Using Social Media to Give Students Voice & Agency

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By Faigy Gilder, Program Manager for the DigitalJLearning Network

As I am not an educator myself, at times I find it difficult to understand the resistance some educators have to inviting social media tools into the classroom. So while I was at the 2014 ISTE Conference just last week, I made sure to stop by one particular session hoping to gain a better understanding of social media in the classroom from an educator’s perspective. The session, titled “Tweet this! Engaging youth in community through social media,” was incredibly enlightening for me. Led by Sammy Lyon, a strong advocate of youth empowerment and media literacy, the session covered some of the best reasons for, and practices of, social media in an educational setting.

However, in an unexpected twist, Sammy began her session with the American public’s reaction to the rise in popularity of the postcard from about 1907 to 1910. Interestingly, the postcard was initially met with significant resistance:

“The postcard's popularity baffled and even appalled the cultural elite. On one hand, it seemed ridiculous and highly inappropriate to write anything remotely personal on a postcard, where postal workers, neighbors or servants could read the message. On the other hand, if one lacked anything substantial to write, why write at all? The smaller format inhibited sustained thought. Some even blamed the postcard for a decline in literacy and argued that its shorter format led to poor grammar…

Postcard enthusiasts became just as extreme in their pronouncements. They saw it as a symbol of democracy itself and a revolution in interpersonal communication. Affordable to all, the postcard was hailed as the most important postal advancement since the penny post. It created more points of contact between family members and friends, regardless of class. It was even credited with facilitating global understanding through the establishment of international postcard exchange clubs.

For true postcard aficionados, communicating via postcard was not just easier but also better. They waxed poetic about the sentimental merits of this new abbreviated medium. Less room to write meant instant synecdoche.”

-?Monica Cure for the LA Times, “Tweeting by mail: The postcard's stormy birth”

Does this sound familiar?

Innovation in communications is nothing new. Neither is the fear and resistance these changes induce.

Whether you’re a social media maven or are just curious about what social media has to offer, allow me to share with you some of what I learned from Sammy about adding social media to your classroom toolkit.  

Reasons for Social Media in the Classroom

It is important to understand that social media is simply the newest manifestation of communications. The tools are constantly evolving and, as we always say here at the DigitalJLearning Network, it’s not the tools themselves that matter most. What matters are the goals you have and the way you use the tools. In using these tools, I believe you will come to find, as Sammy does, that digital communications is real, valid, and has an impact in our offline world. And finally, using social media in your classroom allows students more opportunities to teach you, as well as have you teach them. Many students understand more than their teachers about social media; and that is a wonderful thing. By bringing these tools into students’ education, it allows them to share with you their expertise. You might be surprised at what unfolds if you allow your students to help you shape how social media is used in their education.

Ways to Use Social Media with Students

  • You can have students create digital portfolios on a platform like WordPress or Google Sites.
  • You can also have students create ongoing blogs related to your class, and then have each student also sign up for a commenting platform like Disqus to comment on each other’s work (without anonymity, which will keep things a lot nicer).
  • Use WeVideo or another easy video editing tool with students to help them chronicle a project of theirs and post it to YouTube
  • Podcasting is a great option for teachers who work in elementary schools, as students often can't have their images online.
  • Did you know that Twitter hashtags were a user-generated invention derived from gamer culture? Twitter can be used to tear down the walls of the classroom and share projects. Have students use a unique class hashtag and share their work with other classes and schools.
  • Put students in charge of a class Tumblr or Instagram to document what they are doing. If a funder is financing a program, they probably want to see it. Tell the students why this is being shared so take ownership and responsibility for the content.
  • Create a collaborative Pinterest board with students or make a board to benefit student learning.
  • Google Maps has many cool use-cases in the classroom. Create a custom map for your lesson or use this Google Maps Gallery full of custom maps created to illustrate thousands of topics.
  • A teacher named Mark Gomez used a product called Motion X GPS. He asked students to walk around the neighborhood. As they walked, the app prompted them at different spots to answer a question and/or take a picture. It might have been about what they would improve at that spot, what memory they had there, or the like. In the end, this became a collectively crafted map with contributions from all the students.

Taking the Leap with Students on Social Media

Using social media with your students is an excellent exercise in trust and in accepting that mistakes happen. Students will mess up, and before it gets deleted others will see it, and that’s ok. Learning is all about making mistakes and learning from them. Talk to your students about being safe online, how they should choose what they share, and who is watching or reading the content. This is a fantastic opportunity to give students real agency and responsibility.

Interesting in taking the next steps in opening up your classroom to the world of social media? Let us know by email or in the comments. Our team is eager to provide more insight, and with enough interest we’re also happy to arrange for further learning opportunities.  


To see the full presentation Prezi, explore here: