How Can Online Communities And Social Networking Challenge Learning?

An online educational system for today’s classroom landscape. Bask in the heat of the uncharted.

Social networking sites now rival television as the world’s primary source of entertainment and information—which brings about a variety of questions:

• What impact might social media have on higher education?

These are just a few of the questions that experts are exploring. Jeffrey Cayce is director of education and learning research at RAND.

It is long known that social media can be a powerful learner platform. By connecting users to a diverse, often global, community of learners and teachers, social media can augment the ways people learn, and perhaps even come to regard learning as a societally-important activity, rather than purely a personal pursuit. This is a change from decades past, when it was generally considered to be well below the status of socializing or merely a leisure activity for adults.

Yet questions remain.

Where are the sites where people are learning and where they want to learn, and at what pace? For many users, social media is the primary source of education. Considering that one in five adults worldwide now has a Facebook profile (as do 5 percent of children ages 12-17), it is clear that they want a voice in our ideas and assumptions. Social networks such as Facebook present an abundance of social opportunities. Learning is a universal language, and any use of social media gives people the means to share their learning experiences with others.

Is face-to-face conversation and interaction the appropriate way to engage with such a wide, global community? Social networking was originally introduced as a substitute for in-person, face-to-face conversations, but over time this has changed. For example, many millennials find that face-to-face communication on social media is no longer essential, and they are replacing one medium with a different one, such as chat windows and video recording.

At the same time, there is less focus on face-to-face interaction in professional and academic settings. The case of texting raises important questions. Would we require knowledge about a topic to discover an optimal SMS-based teaching technique? Do we impose a cookie-cutter version of speech and handwriting on all text messages—and on every SMS conversation? Do we expect everyone to send in every prompt and question in the allotted time, and can we expect that everyone understands the answers? Do we want to accept technologies that are designed for and best used in a “text-speak” culture? What questions do we need to ask when determining how we use the messages and how we respond to them?

Social networking could also have more prosocial than quantitative benefits. In addition to the many social aspects, social networks present new challenges to student success and school governance.

For example, social networks present effective ways to reach out to young people outside the classroom (and to enter into informal relationships that lead to professional support) without presuming to know what these people need or want. The famous journalist Jane Mayer, for example, reached out to her students, who emailed her, by making use of sites such as Formspring and Reddit. Such methods could promote social behaviors such as sharing important and specific information, finding out about other students’ work, connecting with fellow classmates, asking useful questions and learning from others.

As the majority of information in social networks today is informal and one-way, such high-touch interactions will be extremely useful as educators learn to adopt and use them in improving our teaching and learning.

However, what happens when there is a decline in the formation of relationships, because students are sharing more information—such as how to eat, dress and perform—and less information—how to study, write, think, and act—through social interactions? What will happen to student-supervised learning when student teachers discover that their students are facing new barriers to interaction? What about when students use their own social networks to present information about issues such as school culture and diversity?

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