“It is time for schools to stop blocking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks that students love and already use daily outside of school.”
So writes Mark Barnes in his new book, Teaching the iStudent: A Quick Guide to Using Mobile Devices and Social Media in the K-12 Classroom. Ad nauseam, schools advertise how they use technology to prepare kids to excel in an increasingly global 21st century, as if no other school is doing the same thing. Meanwhile, too few schools teach students how to make effective use of not just Facebook and Twitter, but also other popular online tools, instead preferring teacher-friendly alternatives that few use in the real world.
It may be true that plenty of students know how to create digital media, but too few know how to produce high-quality content, the kind that makes them stick out to not only college admission officers, but also potential employers. If you think “marketing” is a dirty word, and that educators have no business teaching students how to do this, you need to reconsider your role. We need to teach and encourage students to post original, quality content to brand their unique identities in a sea of increasingly indistinguishable resumes—which are going the way of the typewriter.
In fact, right now I’m teaching my freshman European history students how to create and maintain a WordPress site. Throughout the year, they will post their thoughts and creative responses. Moreover, students will learn to feel more comfortable sharing their work, crucial for successful collaboration in the digital age. As a next step, students will register for a Twitter handle, to be used for sharing and discussing topics related to European history. If they choose, Tweets can be embedded on their sites.
When it comes down to it, I do more than just teach history. I encourage students to use evolving digital skills to explore, develop, and express their own passions and interests. Of course, I’m fortunate to work at a wonderful school, whose ace technology department allows and fosters digital creativity.
I recently spoke with Barnes, curious to hear his thoughts. Not surprisingly, he agrees, adding that WordPress is the most powerful blogging platform in the world. “I always say…make sure that you give them the opportunity to do some niche-blogging, too, because ultimately, that’s what they’re going to do,” Barnes says. “That’s what we do. Our niche is education—we tend to write about education. Who knows what theirs is going to be, but they’re going to be creating content that’s going to be really important. I think teaching them at a young age how to do that effectively is really important.”
For the most part, I’ve found that when students share their work online, the quality of that work improves. I noticed as much in 2011, when I helped students launch The Falconer, the student news site of Palmer Trinity, a terrific private school in Palmetto Bay, Florida. Before submitting stories to me, students carefully reviewed each other’s work. Once their stories were posted, students felt even more excited about receiving feedback, not just from the class, but also from the wider school community.
More than anything else, I think, student excitement for online sharing stems from wanting to make a difference and having their voices heard. Nothing fulfills that yearning quite like the Internet, which allows students to use not just writing, but also photographs, audio, and video to tell stories that can elicit an immediate response and make an immediate impact.
Barnes tells me of one former student who blogged about Google Glass before the invention took off. “Here’s a kid, 12- or 13-years-old, and he writes this amazing post and does his own review of it, and includes pictures and outside links. It was just, you can comment on anything you want,” he says. “He wound up getting…150 or 170 comments on this one post. People were coming to him like he was the expert. It was such a great opportunity to share that with kids across all my classes and just say, ‘This is what writing and curating content is really about. You become an expert at something, and people come to you.’”
Last week, I also spoke with Eric Sheninger, whose courageous book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, echoes much of what Barnes and I believe so strongly in promoting. I asked Sheninger how best to serve students in the digital age, and his response leaves little to the imagination. “Adapting and evolving with the times and worrying more about learning than numbers,” he says. “When you focus more on learning, everything else falls into place.”
In that vein, more schools must develop the courage to teach how to leave behind a positive digital footprint.