[Key Findings] How Social is Your Classroom?

How Social is Your Classroom?

I recently finished a Masters dissertation with the University of Auckland on the subject of teachers using social media in the classroom as part of their formal classroom practice.

It provided some interesting data, highlighting some surprising findings around teacher’s attitudes towards the use of these tools.

One of the things that I had clearly in the front of my mind at the outset of the study was the now often expressed sentiment by Mishra (2009), who argued that ‘If you’re not going to change pedagogy, then technology makes no difference’.

The study, titled ‘Is social media facilitating a shift towards student-centred modes of learning in an Auckland secondary school?’, used surveys and interviews to build a picture of how social media tools like Flickr, Tumblr, Wordpress and Facebook are being used and viewed in one large, upper decile Auckland secondary school. I would characterise the school as having an open culture of teachers experimenting with ICT, and had a BYOD policy in place for two years prior to this study. They had also undertaken considerable PD on eLearning and ICT in the years prior to adopting BYOD, including much work unpacking the SAMR model as a staff.

I produced a working definition of ‘social media’ to share with teachers and leaders during the study, based on the work done by the New Zealand Teachers Council in this area and a number of research papers in the area.

In terms of defining student centred learning, this on it’s own can produce numerous arguments in the staffroom between teachers, and there are of course many different frameworks and theories that try to deconstruct the term. Eventually I chose 3 of the 6 themes from the recent ‘Supporting future orientated learning and teaching’ report to the Ministry of Education to provide the framework for a survey of staff attitudes towards social media. For those unfamiliar, the report provides a literature review of educational research globally, and combines this with survey data from NZ school leaders and case studies from a range of NZ schools. These are synthesised to suggest 6 future themes that together provide a useful model with which to visualise student centred learning in New Zealand’s schools of the future.

The three themes I chose were Theme 1: Personalising learning, Theme 3: Using knowledge to build learning capacity and Theme 4: Reimagining roles for teachers andlearners.

For example, one of the Theme 1 questions was:

Using social media tools allows teachers to personalise learning for students, making the most of their interests, goals and aspirations’.

Similarly, a statement for Theme 3 read:

Teachers communicating with students via social media allows effective teacher and student conversations about the learning and where to next’.

So what did the results tell us?

There were certainly some interesting statistics generated. The first thing to note was that almost uniformly, throughout the survey, average approval rates were much higher than I expected to find, at around 70% or above for each statement.

Looking at the various cross sections of staff within the school gave some interesting insights. In the case of this particular school, it seems that the 6 senior managers were united in their approval for social media, showing 100% agreement on pretty much each one of the questions. Averages for middle leader floated around the 80% mark and the general teaching staff’s approval was typically around 50-60% for the use of social media tools. Therefore, approval for the use of social media appeared to decline as we travelled down the school’s hierarchy, which is perhaps different from what you might have expected to find.

How often have we heard the call ‘It has to be led from the top’ when it comes to some initiative or other? In the case of this one particular school, it certainly appeared to be a blend of leading from the top, and working in partnership with ‘early adoptors’ within the school that were willing to  share about their successes and failures with the use of social media.

There were other interesting results, in that the approval wasn’t confined to members of the younger generation. In fact, in many cases, teachers with over 20 years experience were more agreeable to the idea of using social media than first or second year teachers, who indeed could be strongly opposed. There are interesting questions bound up in why this should be the case.

This study also highlighted the perennial problem of trying to study attitudes towards the use of technology in education. Do people hold a positive opinion of the use of technology in learning because they have direct evidence of it having an impact on student achievement? Or are they likely to hold a positive opinion because they are frequent users of it themselves? Certainly in the case of the senior management team, they all reported having some competency with the use of social media tools. These rates declined to 90% and 82% for middle leaders and teachers respectively, which again highlights a trend different from what you might have expected to find.

In addition to the surveys, there were also a small number of interviews conducted with teachers and leaders at different levels of the school. This interviews provided some really interesting insights into how teachers were already experimenting with social media, and where the school as a whole were intending to drive strategically in the future with regard to these tools.

 The idea of reflection is one which was recurring throughout each of the interviews, and this was unsurprising as one of the issues surfaced was that there was a policy being developed across the school for each student to be working on a WordPress blog. An intermediary step towards that was a school wide focus on the issue of student reflection. One of the members of SLT explained ‘At present the teachers are getting kids to reflect on their own learning, and in some cases this will be a blog, and in others it will be a Word or Pages document’. So what sort of questions are being asked? It’s a generic question that is going to lead the class along the path of some real reflection on their learning? And once that’s sorted, we can move onto the next thing, which is to put it in a blog’.

Reflection is not a new idea, indeed It’s Dewey that argued that ‘We learn by doing after we have reflected on what we’ve done’. Reflection also enjoys a prominent position in the New Zealand Curriculum.

On this, one of the Heads of Department had some particularly interesting ideas on the use of Facebook for reflection:

It gives you an opportunity at the end of the process to review, and look back as a class, and say ‘Look at what you’ve done, look at what you’re capable of as a team, you know, you’re doing all this individually but collaboratively. You’ve backed each other up, you’ve given feedback, ten times the amount of feedback that I could give as a teacher, and so think about what you’ve done here. And think about how that relates to working in the real world… And because they’ve already done the process and there is something tangible to reflect on, rather than say ‘’Hey guys, we’re just going to use Facebook’ at the beginning it’s ‘You’re going to learn from this…’, it’s very difficult to describe why using Facebook is great for learning,  I would say until you’ve been through the process’. 

It seems therefore that social media is becoming an increasingly accepted fact of life in education, and educators are realising that it has the capability of killing a number of birds with one stone, including a greater degree of interaction between teacher and students and students and students, providing more feedback to students in a form that can be used meaningfully and involving parents and caregivers in a much deeper and ongoing way in the learning of their child.

There is also something about the way in which learning happens for students in these spaces that may be more effective. I quote the words of Noelene Wright from the University of Waikato in saying that ‘‘This suggestion links both to teachers’ pedagogical purposes and what appears to be a strong desire in 21st century students to learn collaboratively and socially, mirroring their experiences of what social networking affords them. In these kinds of learning environments, students rather than teachers are at the centre of the learning experience. In order for students to learn in such student-centred contexts, the teachers’ role is to facilitate the opportunities, using appropriate pedagogical processes and e-Learning affordances.

To return to Mishra’s original quote concerning pedagogy, all of the interviewees were satisfied that, in using social media tools, that that is what they were engaged in, reviewing and refining their teaching practice and putting pedagogy first. This is perhaps best summed up by one of the teachers, when she stated:

(with Tumblr) I think the pedagogy is exactly what you want, because you want the students to contribute to one another. We had to guide them that way, we had to say ‘Look, you will need to comment on 5 other peoples blogs, and you need to respond to those posts as well, and any that people comment you need to respond to that’. She went on to explain that ‘And so they took a little more ownership, and started sharing and helping each other that way, and it was not competitive you know, it was actually really collaborative which i thought was quite nice’.

So could it be that social media tools are not only a legitimate tool for educators to be using and leaders to be making policy around, but are they actually necessary for where we’re going with learning in the future?

In the Best Evidence Synthesis on School Leadership and Student Outcomes, Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd (2009) make the point that ‘Selecting, developing and using smart tools’ is an important component of leadership, and go on to state that ‘’Toolsis a concept that can cover everything from whiteboards and classroom furniture to software for tracking attendance’. when viewed through this lens, it’s clear that the school’s approach to blogging in particular, but also other social media tools, do have a clear ‘theory ofpurpose’, as Robinson et al call it. Central to this is the idea of student reflection, clearly, but also after having listened to them carefully it also included diverse ideas around improved communication with home and stronger home/school ties, maintaining relevance, lifting engagement, making connections beyond the classroom and providing authentic audiences for learning.

This is interesting, because many of these ideas align with those in Bolstad and Gilberts original ‘Supporting future-orientated learning and teaching report’. An interesting question then poses itself in asking that ‘No matter what vision of education you subscribe to, can we do learning in the future without the social aspect of the web?’.

My own feeling is that no, we can’t. One of the main conclusions  that I reached was that it appears we are presently at a convergence point in learning and the digital technology that supports it. On the one hand we have a new emphasis on the social context for learning, and social learning theory. This is exemplified by the terms connection and collaboration which feature so strongly in our curriculum and other key documents.

On the other hand we have also reached a place in the development of the internet where fundamentally it has become a social space, rather than one for storage and reference. Evidence of this is the relative decline in popularity of the major social networks and well known social media brands, and the rapid development of the social function of more conventional sites. The comments section accompanying online newspaper articles it’s a great example of this.

We may even reach a point where the term ‘social media’ itself has become redundant, and online communities will naturally coalesce around points of mutual interest or subject matter, and host all of the functions we’ve become accustomed to using to interact with one another. So certainly I can see a continued and strengthened emphasis for students and others working together and learning in richer and more diverse ways – and using the social function of the internet to facilitate it. 

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About the Author
Author: chris swanwick

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