Conversations about the use of social networks in education have become commonplace both online and off. Teachers with Twitter handles, for example, encounter discussions of this topic on a daily basis. Regardless of whether or how social networks are used in schools, mounting evidence shows that social media is already a large part of students' personal lives and most certainly will be a part of their personal and professional lives in the future.
For instance, a 2010 study of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted by the online gaming site Roiworld revealed that the average teenager spends approximately two hours and 20 minutes online every day, with 80 percent of that time dedicated to social networking sites. What's more, nine in 10 teens have established a profile on at least one social networking site, and 78 percent of them are on Facebook.
How might this affect young people in the future? Consider this: In 2011, 20 percent of college admissions officers surveyed by Kaplan Test Prep said they searched for information on applicants using Google, and 22 percent acknowledged that they had looked up applicants on Facebook.
It's clear that in order for schools to adequately prepare students for the "real world" they will enter upon graduating, teachers, administrators and other school staff have no choice but to acknowledge the role that social media plays in that world.
Pedagogical best practices have long included "realia" — objects from real life that are brought into the classroom to represent concepts or words. Jean-Pierre Berwald, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, defines realia as "teaching aids that facilitate the simulation of experience in the target culture." Keeping this in mind, educators should work to incorporate the concepts of social media into everyday lesson plans.
How can teachers whose schools or districts prohibit social media in the classroom increase students' understanding of its role in society — and in their future — without actually using the tools? Here are some ideas.
Facebook Without Facebook
When students see a graphic of a Facebook wall, they likely recognize it for what it is: a means of delivering and receiving information about themselves and others. Their inherent understanding of this connection can be applied to a variety of subjects and classroom learning activities, resulting in student-generated content that resembles the ubiquitous Facebook wall.
- Social Studies: Student groups could be assigned a specific person, event or historical concept to research. Each group could then build a fake wall that conveys the depth of their understanding of the assigned topic. For example, a group of students could capture the similarities and differences among U.S. presidents through role-playing. Each student would embody a different president, and together, they'd build a wall — complete with photos, wall posts, "likes" and comments — that portrays the way the presidents would interact with one another if they all were alive today.
- Science: Students in a chemistry class could be assigned a particular element for which to create a wall. Questions students might consider include: Which elements would they classify as "friends"? Which elements would post incendiary remarks on their wall? How would they reveal information about their element, such as its melting and boiling points or number of electrons?
- Math: Students could create fake walls for the individuals who developed certain mathematical theorems. I once saw a series of posts on a fake wall for Pythagoras about the mathematician's right triangle theorem. The posts' author, who identified himself as "future student," commented that Pythagoras had made his life more difficult by forcing him to memorize and understand what a2 + b2 = c2 meant.
- English: Students could create fake walls that reveal similarities and differences between books by the same author, books from different time periods or even books from different genres. What dating advice might Edward from Twilight give to Romeo, for example?
Twitter Without Twitter
Twitter has emerged in the past year as a powerful means of instant communication and information sharing. In fact, news reports, TV shows, movies and other media often include a Twitter hashtag or user name for readers or viewers to follow for more information.
- Social Studies: Students studying a historical period, such as the Great Depression, could embody a persona from that era — a banker or farmer, for example — and record their experiences or impressions in 140-character entries. Using fake tweet builders, students could then exchange their feeds with their peers to develop an ongoing dialogue on what it was like to live at that time.
- Science: Students could consider what it would have been like to follow James D. Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin as they worked to understand the structure of DNA. Were there other scientists they might have talked about? What frustrations and achievements might they have shared?
- Math: Students could be given a formula for which they are responsible and then tasked with engaging in an ongoing dialogue with their peers and teachers about how to solve a problem using that formula. What sort of questions might an instructor ask to assist students in solving those problems?
- English: Students could be challenged to tell a story in one sentence or write a larger story in 140-character increments. Activities to reinforce (or demonstrate understanding of) "appropriate audience" could include fake Twitter feeds to a professional audience and to an audience of friends.
The Next Big Thing
New forms of social media emerge all the time. But what's to be gained from leveraging the power of these Web 2.0 resources in classroom activities?
Along with generating increased student engagement, these activities can be used to assess what students understand about a topic. Anyone can look up Benjamin Franklin on Wikipedia and create a PowerPoint presentation of the information found there. Creating a fake Facebook wall for Benjamin Franklin that delivers the same information, but from the perceived perspective of Benjamin Franklin himself, adds a level of higher-order thinking to the activity that students will long remember.
Perhaps more important than the content we teach are the life skills we model by embracing these concepts. Using social media in the classroom allows teachers to remind students of the power their words can have online. This understanding will be crucial as they head to college, start a career and become adults in a digital world.
Introducing students to social media concepts without actually employing the tools themselves is easy, thanks to web-based and other resources that can facilitate the creation of fake Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, Pinterest boards and other information spaces. Popular options include The Wall Machine (thewallmachine.com), Fake Tweet Builder (faketweetbuilder.com) and Stixy (stixy.com). Teachers who lack access to these sites can rely instead on templates in word processing or presentation software.