Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.


Narcissus and the Selfie Stick

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.56.41 pmIn Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter, so good-looking that he didn’t consider any of his female suitors fair enough to be worthy of him.   One day he glimpsed his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love!  Unable to resist the charm of his own visage, he surrendered to his fate, sank into the pool and drowned.

If Narcissus were alive today, I reckon he’d carry a selfie-stick in his quiver.  I’m just saying.

New media. New behaviour. New teaching paradigm.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 3.22.49 pm

According to Leo LaPorte on This Week in Tech (October 13, 2013) half of millennials never watch television.

When I heard Leo say this, my first thought was … “hang on.. that can’t be right!” But then came the enlightening moment when I considered my own four sons, and it dawned on me that THEY almost never watch television!

Sure, they have a television (a really nice, big one at that!) and they use it as a screen for playing Playstation, or for streaming video from their iDevices via AppleTV – but they don’t come home from school, turn on Channel 9 and watch Happy Days like I did when I was a kid.  Nor do they listen to commercial radio or read mainstream newspapers.  Instead, my sons watch hours of YouTube videos, listen to podcasts and find out about world events from websites  blogs and social media.

This is a more profound recent social change than it seems at first. Our students are the first Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 4.30.19 pmgeneration in 400 years who consume content using media forms to which they can just as readily contribute.

As kids, we could watch the TV shows that were served up to us, but we could neither choose the content, nor contribute to it.  Our students can do both.

What an opportunity this presents in the classroom! For the most part we still treat students as though the “work” they are doing is merely an exercise; as though they are just practising for the real world; as though, like our younger selves, they have no avenue for publishing their work!  When English teachers have their students write an essay, why are they asking for it to be ‘handed in’ to them, rather than demanding it be published as a blog post? Why are science teachers accepting a lab report handed in on paper, when students could be reporting the results of their science experiment in a YouTube video?

When we were kids, publishing was out of the question. Our teachers didn’t have a choice.  We do.

What Schools can Learn from Spotify


One of my favourite quotes is from hockey superstar Wayne Gretsky (AKA “The Great One”).

“I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is”

In a fast-moving game like ice hockey, if you skate to where the puck is, you will be irrelevant to the game when you reach your destination. The only way to influence the outcome of the game is to predict where the puck will be and position yourself there.

Music distribution trends give us a good read on where the access-to-stuff puck is going.

  • In 2002 Silverchair released “Diorama”. I waited until Saturday morning, then drove to Sanity and bought a copy, and took it home to listen to.
  • In 2007 The Killers released “Sawdust”. As soon as I got home, I downloaded it in iTunes, and half an hour later, copied it onto my iPod so I could listen to it, anywhere.
  • In 2012, Muse released “The 2nd Law”. I downloaded it directly to my iPhone and listened to it in my car on the way home.
  • In 2013 Daft Punk released “Random Access Memories” and I didn’t even have to download it first. I simply streamed the music and started listening immediately. Streaming music services like Pandora, Spotify and [my favourite] Rdio –  allow you to listen to music on demand without even waiting for a download to complete! – and without having to make a commitment to it (Ie. virtually for free).  That’s the new way to access music and everyone will soon be listening that way (if they are not already). Even Apple has started skating in that direction with their WWDC announcement of the soon to be launched and predictably titled “iRadio” streaming music service.

Just think for a moment what this represents in terms of our expectations for content delivery:  In 2002 we were fine with “wait a few days to go and pick it up”. Now we expect to “wait a few minutes for it to download”. Rapidly our expectation is shifting to “don’t wait at all!”. The importance of this is not just  increasing convenience or decreasing wait time, but it’s in how these factors change our behaviour. With the advent of online music download services, my music collection grew in both volume and diversity. Now that I can stream music through Spotify, my behaviour has changed again. My listening has become even more eclectic.

It would be a mistake to think that this trend is restricted to the music industry. I think we are seeing it in all kinds of areas of our lives. In 2002 students with interesting ‘goss’ would wait till they saw their friends the next morning to share it…

It’s remarkable how many schools block their students’ access to YouTube and iTunes, or whose teachers still offer education in a way that more closely resembles buying from Brashs, than streaming from Spotify!  “Biology is at 11:00 AM tomorrow in Room F6.”  

Or how many teachers still walk into class to write encyclopaedic-type information on a whiteboard, or hand out photocopied documents – as though that information wasn’t readily available to anyone with access to Google?

If we are providing knowledge-based information, in a way that requires students to be in a physical place at a specific time to receive it – we are not skating to where the puck is going.  Actually, we are not even skating to where the puck IS – we are skating to where it USED TO BE!

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 http://www.flickr.com/photos/51653562@N00/
Photo by Bob Franklin http://www.flickr.com/photos/savethejellyrabbit/

The Upside of Schools’ Failure to Move With the Times.

There is an upside to education having languished so long in the 20th Century.  It gives teachers a generous chance to exceed our students’ expectations and make their learning experience worth talking about.

Those teachers who embrace new media still have the chance to surprise their students.  The tools are simple and powerful for enhancing class dynamics, yet at the same time, the expectations of students that their teachers will use them are still low.  There has not been such a favourable conjunction of circumstances this easy to exploit for at least two decades (since I started teaching), and it won’t last five years from now, either.  This could well be the best window of opportunity this generation will get to so easily teach in ways that students think remarkable.

In industries that responded swiftly to new media (several years ago) the curve has already begun to stabilise.  The first restaurants to establish Facebook and Twitter profiles (for example) made impressive gains because they were among the few doing it.  At the time most businesses failed to foresee the potential of  social networks but once the benefits on the bottom line were reported, more and more restaurants started jumping on the bandwagon.  Nowadays, most restaurants have a Facebook and Twitter presence.  They can’t afford not to because the public expects it.  It does not make them look particularly cool though.  There is no longer much cachet in it.

At school though, in 2012, it will still be possible to use new media to be surprising because most students still won’t be expecting it.  This will only be true for as long as few teachers communicate with their students in ways that are generationally relevant.  But as more and more teachers do, (and they will/are) the curve of student expectations will inevitably shift.  When that happens, education in Australia will of course be the better for it. Between now and then, though, we shouldn’t take for granted the exciting opportunity we have to delight our students.

Facebook Killed the Discussion Board

I’ve long been an advocate of class discussion boards. But, I think, now, they are passé.  It’s time to let go.

When I was a student in the 1970s – 80s, if the teacher showed us an educational video in class, we thought it was fantastic; an exciting blend of education and entertainment!

Fast-forward to 2011.  Any video longer than YouTube-clip-length played in class will fail to hold the attention of many students.  The video might still be educational, but it just can’t be entertaining any more. Like it or not, students’ expectations have risen regarding what makes compelling viewing.  It’s pretty hard for an educational video, even a good one, to compete in the entertainment space with mind-blowing CG movies like ‘Avatar’ or bizarre amateur videos on YouTube!

I think we are seeing a similar thing happen with discussion boards.  When I first introduced a discussion board to my class in 2004 students thought it was fantastic!  The idea that you could go online (via dial-up modem)  to ask a question, or read posts by classmates any time of day or night … that was cool!  It’s not perceived that way any more.  How could the pedestrian, text-based discussion boards offered within most Learning Management Systems (including the Ultranet), possibly compete with the vibrant, media-rich experience of modern social networks?  Like it or not, students’ expectations about what comprises compelling online interaction have risen.

That’s not to say that the LMS is dead or that there is no value in the Ultranet – these platforms offer a range of other useful features but so far as an online discussion forum is concerned, a Facebook Group is now the desire path to pave.

More Reasons Our Class Facebook Group Is Better Than My School Discussion Board

Since writing this earlier post “Why the Facebook Group my Students Created for Themselves is Better Than the Discussion Forum I Created For Them”  a number of other advantages have surfaced.

‘Likes’ lower the participation threshold

The ability to “Like” a post makes it possible for students to contribute to a discussion, without necessarily having to compose a significant new thought or question.  It lowers the participation threshold.  As a result the level of participation increases.  (see image below)

‘One click entry’ lowers the inconvenience barrier

Logging into my “official” discussion board, requires a student to enter a URL (or click on a bookmark), then type in a username and password.  While that is not prohibitively cumbersome, it’s certainly a few extra steps that you have to deliberately take to visit the discussion.  Compare that to a Facebook Group, where students are generally already logged in to Facebook anyway, so visiting the Facebook Group, requires (effectively) no log in.

Cross-posting from YouTube makes sharing seamless.

If a student or teacher is watching YouTube videos and finds one that is relevant to what is being studied, s/he can post the YouTube video directly to the Facebook Group wall, without having to leave YouTube – or even having to pause the video!  Back on the Facebook Group, classmates can watch the YouTube video right there on the wall, without having to leave Facebook!

The Facebook Group attracts a different crowd.

Our school-based discussion board was visited regularly by some of the most academic and enthusiastic students but only occasionally by others.  The Facebook Group is quite different.  It’s visited regularly, even by students who rarely visited my school discussion board. The reason for this is quite obvious.  Less academically inclined students are often the ones who spend the most time of an evening socialising on Facebook!  When they see that little red notification flag appear – they are just one click away from reading and ‘liking’ what they read.

Free Social Networking – lowers the mobile cost barrier.

Even for students with a smart phone (about 65% of them now) visiting our old discussion forum is not only fiddly -but uses mobile data – which, depending on the student’s mobile phone plan, can be expensive.  But many pre-paid mobile phone plans include free Facebook and Twitter access.  That makes our Facebook Group  very accessible via mobile phone. (not to mention that the Facebook iPhone app is quite slick).

What’s the Downside?

The biggest downside of a Facebook Group compared to a more traditional old-school discussion board, is that in most schools Facebook is blocked on the school network.  This is less of an impediment to students than one might expect as most VCE students now have a smartphone (assuming phones are not also banned) so can thereby step around the school’s network when it gets in the way of their learning. ; )