Michael Palermo, a government teacher in Arlington, Va., was in the midst of a lesson on civil liberties when news of Edward Snowden’s security breach made headlines. The development fit in perfectly with his teaching plan.
“Is Edward Snowden a traitor or patriot?” he asked his students.
Similar discussions may have been going on in civics classes around the country. But Palermo added a modern twist: He “tweeted” the questions out to his nearly 200 “followers” — mostly students in his four advanced government classes using the social media site, Twitter (@PalermoGov). He also posted the question to a Facebook page he set up especially so that anyone can join the conversation.
Never mind that it was Saturday; he got his first response within a few hours. “He is neither,” concluded Rachel, a senior, who posted her message to Facebook. “A patriot would reveal less, and a traitor would only share information overseas. Snowden’s heart was in the right place, he just went a little overboard.”
It’s the kind of exchange Palermo says he relishes — and has tried to ignite hundreds of times since 2011, when he sent his first tweet to students.
It wasn’t that long ago that many educators regarded social media apps like Twitter and Facebook as a distraction and were wary of students compromising their privacy and security by sharing too much with strangers. But today, education dominates the Twittersphere: out of the half billion tweets posted daily, 4.2 million are related to education, according to Brett Baker, an account executive at Twitter.com. And with research showing that 95 percent of teens are online and at least 26 percent of those are already using Twitter, a growing cadre of NEA members — from kindergarten to high school — are shrugging off these concerns and embracing social media as a teaching tool.
“Social media adds another dimension to the discussion,” Palermo says. “I find I can engage students who wouldn’t otherwise participate.”
His use of social media has the full support of school administrators who are encouraging educators to “access different platforms,” he said. And contrary to the common worry that a student or a stranger will post inappropriate comments on the site, he’s never had a problem.
Even the Youngest Learners Can Tweet
Some say there is a place for Twitter in classrooms where the students are just beginning to read. Vermont kindergarten teacher and blogger Sharon Davison uses Twitter to help connect her students with other kindergartners and educators around the country, who share photos and screenshots of classroom work.
“The impact [of social media] is so positive in regards to writing,” wrote Davison on her blog Kindergartenlife. “We are learning side by side with other students and their amazing teachers about ‘how to’ use social media to connect, collaborate, get inspired, and have conversations about our discoveries.”
But even as more educators are using social media, the practice remains controversial. A 2013 survey conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and Pearson shows that 41 percent of educators were using social media in 2013, a 21.3 percent increase over 2012. But the same survey shows that educators are conflicted over whether the media helps students learn. Fifty-nine percent agreed that the interactive nature of online and mobile technologies create better learning environments. But 56 percent said that online and mobile technologies are more distracting than helpful to students for academic work.
Opening Schools Up to Social Media
Some schools that once restricted use of social media, however, are loosening their policies. Late last year, Chris Lazarski (@mrlazarski), a public policy and journalism teacher near Milwaukee convinced local school administration to unblock Twitter and other social media to allow students to engage with other students around the country. He says he’s a particular fan of the Do Now activities developed by public radio station KQED. Each week, Do Now briefs students on a current topic in the news and invites students to respond using Twitter.
“My approach, my major goal is to teach students how to use social media the right way, which means conducting a conversation,” Lazarski said. “The bad way is just to use it as electronic note-passing.”
This spring, the Bastrop Independent School District in Texas launched a pilot program that allows students and teachers a chance to use social media in the classroom through the end of the year. Teachers will be encouraged to provide feedback, which the district will use to write a new policy around social media use.
“I think it’s going to enhance what they’re trying to do in the classroom,” Bastrop ISD Superintendent Steve Murray told television station KVUE. “We’re not just teaching from a textbook anymore. There is so much information out there. We have to open it up.”
Closing the Tech Gap
As with any use of technology in learning, educators often have concerns about the “digital gap” between students who have computer and Internet access at home and those who don’t. Often times the schism forms along racial lines, with black students at a distinct disadvantage. But recent research shows this gap may be closing. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Internet Project reported that young, college-educated, and higher-income blacks are just as likely as their white counterparts to use the Internet and to have broadband service at home.
Twitter appears to be especially popular among younger blacks, Pew found. Twenty-two percent of online blacks are Twitter users, compared with 16 percent of online Whites.
“Widening the socio-economic digital gap is definitely a concern,” says Amy Buckingham (@psychmaster234), a psychology teacher in a mostly affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., who began using Twitter at the request of students. “That’s why I won’t post anything electronically that students can’t get in class.”
She typically tweets reminders about due dates and other administrative matters, as well as articles and other resources relevant to her classes.
“I feel that I need to make myself more accessible to students on their time,” she says. “It’s a way to open up doors to students.”