Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can actually make students smarter, contrary to the criticisms leveled against them by many educators. Twitter and Facebook can boost learning if instructors use them properly and monitor their students’ use in coursework.
Some educators have been wary of social networks since their inception, concerned that students would use the networks in class, both as an update to the age-old practice of passing notes and as a tool with which to cheat on assignments and tests. The immediate reaction was to ban social network access during class. Some more creative instructors, however, saw a potential for actually enhancing their students’ learning, and they encouraged the students to participate. And it turns out that they were on to something: participating on the social networks can actually enhance education.
Why some educators love to hate social media
Beyond the potential for cheating, Twitter and Facebook have often been criticized by educators and others who are concerned with the future of literacy and critical thinking in our culture. Some think they are time-wasters for most students and are eroding students’ ability to write, spell, and think.
Twitter in particular has been criticized on literacy grounds because its strict 140-character limit per “tweet” (including spaces between words) encourages the use of Internet shorthand and “txtspk” (e.g., “UR” instead of “you are”) and sentence fragments. The fear among some educators is that between tweeting and texting, technology has given rise to a new generation that will be at a loss to write or read a coherent, properly spelled sentence.
Facebook has also been criticized as a time-waster and even, in some well-publicized cases, a bullying tool. It has also become a surefire conduit for rumors, ridiculous memes and urban legends, some of which were debunked back in the pre-Internet age, but nevertheless found new life via email and, more recently, through social media. Consequently some have complained that Facebook encourages laziness and discourages critical thinking and research skills.
While there is some validity to all of these concerns – including the concerns about cheating – none of these are adequate reasons to vilify Twitter or Facebook. Instead, the teacher can use them as tools to boost the learning process. Even some of the perceived disadvantages of Twitter and Facebook can be turned into advantages.
The tweet heard ‘round the world…
Twitter wasn’t even on most people’s radar until the 2008 incident involving student James Karl Buck’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment at a public protest in Egypt. En route to the police station, Buck took out his cell phone and sent a one-word Tweet to his friends and contacts: “Arrested.” Within seconds, his fellow U.S. Twitter users and blogger friends in Egypt learned of his arrest, and the news almost immediately went viral. As the news spread, pressure from sources all over the world mounted for Egyptian officials, and Buck was ultimately released. At that point, he tweeted another one-word message, “Free,” which also went viral. And the world recognized the power of social networking.
Indeed, there is power in social networking, and there’s no denying that tweeting can be an effective means of communication and a way to update crucial information in the shortest, most direct way possible. Twitter has become a medium in and of itself, but its greater usefulness lies in the ability of the “tweeter” to link to other media. News media, for instance, now routinely use tweets to link to longer articles and videos, and that in fact is where Twitter becomes truly useful; it can link the reader to more substantial information. And this, ideally, is how Twitter can become valuable in the classroom: as a portal to information about the world.
What about the literacy argument? While some accuse Twitter of “dumbing down” the language and interfering with the ability to read, write and think, there are equally powerful – and eloquently literate – voices defending Twitter. A few years ago, best-selling Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood declared that Twitter actually boosts literacy. Atwood noted that a lot of dedicated Twitter users are also avid readers, and added, “People have to actually be able to read and write to use the Internet, so it’s a great literacy driver if kids are given the tools and the incentive to learn the skills that allow them to access it.”
Moreover, one has to have at least rudimentary reading and writing skills to tweet, and tweeting (as well as texting) are less passive experiences than talking on the phone or watching TV.
Other experts also believe that social media such as Twitter can be used to enhance reading and writing. One of these experts is Rey Junco, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. http://www.opb.org/news/article/npr-can-twitter-boost-literacy/
Facebook, like Twitter, is a two-edged sword
Many of the arguments in favor of Twitter can also be used about Facebook: It can enhance reading and writing, and can be a portal to educational content. Of course a cursory look at random Facebook postings will reveal that freedom from the 140-character limit does not automatically make the poster witty, eloquent, or even particularly literate. That said, Facebook can be a powerful tool to convey legitimate information – whether an update on coursework or a link to a news story, opinion piece or white paper that is relevant to the work.
Even what is arguably one of Facebook’s weaknesses – its common use as a conduit for rumors and nonsense – can be transformed into a strength if teachers use examples as teaching tools to encourage critical thinking and research skills.
The greatest strength of social media is that they allow people not only to engage in the “public conversation” but also to connect with the world in a way that will actually expand their outlook and open their minds. Educators can and should take advantage of these tools, while guiding students in the responsible use of social media in the context of coursework.