Let's Get Social

By Tran, Lisa | Teach, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Let's Get Social


Tran, Lisa, Teach


People have a natural desire to share and communicate their thoughts and ideas with others. We are beings who learn socially and create our own understandings based on social contexts. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist throughout the 1900s, theorized that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. He states, "every function in [a] child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level." If Vygotsky was still alive, his motto would certainly be: learning is constructed physically and socially.

However, in the years since Vygotsky, society has changed into one that is digitally driven where human interaction is often through technologies such as social network- ing websites. For teachers, social networking websites can provide them with a new and relevant way of communication and learn- ing for their students. Social networking and blogging sites are now the fourth most popular activity on the Internet according to a 2009 study by A.C. Nielsen, the ratings giant. According to other researchers, nine to 17-year olds indicate they spend as much time using social networks as watching TV- about 9 hours a week. Surprisingly, 59% of students who use social networks say they talk about educationally related topics like, college planning; learning outside of school; news; careers; politics; religion; and schoolwork.1 We know that students are eager to share their thoughts on social networks because a surprising 96% of them with online access say they have used a social network.2 Thoughts and ideas are exchanged on these websites as well as in person events and activities planned exclusively through them. The style of discussion among students has changed recently and it might be helpful to bring education into these social networking applications.

One of the greatest benefits of social networks for students is the furthering of discussion outside of the classroom. Peter Pappas, an American educational consul- tant for the last 35 years, recently said that students are most comfortable with discus- sions where their comments are valued by their peers. Says Pappas: "Watch a typical whole group discussion in the classroom and you'll most likely see a "hub /spokes" flow of information. Teacher to student A and back to teacher. Teacher to student B and back to teacher. So it goes as the "bluebirds" get to show how smart they are." Over time, Pap- pas says, students learn that their comments are not valid until they're "approved" by the teacher. "That's because in this style of discussion the teacher is most likely search- ing for specific replies- sort of playing "guess what I'm thinking,"" he adds. So often, only students who are able to give "correct" answers participate. However, students are eager to share their thoughts in small classroom group discussions and social net- works because there is no information "gate keeper." Teachers can now foster the type of discussion that is harder to achieve in a classroom by using social networks. They can pose questions or start discussions based on school work. Students are likely to participate when they are at home "social networking" because social networks are an entirely different forum. It is no longer "the teacher" asking "the student" a question be- cause teachers can choose to participate as just another member of the online forum.

On the other hand, sometimes classroom discussions go so well that all students want to join in. Unfortunately, time limits the length of the discussion before a teacher has to move on and some students may not get to comment. That is where a social network can help. They are not limited by time and the comments are made in real time, representing live conversation.

Social networking is beneficial for students because it can help prepare them for higher education. Teachers can encourage student use of social networks to contact students enrolled in colleges and universities for the purpose of gaining an insider's perspective on a particular course of study, for example.

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