It’s a fascinating topic and one with real implications for parents, learners and educators today. There’s a lot of buzz on the blogs about the use of social media constituting a “revolution” in learning. Being a Classicist, however, I can’t help point out that…
Social media is the Socratic method on steroids
Social media takes us back to a Socratic learning environment. Socrates’ philosophical discussion groups, as described by Plato:
- Consisted of groups of men from various backgrounds and nationalities;
- Encouraged information-sharing and debates around conflicting ideas with the aim of reaching consensus;
- Were about group discussion and participation in an environment of equality. They were not about individuals showing off their intellect or about Socrates lecturing or teaching his “students”;
- Taught participants how to think critically and argue convincingly through exposure to opposing points of view;
- Treated questions as more important than answers, and dialogue as more important than teaching.
Social media is the Socratic method on steroids.
The use of social media as a learning tool is revolutionary compared to traditional classroom environments in which a teacher simply lectures to a class and the students faithfully copy down what the teacher is saying or recite it by rote. However, this revolution happened five centuries before Christ. The new technological tools of social media are helping us to rediscover the benefits of learning by discussion and participation. We should embrace them with caution.
Learning is, or should be, a social activity
What is the one thing that increases when it is shared? Knowledge.
Learning is about sharing knowledge. In formal educational settings such as classrooms, this has traditionally meant a teacher sharing his or her knowledge with students.
Web 2.0 and social media are less about helping teachers to communicate their knowledge to students, and more about students sharing knowledge between themselves and with the wider world. This is a more Socratic form of learning, in which participants of a discussion group help each other to learn. So “social learning” is not a new phenomenon.
How we learned socially prior to the internet
- Q&A after lectures
- Seminars with discussion
- Study groups
- Classroom discussions
- Working in pairs or teams
- Team-building exercises or games
- Peer reviews of academic papers
However, the traditional model of learning (not counting the philosophers of 5th-century Athens) has until recently been a teacher standing in front of a class of students, imparting knowledge and the students faithfully absorbing it.
How social media enhances our possibilities for learning socially
- Online discussion forums (for classroom-style discussions unimpeded by issues of time and geography – with a record of the discussion forming a useful resource for future work)
- Class blogs (for sharing students’ work and comments, and giving feedback)
- Public blogs (for research and inspiration)
- Wikis (for sharing information, including pictures and hyperlinks, internally and creating a useful resource for future work)
- Wikipedia (an online encyclopedia which reflects the most current thought and developments)
- Micro-blogs (for communication between students, particularly in study groups)
- Social networking sites (e.g. Facebook or Google+. For formation of discussion groups and for one-to-one or many-to-many communication)
- Video chat (e.g. Skype, for face-to-face communication when you cannot be face-to-face)
- Google Books and Google Scholar (for research. Online repository of books and articles that can potentially, in the future, take the place of the traditional library)
- Google Moderator (allows students to pose questions and vote on those they find most useful – so the teacher can answer the most popular questions)
- Videocasts (E.g. on YouTube. For delivering lectures or interactive video lessons, with multiple choice questions at the end of each video)
- Presentations (E.g. on SlideShare. For research and sharing presentations)
- Cloud-based systems (for file-sharing and real-time collaboration E.g. Google Docs or online project management tools that enable people to work together on a project more efficiently)
- Instant messaging (for real-time communication which enables students stuck with a problem to discuss it immediately with classmates or teacher.
- RSS feeds (enable students to easily track updates to class blogs or relevant public blogs)
- Free learning resources (Khan Academy and TED video lectures)
- Educational apps (there are many, for example for the iPad, which are specially targeted at children, special needs learners, students)
- Videogames (for simulation or interactive visual learning)
- Specific social learning platforms (which aim to replicate the sharing of notes/discussion of ideas that occurs naturally between students in coffee shops and after-school clubs. E.g. Elgg, CourseCracker, StudyHall… and for learning in the workplace, we have SocialText and Mzinga.
Benefits and dangers of social media as a learning tool
There are different schools of thought on the benefits and pitfalls of using social media in education, and no real answer – yet.
It is true that there are downsides to learning using social media, and examples where it has hindered rather than helped. But the same is true of the written word, which people have used to do all manner of bad things. In general, most commentators agree that social media does bring positive tools to the table – they just need to be managed correctly.
- Ease of access to information (search and click – save time and effort)
- Widespread access to information (everyone with an internet connection can access the same resources, regardless of geographical location – particularly with mobile devices)
- Time-independent (can communicate over a longer time period – compare a class blog discussion to a conference call)
- Media-rich (allows communication not just of words but pictures, videos, even interactive projects or games)
- Diversity (introduces student to a more diverse range of perspectives and ideas than the narrow classroom)
- Outreach (more students can participate than would be possible in a traditional classroom setting, e.g. Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence course, which is currently being delivered simultaneously to 160,000 students in 190 countries)
- Ease of publication (students can more easily publish and share their own work e.g. on academia.edu, a social networking site for academics which everyone can join. Students can put their papers up regardless of whether they have been peer-reviewed – including work-in-progress papers and requests for comments)
- Widens perspectives (aggregates more perspectives than in a traditional classroom – leads to a more comprehensive picture of the situation and perhaps alternative ways of problem-solving)
- Levels the playing field (allows students in poor schools access to better resources than they have in their own schools)
- Social production (not just social networking but social production – producing new ideas and new work through collaboration – if it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts)
- Technology skills (the very skills of social media – digital publishing, podcasting, video-casting, photo-sharing, networking, searching – are vital for the workplace. The literacy of the future is digital literacy, and the ability to use technology effectively is a crucial skill)
- Simulations (videogames and simulators can be powerful learning tools)
- Up-to-date, current information and real-time data (more so than in books – or waiting months for survey/study results to be published in a journal)
- Participation (makes learning more participatory – adds the “people” element which is missing from many online or distance courses)
- Backchannel (allows shy students to participate in class discussions by way of a social media “backchannel” – see NY Times article by Gabriel Trip)
- Copyright (teaches students early on about the need to respect copyright laws)
- Lifelong learning (continually updating our knowledge by keeping up with the latest blogs, contributing to our own or others’ blogs, tweeting about our specialties or interests…informal, but important)
- “Just another fad” (no – or little – empirical evidence to support the theory that it enhances learning)
- Distraction (from real study – most students have a Facebook window open while doing their homework and many are tweeting their friends while in class)
- Unoriginal thinking (does social media spell the death of original thought? Argument that it turns students into dependent learners rather than independent thinkers)
- Shallow reading (internet treated as an extension of our brains… so we don’t “take in” information as we did before)
- Plagiarism (so easy and tempting to copy-paste other people’s work and ideas, and more difficult for a teacher to detect)
- Cheating (much easier to cheat in class with smartphones and instant messaging)
- Undermines authority of academic institutions (e.g. YouTube videos, TED lectures and Khan Academy may be seen as equivalent to university lectures, and Google Scholar the equivalent of a librarian and collection of journals)
- Too fast (not enough time for students to reflect on their contributions)
- Chaotic (if not managed properly – lack of structure can hinder learning process and discourage students from participating at all)
- Lack of peer review (for articles on blogs and for papers on academia.edu – sometimes difficult for students to judge when an article is trustworthy or not)
- Devalues traditional learning methods (technology is a tool for learning, not a replacement for learning. Perhaps we are being too hasty to adopt new and exciting tools – need a balanced approach)
- Too informal (informality of social media detracts from time and effort spent on formal learning tools)
- Irrelevant or offensive material (change of students finding pornography or other offensive material online)
- Privacy and data security (of students sharing ideas and information on a public forum. e.g. might be afraid to discuss or suggest an idea in a country where government censorship is a concern)
Social media: a revolution in learning?
When we discuss the use of social media as a learning tool, is this a fundamentally different way of thinking about learning? Or do social media platforms constitute just another set of tools to enhance existing methods of teaching?
In one sense, the way we use social media in learning – to communicate, collaborate, research, get inspiration, learn new things, publish our ideas – represents a simple evolution and enhancement of existing social aspects of learning. (Generally, the people who call social media in learning “revolutionary” are those who want to sell social media-based learning tools…)
However, if learning is about sharing knowledge, then in traditional classroom settings this is about a teacher sharing his or her knowledge with students, or a professor lecturing to a silent audience. Social media it is more about sharing knowledge between students – and with the wider world.
So social media turns learning into more of a discussion – a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach to learning which puts the student at the center of a dynamic network of fellow learners, educators, resources and others not directly involved in education at all.
In that sense, it is more of a revolution – a democratic revolution which is starting to undermine the authority of schools, universities and libraries. Is this a good thing? Nobody knows – but I suspect Socrates and Plato would be delighted by the possibilities it offers for collaboration, discussion and dialogue.
Useful links, articles & resources
Francis, Russell. (2010) The Decentring of the Traditional University: The Future of (Self) Education in Virtually Figured Worlds. Routledge.
Hart, Jane. “The future of e-learning is social learning” Slideshare.com, 2009.
Hart, Jane. “A top-down approach to social and collaborative learning/working isn’t going to work!”. December 4th, 2010.
Hart, Jane. 2011. Social Learning Handbook. Jane Hart is founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies in the UK.
Levasseur, Aran. “The Case for Videogames as Powerful Tools for Learning”. MediaShift, June 13th, 2011. Argues that videogames are good for learning as they:
- Progress from stage to stage, giving you just enough information to complete the next stage, and building on what went before – just like traditional learning curricula.
- Encourage critical thinking by forcing players to generate a hypothesis of how to navigate/succeed at the game, then test it.
- Enhance memory retention by forcing players to think.
- Engage the player emotionally – also a proven method of enhancing learning.
- Images are a powerful learning tool, particularly when they are interactive.
- E.g. of educational videogame: PeaceMaker about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Can play as either the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister and try to reach a peaceful consensus… helps teach players to think like politicians and negotiators and learn about the issues involved in this very real-life situation.
Levasseur, Aran. “A Case for Using Social Media with Learning”. MediaShift, October 21st, 2011.
Levinson, Matt. 2010. From Fear to Facebook. International Society for Technology in Education. A educator’s story about introducing digital media to schools. Levinson is an advocate for new technologies to enhance teaching and learning.
Light, Richard. “The College Experience: A Blueprint for Success”. A video study from a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, arguing that students’ ability to collaborate in study groups is one of the biggest factors in their learning success. Light’s small-scale study of Harvard students indicates that “students who study outside of class in small groups of four to six students, even just once a week, benefit enormously… as a result of their study group discussion, students are far more engaged and better prepared for class, learning significantly more.”
Onlineuniversities.com “100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom“. May 4th, 2010.
Trip, Gabriel. “Speaking Up in Class, Silently, Using Social Media” on NY Times website, May 12th, 2011. Article about several high schools that have embraced social media both in the classroom and as a way of communicating with students and parents.
Toppo, Greg. “Social media find place in classroom” on USA Today, July 25th, 2011.Google+