Learning using social media: evolution or revolution?

Social media in education is a buzzing topic today, with real and immediate implications for parents, learners and teachers. There’s a lot of buzz on the blogs about the use of social media constituting a “revolution” in learning.

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, learning through discussion and participation was already common in the time of Socrates. The high-tech tools of social media may help us to rediscover the benefits of this type of learning environment, but we should embrace them with caution.

Learning is a social activity

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
  • Debates
  • Role-playing
  • 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 helps us learn 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.

See my post on the benefits and dangers of social media as learning tools.

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 resources on social media in learning

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. Levasseur argues that videogames are good learning tools since 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.

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. 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.

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