Educators Should Use Social Media to Engage and Empower Students

(This post is by Kristy Roschke, a high school teacher in Phoenix who is working on lesson plans for Mediactive. Kristy has a master’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.)

When I first started teaching high school eight years ago, it did not occur to me to give students my phone number or personal email address. Not because I thought it was inappropriate, but because it seemed unnecessary. Funny how things change.

Today, I share my mobile phone number, my Gmail address and my Twitter handle with my publications staffs on the first day of school.  Why the 180? It’s certainly not my great desire to be accessible to my students 24 hours a day. But it only takes a few instances of a missing memory card or dead battery in a camera during an important football game to realize that many high school journalism emergencies can be avoided with a little communication. And although I do sometimes get annoyed by the 9 p.m. emails asking what the word count on the aforementioned football story should be, I know it was my decision to open those lines of communication (and to push it out to my iPhone at all hours of the day), and so I answer the question. The fact is, the way my students and I communicate — in our own lives and with each other — has evolved over the past eight years because communication itself has evolved. And while I don’t believe that just because you can use it, you should (as is the case with Facebook, which I’ll explain later), I think it’s incredibly short-sighted and naive to pretend these profound changes to the way we communicate aren’t relevant to the way we teach our students.

Some in education will read this and think I’m nuts. They think that communicating with students outside of school is never appropriate, and that social media is little more than a breeding ground for potential improprieties. I will put these people in two categories: those whose relationships with students never extend past classroom hours (for any reason, whether it be a sport or club or tutoring), and those who are reluctant to embrace new technology. These people don’t need to share their personal information because a student would never have occasion to use it. That’s just fine for them, but it simply doesn’t work for me and an ever-growing number of educators out there who want to run their classrooms like it’s the 21st century.

The school district in which I teach, like most school districts, I’m sure, is extremely cautious with new technology, particularly with social media. The Internet within the confines of our district’s filtering system looks a little like the Internet of the 1990s — there is no YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Ning, and only parts of Google work.  I can understand why this is.  I use all of these services and I see what’s out there. And I know that all it takes is one call from one parent whose child came across something inappropriate while searching YouTube at school to shut down the whole Information Superhighway.

But here’s the thing: I’m an educator. My job is to educate students, and while my teaching certificate says I’m qualified to teach high schoolers about Journalism and English, I believe it extends way beyond that. I believe my job is to educate students on how to survive their lives outside of high school. In my own little corner of the school, I do this by teaching them how to use their words (and images and designs) to effectively communicate, not just in a literary analysis essay, but also in a job interview or an important client meeting or to an ailing patient’s family or in front of their own classrooms.  How can I do this without mentioning social media? Are we really to pretend that these methods of communication will not play a prominent role in the rest of their lives? And if we, the educators, are not allowed to show students how to effectively use these tools, who will?

We live in a world where most communication is narrowed down to 140 characters. Young people abbreviate everything, capitalize nothing and punctuate at random. But it goes far beyond the obvious language usage issues. Young people are the stars in their own reality shows. They (over)share information about themselves that makes even me blush. Everything they do is available for public consumption. Those of us who were fortunate enough to make our youthful mistakes before the invention of the mobile phone camera understand how misguided and damaging this type of disclosure can be. Just like I teach my students the proper way to send a professional email, I should be modeling for my students the proper way to manage their other online interactions.

The state of Missouri doesn’t want teachers to send private messages to students, whether it be through non-district email or Twitter or Facebook direct messages. I understand their intent — to discourage sexual misconduct and prevent teachers accused of such behavior from being hired in another school district — but this action is misguided. Those troubled individuals who exploit their position as an educator will continue to exist, sadly, with or without technology. By putting such restrictions on technology use, the Missouri state government has publicly admitted how little it understands about the evolving nature of communication, not to mention how little faith it has in its educators as ethical professionals.

I have a very active online profile, which I take great care to manage. My passions are education, media and technology, and I am lucky I get to integrate these things into my daily life. I would not be doing my job as a journalism educator if I didn’t stay abreast of new modes of communication and share them with my students.  I use my Twitter account mainly to share articles and insights about the subjects I teach. I encourage my students to follow me so they can benefit from this information. And while I don’t share my personal blog with my students because it’s really just silly fun, I don’t hide it from them. It’s the first thing that turns up when you search my name on Google, so it would be futile to try to. The knowledge that students might read my blog is always in the back of my mind when I post.

I do not friend high school students on Facebook. When former students sends me friend requests, I typically accept them, but I put them in a separate list with its own set of privacy rules. This is not because I’m embarrassed about what I share on Facebook. It’s for the same reason I live on the other side of town from my school: I don’t want my students knowing too much about my life outside of the classroom. This is my choice, though, and I should have that option.

Like Missouri educator Sean Nash, who so astutely outlined his thoughts on social media in education, I don’t see Facebook having much value in the classroom at this point. My student publications use it as a marketing and reporting tool outside of class, and it’s great for that. The brand-new Google+, with its close integration to other useful Google tools and its Hangouts, however, could possibly be a game-changer for the classroom. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but I will undoubtedly have to be on the sidelines for that one, as it’s only a matter of time before my school district blocks the site.

The point here is that I am a fervent user of technology, so I understand the important role it plays in my students’ lives, both now and in the future. I have a duty to help them utilize it in a mature manner and to help maximize its potential as a learning tool. Hiding from social media is just another way public schools are running from any real education reform. Even as school districts across the country are demanding we integrate technology in the classroom (Show them a PowerPoint with animated graphics! Have them complete a Web Quest on the Great Depression!), they are making our classrooms less relevant to the outside world. Even worse, we are losing our ability to engage our students.

Teachers, administrators and school board officials need social media training. They need to learn how to manage their own profiles and understand that they have some pretty effective controls on what they share and don’t share — which means their students do, too. They need to understand how their students use these sites, and what skills they need to use them in a more appropriate manner. Think of the potential positive outcomes of this: training to prevent cyberbullying or to help students navigate relationships, showing students how their online profiles could be used to get (or not get) a job or scholarship or internship, using social media as an RSS feed to stay up on current events. Educators are in a position to show young people that social media doesn’t have to be all social.

Yes, the Internet is a scary place. But we’ve known for a long time that, like rock ‘n’ roll, it’s here to stay. I, for one, want to emphasize all that is good about it and give my students the tools they need to confidently navigate it. To me, this seems like the only rational way to keep them from getting taken in by it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *