It’s always been the students who have pushed geography teacher John Nickels down the path of technology. When he got his first cell phone in 2000, his students taught him all about texting. When Xanga — a social networking site aimed at blogging — became popular in the early 2000s, they set one up for him. Throughout Nickels’ 47 year teaching career, his students have been one step ahead in the growing media, tugging him along with them.
So naturally when Facebook became prevalent in 2006, it was the students who pushed him into joining.
“I never put anything on it myself [initially],” Nickels said. “Then, I figured out it was a way for them to reach me; a way for them to contact me if they had a question.”
Nickels has seen an increase of technology in education since the popularity of Facebook — he says it’s been steadily on the rise. In a poll of 179 students grades 9-12, 40.8 percent say they are friends with a teacher on Facebook and 15.6 percent actively use social media to communicate with teachers. Additionally, 79.8 percent have liked a Facebook page pertaining to East and 80.4 percent are members of a group with East ties.
Principal Dr. Karl Krawitz says he is constantly urging teachers to “update their technology.” He believes social media tools, if used effectively, can be beneficial in the classroom.
“[They’re] a powerful tool which can supplement so many things for both teacher and student,” Dr. Krawitz said. “It provides another avenue of communication.”
However, across the nation, school districts have had a difference of opinion. According to Ian Quillen, beat writer for Education Week and co-author of the blog “Digital Education,” there are varying opinions on social media depending on the district. He points out that in Washington D.C. a school district named Montgomery County is open to social media outlets, while the school district over, Prince George’s County, has banned students and teachers from posting photos of school events.
Social networking, he says, is far from being a “universally accepted tool” in education.
“There is slowly less fear of social media and slowly more understanding of social media and how it can be used as an educational tool,” Quillien said. “But people still have reservation and with good reason.”
Quillien notes that a good example of this opposition came on July 14 when Missouri passed a law that restricted teachers from becoming friends with students on Facebook. According to him, the stimulation was a “reaction to popular opinion” and mirrored thoughts about technology in schools. The law was quickly repealed after Missouri lawmakers said it went too far, but he says it still illustrated the point that educators involved in social media are often scrutinized.
At East, Nickels feels that technology in education is effective if it is kept separate from personal life. He says that perhaps the greatest benefit of social media is that it makes the staff more accessible to students. In the past, if students wanted to reach him they had to send him an email at his school email account, which he says he only checks while at East. Nickels believes that social media ultimately enhances communication and should be encouraged.
Spanish teacher Jennifer Holder has a similar notion. She feels that with all that’s available now in social media, East should utilize as many outlets as they can. At East, Holder was one of the first Spanish teachers to advocate Edmodo — a social networking agent similar to Facebook that lets students blog, comment and post in Spanish. She says that she will give homework assignments as simple as asking a question, “What bothers you about teachers?” on the website.
“It gives them a way to communicate without it being a very structured thing,” Holder said. “Like they don’t have to worry about grammar, it’s just a thing where they can say ‘hey, look it, I can speak Spanish and I can be understood without knowing it exactly.’”
Holder says she sees the benefits of the program in that it creates a “community” outside of the classroom where students can communicate and learn the language. Holder sees her students’ grades improve by Edmodo everyday and she feels it’s essential for teachers to embrace technology in education.
“I think it’s very important to say ‘you know, this is all available to us, let us utilize it to the max,’” Holder said. “I think that [with] all of this fabulous technology out there, we need to be using it.”
Over the last five years, social media in schools has seen a dramatic increase. Quillen says that social networking has ultimately gone from “non-involvement to involvement.” Whereas five years ago even the most progressive school districts weren’t embracing, now, he notes, things like facebook and twitter have become means of communication for teachers and students outside the classroom.
Quillen feels that, in education, social media has the ability to enhance anything—good or bad. According to Quillen, social media can equally encourage strong and weak educational behaviors.
“If you have a teacher that really wants to facilitate collaboration, and those have the social media to do that, then social media can magnify that collaboration,” Quillen said. “But if you have a teacher who is not very good at leading a communal learning process and wants to try to open the classroom to social media, then you have a lot of things going on in his or her classroom that maybe shouldn’t be going on.”
Quillen says that with any form of social media, you have to know what you’re doing with it. He notes that turning a classroom loose to use Facebook as they please could potentially become a distraction; he even says that if not monitored, social networking can lead to things like cyber bullying. These adverse effects, according to Quillen, are the main reason there have been rules put in place by some school districts to limit the use of social media in education.
At East, there is a firm opposition to this kind of limitation. Of the 179 students polled at East, 77.6 percent said that they did not believe social media websites should be blocked on school computers.
Junior Joe Simmons acknowledges the district’s concerns, but thinks they are overly fearful. Simmons, who is a member on Facebook of a group aimed at his Latin 3 class, sees the benefit of a strong forum for discussion and thinks it can benefit students’ grades.
“I don’t think that there’s enough lucid activity that goes on on Facebook that the district should be concerned about it,” Simmons said. “I mean, their biggest worry is people bashing each other and causing insults, but, I mean I don’t think they should be too concerned about that because I have never seen anything like that.”
While Dr. Krawitz doesn’t think social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter should be allowed in class, he still feels that avenues of communication between students can be beneficial for school. One thing Dr. Krawitz points out in particular are public pages “driven by students” that create more involvement with East.
“I think it’s a good thing for them to get a hold of,” Dr. Krawitz said. “Now whether it’s something they get hold of at school—probably not. But at home, it’s their domain.”
Simmons acts as an administrator on the Facebook page SMEast Student Body 2011-2012. The page, run by Simmons and senior Kristin Shedor, updates students on the happenings within East and alerts them of upcoming events. Simmons says social networking is a more effective way to display information and is a “step up from posters in the hall.”
“We can put much more information — not too much — but a great amount of information that would not necessarily fit or a student would have time to read when they’re travelling in the hallways,” Simmons said. “I think it’s a much more effective way of getting news out there for people to read.”
Other clubs at East have adopted similar philosophies. On Twitter, students have been the driving force behind accounts like @SMEast_PepClub, @SMEFootball2011 and @smeastxc that update students on notable information within their respective extracurricular activities. On Facebook, the list grows even larger with private groups for East clubs like SME Theater 2011-2012, SME Fellowship of Christian Athletes and SME Coalition.
Simmons notes that the social media is effective in keeping people up-to-date.
“There’s a countless number of times where I’m wondering, oh, what the theme of the game is or certain things about the timing of events and things you hear about at school but you don’t know what they entail,” Simmons said. “That’s the benefit of having a community page.”
According to Justin Henning, social media director at the University of Kansas, community pages like Simmons’ are being developed more frequently. Henning says he currently oversees and manages 186 different accounts on various social networking platforms, ranging from Facebook.com/ku to twitter.com/KUengineering. In his job, Henning puts an emphasis on “going where the people are” — covering all demographics.
“We want to go where the students are, we want to go where the KU fans are,” Henning said. “It’s really kind of a natural process. With any of these services, we want to make sure that there’s an established presence and that there’s a reason for us to be there.”
Henning notes that while the social media channels he runs mainly focus on updating students about news within the university, there is an “internal service” called Blackboard that keeps students in-tune with classes they’re taking.
“It’s a little more of a closed network where you can share, not necessarily sensitive information, but you can share personal information as it relates to a class,” Henning said. “Where something like Facebook is very public and all of that information that you put up there is ultimately seen by hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of eyeballs — so there’s just a lot of stuff from an academic standpoint that you can’t do through Facebook.”
Dr. Krawitz, who used Blackboard while teaching at Baker University, says he sees “power” in these new forms of online education. At Baker, he notes that the social outlet created a program where out-of-work teachers with expertise in a subject could be used as professors for online course work.
Ultimately, he sees the increasing presence of online classes and educational social media as a positive thing. Dr. Krawitz says his daughter-in-law was “barely on campus” and still earned a degree. According to him, it’s becoming a necessity for colleges to have these online opportunities since competition between universities has grown more heated.
This realm of social media in education and online classes excites Dr. Krawitz, but also scares him.
“I think it removes so much of the ability of the interpersonal piece that’s part of teaching and learning that you can’t necessarily have reading a script, let’s say, from a computer screen,” Dr. Krawitz said. “You know, how can you discuss that?”
Quillen says that while technology is constantly evolving, the most subversive and inventive forms of social media are already out there. Education specific tools like Edmodo and Moodle, as well as pop culture tools like Facebook and Twitter, are already re-defining communication. Quillen says that at Education Week events where they talk to administrators about the growing use of technology in schools, social media is frequently discussed as something that is becoming more widely used.
“It’s not revolutionary; it’s very gradual, it’s slow growth,” Quillen said. “But it is happening.”
Nickels, who has been at East since the age of black boards and chalk, is reluctant to the increase of technology in education; he says that he appreciates face-to-face communication and teaching in its simplest form. But as new technologies make their way into daily life and his students tell him about new modes of communication, he will be open to it. Nickels thinks it’s illogical to not embrace the wave of the future.
“If it can help kids out in any way,” Nickels said, “then what’s wrong with it?”