K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 25/Social Media tools and their role in Distance Learning - Peter Smith
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are experiencing monumental growth at the current time. In the span of 37 days last January into February, Facebook added 25 million users. That comes out to being 675,000 users per day. Twitter, from February 2008 to February 2009 grew by 1,382%. This growth is astronomical and it is a sign that the way we are communicating is changing. Facebook originated as a means of communication for college students and has since gone to larger demographics. At the current time, the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is people age 35 or older. This is a sign that this means of communication is not going away any time soon. Another startling fact given by Facebook is that on average 50% of active users log on everyday. This means of communication has gotten to the point where mobile smart phones, such as the new Motorola Droid, give users the choice when communicating with a contact to choose text message, phone call, or Facebook message and most of these new smartphones have Facebook preinstalled. This shows that people prefer to use one source of communication that allows them to email, instant message, update a status, post pictures and interact with friends, colleagues and family. All that being said, why aren't educational institutions embracing the change in communication?
Most distance learning environments use some sort of course management system, email and possibly video conferencing to educate their students. The difference between a typical course management piece of software and Facebook is that Facebook is more interactive and widely used. Imagine the scenario where a student is online simply checking up on some friends and gets an instant message from a classmate from a few states away asking a question about the assignment they had for the week on the online course they're taking together. Instantly the student is engaged and discussing the material in the same environment where on average, the student is actively using most everyday. The opportunity for a more successful class experience is increased by using the tools that students are using currently. Asking a student to change their habits and check another system of messaging, discussion and email is adding a barrier to the learning process. If the class is integrated into the tools that are already used by the student, then the likelihood of regular engagement into the material and interaction with classmates in a distance learning environment is greatly increased.
Twitter can be an excellent tool for use in an educational environment if used properly. The beauty of Twitter is that messages can be seen and searched by anyone. For example, if I were teaching a class in a distance learning environment, I would have my students Tweet on a particular channel for that class. This is done by simply creating a tag preceded by the "#" symbol in all of their messages. I would start discussions, send links and photos and encourage my students to do the same. There are two main benefits for using Twitter for communication in a distance learning class. The first is that these messages can be sent and received on various mediums. Twitter messges, links and photos can be send from laptops on the web, twitter clients such as TweetDeck, and most mobile phones. This constant availability allows for students to more easily interact with their classmates and the material being studied. The second benefit to using Twitter for communication is that since Twitter messages are public, other twitter users can easily share in the content and join the conversation. This allows the conversations and links shared in class to be viewed and possibly added to by other students, professors or experts in the field you are studying.
Beyond allowing the students to share information easily, Twitter messages allow students to interact causally and create a new feel for the class. David Parry, a professor at the University Texas at Dallas, required his 20 students to create Twitter accounts for class. He said, “It was the single thing that changed the classroom dynamics more than anything I’ve ever done teaching," in regards to the way the students interact with each other and with himself as the professor. This interactions can go beyond the topic of the classwork and create a better environment for students to get to know each other, interact and learn. In this case of David Parry's class, this was helpful even though his class met in person. Imagine the impact it would have on a distance learning class where students may never meet in person. The idea of building a convenient, interactive and engaging learning environment that can be accessed through various devices is attractive to an educator today and Twitter should be a consideration when looking at social media tools.
As mentioned earlier, Facebook is one of the fastest growing web sites in existence today and contains a large demographic of people in today's society. This allows for it to be a perfect central location to host interactions by a class. The service is free. It allows for communication via email type message, instant message, wall posts (or public messages), photos, links and videos. There is also the possibility of creating applications for use in a class environment that run on the Facebook service that could alert students to upcoming assignments via the Facebook notification system. Facebook also allows for groups to be easily made which can be used by a class for interaction. Most importantly, Facebook can be accessed and used on most mobile devices and any computer with an Internet connection. As mentioned in the introduction, the beauty of using a service like Facebook is that most of the students in the class will probably already have an account and be using the service regularly. This allows for a more interaction based on the fact that students are already using the service almost daily.
Most schools have embraced Facebook in the past year by creating "Fan Pages" for their schools on the service. These pages are mostly used as a means of communication which is readily changing the way school websites are used. They provide an instant form of communication from the school by administrators or in some cases students who update the page with links, statuses and photos. This is the first step in getting the community to find each other on the service and start interacting. The next step is to create a page for a particular class for students to share work, ideas and links.
Ning is an alternative to Facebook because with a Ning network, an instructor can create a closed social network for their class. With Facebook, there may be privacy concerns with combining a students personal life and their educational or professional life online. Photos, messages and comments can be viewed by classmates and instructors and based on the age and level of maturity of the students, the choice may be made to create a private network for class. Ning is an excellent choice for this type of environment. It provides the same tools and design as Facebook, but gives the creator control to the level of security and users which are on it. The downside is that the mobile tools and level of use decrease when using a Ning network. The instructor is also creating another place for students to check messages and assignments instead of placing the assignments and information in a centrally located service such as Facebook.
In the end, there are a number of social media tools that can be used in a distance learning environment. The difficult part is choosing which tools is right for the particular course the instructor is teaching. Each service does things in a slightly different way but as long as it accomplishes the task of providing an ease of communication and the ability to share knowledge in a public environment, the goal of engaging students will be more easily achieved than by using the types of tools that distance learning classes are currently using.
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