Body-Surfing the Rip Current: Social Media in Learning

4795658494_133d0d7a3b_bAccording to Dr Rob Brander from the University of NSW, if you are caught in a rip current, “What you should never do is swim against the rip” because the rip flows faster than you can swim.  Trying to swim against a rip will result in your exhaustion, and likely drowning.

If you can swim (and you shouldn’t be in the surf if not!) your best option is to understand the natural motion of the water; to realise that for all the water moving away from the beach in a rip, there is an equal amount of water either side of the rip moving toward the beach.  Equipped with that knowledge, the best action is not to struggle against the current, but to swim at right angles to it and let the natural motion of the water carry you to the beach.

I think there is an analogy for schools here.   I think social media is like a rip current in education.  Naturally we all want our students to be on the beach of learning and engagement (I believe most students want to be there, too). Nevertheless the strong undertow of Facebook, texting, and other technology-enabled networking drags many students ever further from that beach.6198396209_baa3d73e19_o

I see some schools struggling against the undertow – banning and blocking social media, YouTube, iPods, mobile phones, anything that seems to be drawing kids’ attention away from their studies.  In those schools, the struggle is exhausting.  The societal changes wrought by technology this century are not a fad; they are a trend.  The current is far too strong to swim against by banning and blocking.  Treading water – and hoping that students’ expectations will go back to the way they were in 1992 is nothing short of stupid.  I don’t think the best solution is to stop struggling and resign our students to the ocean, either.  Letting students do anything they want to, will be no more effective than it is responsible.  Surely the most rational solution is to understand just what the pull of social media is. What is it about social media that is so alluring to young people? If we have that understanding, it should inform a purposeful evolution of class interaction to the advantage of our students’ education. If we can understand how the rip current flows, we might be able to swim at right angles to it and let the natural force of the water carry us, effortlessly, to the beach.

What is the attraction to texting? I don’t believe it’s the phone itself – it’s the conversation being had.  What is the attraction of Facebook? It can’t be the design of the site itself (which is pretty awful IMHO), it’s that all of a student’s friends are on Facebook.  What is the attraction of YouTube – a large part of it’s appeal is finding and sharing memes and interesting content.  Again, it’s social.  Young people are attracted to relationships; to conversation; to interaction with their peers.  The lure of social media is the desire to be connected.  Previous generations of young people were attracted to the very same thing – It’s just that now such connection is possible 24 hours a day!

Swimming at right angles to this rip, then, surely must comprise:  (a) using social media as part of the learning experience (inside and) outside class time and (b) making sure that what happens in the classroom is highly social, interpersonal and interactive.

It’s the difference between drowning and body-surfing.


Photo by JC Winkler
Photo by Bob Franklin


4 thoughts on “Body-Surfing the Rip Current: Social Media in Learning

    • Right. The world has arguably changed as much in the last decade as it did in the industrial revolution of the previous century. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  1. Educators preach about being how content should be relevant for students and how important prior-knowledge is. So isn’t social media the perfect tool to (properly) use to engage them? Thanks for this post!

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