Twitter and Facebook in class

Some schools are using social media to enhance their teaching

UP TO SPEED: HNMCS students use the campus-wide wireless to engage in social media in class. (Courtesy Andrew Macleod)

Students are using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram now more than ever and are carrying smartphones and tablets with their laptops into classrooms each day.

Rather than hinder its usage, several independent schools want to extend and enhance a student’s learning experience with social media, to take advantage of its influence and effectively teach material that has been traditionally hard, such as calculus and literature.

For Travis Cox, an English teacher at Newton’s Grove School in Etobicoke, Twitter has the potential to teach students about language and literacy. While speaking with him at the beginning of the school year, he explained how creating a Twitter account with a Grade 9 class as a media project opened discussion about its influence.

“I talked to them about how it was a teacher account, not my personal account, and the differences [between them],” said Cox, who teaches students with varying experience and skill with Twitter. “And I would talk to them about media literacy, like, ‘When you choose your name, what does that say? What message are you sending out there?’”

With the help of a Smart Board, Cox’s use of Twitter becomes highly visual, with images and video assisting his lectures about hashtags and advertising. Cox also folds social media learning into his writer’s craft lessons, explaining its practicality for professional writing. For him, social media gets students’ attention like nothing else.

“I think that any time you can be visual with students, they’re so stimulated by videos,” said Cox, who has been teaching at Newton’s Grove (formerly called Mississauga Private School) since 2007. “From a student level, I think this is something they sponge, they soak up.

“They’re ready for this. This is how they learn, and for them this is what they’ve grown up with. They’ve grown up as visual learners and they’re so good at it.”

At Appleby College in Oakville, teachers use YouTube videos to explain math problems, and create Tumblr sites in history classes to better communicate the concepts being taught.

But the independent school also wants to provide balance to its approach to social media. Head of school Fraser Grant explains that Twitter and Facebook can be distracting and teachers at Appleby need to demonstrate the educational value of the tools being used.

“We don’t want our students on Facebook, distracted on Facebook, posting messages and pictures during class,” Grant said. “Obviously, no teacher wants that and we try to manage that very carefully.”

This careful approach is guided by parental feedback and sensible discussion among teachers and students, he said.

Getting ahead of the curve

Holy Name of Mary College School, an all-girls independent school in Mississauga, is looking to its technology and social media policy to get ahead of the curve. With the guidance of IT director Andrew MacLeod and an official technology strategy, the school is invigorating the student experience with a newly built campus-wide wireless infrastructure, expanding bandwidth for teachers and students who want to bring in online tools to assist learning.

Technology and social media is constantly changing, MacLeod notes, and the school expects to adjust its strategy as technology evolves and social media trends change. He points to the already-ubiquitous tablet technology being only three years old as an example of just how rapidly technology is developing.

“Who knows what we will be doing in three years’ time?” he mused.

By instituting a “bring your own device” policy into the classroom and the introduction of Google Apps for Education to the student body — which equips the girls with Gmail, Google Drive and Google+, among other services — the school is letting students apply their learning on their own terms, while teaching them responsible usage of social media.

“I prefer to educate the students about what they should and shouldn’t put [online] rather than beating them with a stick if they do something they shouldn’t,” MacLeod said.

“It’s better to educate them prior to using it rather than doing the retroactive action.” 

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