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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

School & social media: Uber big picture

When I think about how the book, enabled by Gutenberg's press, was pretty controversial back in the day (15th c.) and probably didn't make it into "school" for a while (though it fueled the Renaissance and the Reformation), maybe I understand why there's resistance to using today's media - called social media - in school. But things are moving a little faster these days, and students are actively using social media anyway outside of school (books were less accessible to students in the 15th and 16th centuries than the participatory Web is today). Social media researchers tell us some amazing informal learning is going on in this out-of-school use (see the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth research findings), but what about the formal learning part - the potential for student engagement in school (and community, government, etc.) if media so compelling to students could be used in schools nationwide - not to mention the potential for schools themselves, and for the advancement of American education as a whole in this shrinking world, where the US ranks 15th in terms of per capita broadband penetration, as the Financial Times reports?

Books and literature were made so meaningful to me in AP English - in school - way back before social media. Now social media, e.g., Teen Second Life, can help schools help make literature more meaningful to students. I watched a presentation by New York educator Peggy Sheehy at NECC (the National Educational Computing Conference) last summer, showing how the courtroom scene in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was acted out by students (playing judge, jury members, DA, court reporter, etc.) in a virtual world. She said they mined that book, read every word, so they could play their roles intelligently. Here's what an educator in Connecticut writes about what's happening at Peggy's school. Other prime examples are what Global Kids is doing for students in and after school in New York City and what Digitales' digital storytelling workshops are doing for students in schools around the country (e.g., this one). The work of these educators and the visionary administrators and superintendents behind them is key to school's relevance to students as well as to American education's competitiveness in the developed world (see Appendix B of the New York-based Joan Ganz Cooney Center's study "Pockets of Potential" for classroom mobile social-media projects in 7 other countries).

But that's not all. These educators know how to increase the value of social media for youth by making new media as meaningful and enriching for them as my AP English teachers made books for me. That's a lifelong gift to students as well as to a society that can't afford to lose the engagement of its youth. Renewed relevance is also a gift to schools, of course.

Team of Rivals author Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us Abraham Lincoln was desperate to get his hands on books - any book. Today's youth probably have a comparable level of interest in all forms of social media: virtual worlds, social sites and technologies, online games, vertical-interest online communities, and all of the above on phones as well as on the Web. That presents schools with an opportunity as much as a challenge. Maybe parents, law enforcement, and policymakers can help schools shift the focus more toward the opportunity side so that school can seem less like the "prison house" referred to by British educator John Gibson (see the BBC). New media are a little scary to anyone who doesn't understand them. But then there's the promise they hold. In a way, we're back at the beginning of the Renaissance.

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