Social media can be a powerful learning tool. Here’s how to use it safely in the classroom

While many teachers are still reluctant to use popular social media platforms as instructional tools, longtime educator and independent learning consultant Lainie Rowell believes social media can be a tremendous tool for teaching and learning—and educators who are worried about using social media in their classrooms are missing out on a key opportunity to engage students in powerful learning opportunities.

“Using social media with learners in our classroom provides a broader perspective and allows us to communicate and collaborate with a global learning community,” she says. “Getting students connected to the world is also a great opportunity to talk about fact versus fiction and different points of view. In my opinion, it is a moral imperative that we teach our kids how to be critical thinkers on the web. Both adults and kids need to be able to find, validate, use, and manage information effectively.”

Older students are already using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat to connect with their friends and interact with a larger global community, Rowell notes—and younger students soon will be doing so if they aren’t already. Students must learn how to navigate these tools safely and responsibly, and they must learn how to evaluate the information they glean from their social networks. What better way to teach students these skills than to model the responsible use of social media within the classroom?

“We know that social learning has high impact, and we know that our kids are very motivated to make connections and build their online networks,” she says. “We need to leverage this interest and be intentional and age-appropriate in planning engaging learning experiences with social media platforms that lead to deeper learning.”

In a TEDx Talk, Rowell shares multiple examples of how using social media can help students make global connections to learn about topics in very rich and powerful ways. For instance, students might use social media to gain an understanding of different perspectives about war. Some students might connect with war veterans, while others might connect with historians around the world to learn more about the rules of engagement. 

“The teacher sees the connections that are being made and decides to have students debate the issues, with each student taking on the perspective of a person they have connected with,” she says. “Imagine the impact. That doesn’t happen from reading out of a textbook.”
Many teachers are reluctant to use social media in the classroom because they are concerned that students will use these tools inappropriately, or they are worried that students will be exposed to content that parents might find objectionable.

In a recent survey from the University of Phoenix College of Education, 86 percent of K-12 teachers said they have not integrated social media into their classrooms—and a large majority (62 percent) said they have no plans to do so. Although 83 percent of teachers said they use social media in their personal lives, 81 percent are worried about the dangers of using social media with their students.

“These are legitimate concerns, and ones that I share as both a parent and an educator,” Rowell says. However, they can be overcome if educators employ smart strategies to keep students safe.

“Virtually all social media services require users to be at least 13 years of age to access and use their services,” she observes, “While there are no set rules, generally speaking, connections for younger students happen through their teachers and families.” For instance, a teacher might set up a classroom Twitter account in which she would be doing the actual posting. The teacher would work with students to craft appropriate posts and would send them out herself. To prevent students from seeing inappropriate comments or replies, she might share responses by capturing a screen shot and projecting it for the class to see instead of sharing a live view of the Twitter account.

If schools are using web filtering technology with very granular controls, they might be able to block certain features of social media sites that could contain objectionable content. ContentKeeper’s Web Filtering and Security Platform, for example, allows schools to block access to specific features of popular social media platforms for designated groups of students, such as public comments or direct private messaging. Schools have complete control over which aspects of social media their students can use and which are off-limits.

What’s more, ContentKeeper’s integration with Learning Management Systems and real-time video whitelisting feature allows teachers to post safe videos on the fly to their class webpage without the help of IT staff.

If teachers choose to use social media in their classrooms, they should work with students to establish clear guidelines for the responsible use of these tools. “We promote student agency by working with learners to co-develop these guidelines,” Rowell notes. In addition, teachers should consult with their administration to make sure they are not violating school policies—and they should communicate with parents about how they plan to use social media as a learning tool.

“When we let families know ahead of time that we are intentional and age-appropriate in planning these learning experiences, they are far less likely to be concerned,” she concludes.

The former editor of eSchool News, Dennis Pierce has more than 20 years of experience writing about education and technology.