If teachers want to better understand how social media can affect a student’s desire to learn, they must first look inside the mind of a student.
When I entered high school this past fall as a freshman, I was like most students entering middle or high school. To us, everything feels unfamiliar—strange and new, full of promise. To succeed, we are told, we must do our homework and study for tests. This is true, but teachers often fail to give sufficient consideration to one important roadblock: social media. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik, Vine, and Snapchat all rule the lives of most middle and high school students. Walk through the halls of any high school during lunch or passing period and you’ll see a massive number of students with their eyes glued to their phones. More than nine out of every 10 teenagers has a social-media account.
To comprehend why students spend so much time on social media, the compelling appeal of Facebook, Instagram, and the like has to be understood. With that understanding, teachers should be able to consider the possibility of using social media to enhance learning. Unfortunately, this has been rare in my experience and that of my friends.
As teens, my peers and I feel the constant need to stay connected to everyone around us, and the main way of doing this is through apps like Instagram and Facebook. But social-media platforms have gotten so addictive that they slowly direct students’ attention away from schoolwork and toward the screen. When you’re in middle and high school, a lot depends on your status in social media. Where you fit into the large, seemingly mysterious network of school cliques is directly related to how many followers or friends you have online and how many “likes” you get on your social-media accounts. Getting a large amount of likes on a photo posted on Instagram or Facebook secures your status. It makes you feel important, popular, and well liked. Once students have a certain number of followers or likes, it’s easier for them to feel they have control or power socially. Someone who’s “popular” on social media can be incredibly intimidating. What they say goes.
Social-media apps are a frequent topic of discussion for my friends and me, along with school. Both subjects are relevant in our everyday lives, although they rarely intertwine. After class, we usually discuss school and homework for a few minutes before the conversation quickly turns to social media. “Wow, I’m really going to have to study for that vocab quiz!” turns into “Oh my god, did you see what Sophia posted yesterday?” Understanding how to harness the power that social media have over the lives of most students is an important first step in incorporating it into teaching.
The best teachers I’ve ever had have used technology to enhance learning.”
Because of the constant appeal of social media, students tend to use their devices during class in order to stay connected 24/7. This is an issue when it comes to engaging kids and making them interested in learning. For me personally, the main distraction is Instagram. I’m not alone in this, either—a study from last fall reveals that 76 percent of teenagers have an Instagram account, while now only 45 percent of teens use Facebook. Instagram takes little effort to maintain and is quickly accessible through my smartphone or iPad. I feel the constant need to refresh my feed to check for new pictures. Posting a picture is a whole different story. I constantly hear, “I only got 50 likes on my picture!” or “I only got 10 likes in the last seven minutes—do you think I should take it down?” from my friends or even in the conversations I overhear in the hallways. The obsession with being well liked can overshadow schoolwork very quickly.
Learning how to use social media and technology to engage students is potentially very beneficial for our learning, and some teachers have taken the first step. At my former middle school, one math teacher has her own Instagram page where she posts homework assignments and things that she taught that day in class. This way, when kids are checking their feeds, homework assignments and reminders will inevitably show up on the screen. This is a good way to get students’ attention and remind them in a relatable way about upcoming tests or homework. Although this teacher is using social media and other technology in a smart way, she is a minority in a sea of teachers and educators that I have known.
The PowerPoint presentations that most of my teachers have used in the past to give lectures and to instruct students are not especially beneficial. They’re not interactive or engaging. No wonder students’ minds wander, and they resort to social media as a means of keeping themselves entertained.
In my current high school, Smart Boards have been put into almost every classroom. These boards have seemingly limitless and fascinating capabilities, and they aren’t cheap. I was impressed with the fact that my school spent a bundle on furnishing so many classrooms with them. In fact, all of my teachers have a Smart Board. But here’s the thing: Out of my six classes, only one of them uses the board on a daily basis. The other five leave the boards to gather dust. The teacher who took the time to figure out the board and use the technology to his advantage has made his class one of my favorites. Watching him use the board to write out the lesson plan and make certain points in class is engaging. Seeing his thinking unfold on the board in front of us holds our attention.
The best teachers I’ve ever had have used technology to enhance learning, including using Facebook pages for upcoming projects or planned online chats about books we read in class. These teachers were interesting to listen to, and the projects were fun and challenging. Online discussions using code names replaced book reports. And the thing is, participating in a discussion with other people didn’t require any less thought about the book than writing a book report would have. It actually made me think about it and understand it better, because I was listening and responding to other people’s opinions that were backed up with evidence, instead of following the same strict book-report format that I had been required to do for years.
I hope that educators will consider experimenting more with technology and social media in their classrooms in a way that will be intellectually challenging to students. Believe me, your students will appreciate it, even if not every attempt is successful.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Social Media: Benefit or Hazard to Student Learning?