroom blogging.

Is social media an appropriate educational tool for students under 13?

When classroom blogs are used effectively, they can inspire riveting discussions and connect students to material. But how do students learn to use blogs and other forms of social media effectively, and how young is too young? Elementary educator Cindy Hughes believes teachers and parents should prepare younger children to thrive in a social-media rich world.

"We should open our minds and our classrooms to technology, as it will better prepare students for the type of jobs that are available now and in the future," Hughes says. "I believe we [teachers] should teach responsible social media."

Levy agrees that teachers play an important role in teaching children to use social media appropriately.

"Teachers already play a huge role in guiding students to be good citizens in real life. This extends to guiding students to be good digital citizens," she explains. "The line is so blurry now between 'real' life and 'digital' life, that a teacher, or a parent, has the same responsibility in either realm."

Levy and Hughes offer several suggestions for parents looking to guide their children's social media use.

"Parents can 'friend' their children to keep a slight eye on what's going on. They don't need to spy, but they should be aware of who their child's friends are, what they are posting and how much time they are spending online. It's also fun for parents and their kids to share links, videos and articles with one another online," says Levy.

Hughes agrees. "Parents need to be certain of who their child is interacting with, and everything needs to be done age appropriately." Hughes suggests that parents monitor how their children use social media by sitting down and navigating social media sites with them.

Part of monitoring children's use of social media means parents should also consider the intended audience for each site. As Levy explains, "You have to keep in mind that Facebook is geared for [ages 13] and up, meaning the advertisements and other content they host isn't meant for young children's eyes."

Do Facebook and Google+ belong in the classroom?

If Facebook were to open up to children under 13, as Zuckerberg believes it should, Levy says she could envision it becoming an educational tool. She notes that Google+, a direct Facebook competitor, already boasts tools that could enhance a classroom.

"Google+ has a way for multiple people to video chat at once in a 'hang out'," she explains. "I can definitely see students with or without a teacher, gathering to discuss a book, a play, a math problem, whatever!"

A 2008 study conducted by the University of Minnesota supports Levy's and Zuckerberg's belief that sites like Facebook have a potential role to play in education.

"What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st-century skills we want them to develop to be successful today," Christine Greenhow, the study's principal investigator, told eNews.

As Levy, Hughes and Greenhow suggest, children need to learn how to use social media responsibly in order to participate in today's world. Just as kindergarteners don't enter school knowing their multiplication tables, children don't instinctively know how to engage safely in social media: it's up to teachers and parents to guide children in the digital world. With proper instruction and guidance, social media in the classroom has the potential to allow students to engage with material and create meaningful learning.

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