Using social media in the classroom

By Stuart Foxman

In her classroom, Stephanie Ratti, OCT, says technology and social media blur the line between playing and learning, making education fun.

Many students would rather spend time on Facebook than study Shakespeare. So how can teachers make the Bard more appealing? One strategy – use social media.

Rodd Lucier, OCT, a student success teacher at Regina Mundi Catholic College, part of the London Catholic DSB, describes a class where the students interacted as characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They didn’t do it on a stage but by using Ning, a platform that created a customized social network site.

“They role-played the characters online, which helped them to understand how they feel,” says Lucier.

Compared with a test or essay, the Ning project was “immersive,” he adds, and effective in exploring how students grasped the meaning of the play and the emotions of Shakespeare’s characters.

Should vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the like have a place in the classroom? Absolutely, says Lucier. The key is that all of these technological tools make it easier to share work and information and elicit a response.

“Learning is social, and students need opportunities to interact with their peers and the world at large this way,” he says. “There’s something compelling about learning in the online environment.”

That’s what the College implies in an April 2011 Professional Advisory on the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media. Much of the focus in the advisory is on the potential risks (for example, privacy issues), the need for teachers to meet professional standards, and responsible use. “As the number of channels of communication in society increases rapidly, so does the rate of misuse,” the advisory says. “Professional boundaries can blur. Even the most experienced members may be susceptible to unintentional mistakes.”

The advisory also notes that the Internet and social networking sites can be essential instructional tools and offer “new frontiers in teaching and learning.” College Registrar Michael Salvatori, OCT, says that e-communication and social media “offer engaging and exciting teaching and learning experiences for both students and teachers. Their use should be encouraged.”

Across Ontario, numerous teachers are using these tools in creative ways to enhance education. What are some of their methods, and what advice do they offer about the broader adoption of electronic media in the classroom?

Technology engages students

Stephanie Ratti, OCT, who teaches a Grade 7-8 split class at Redstone Public School in the York Region DSB, goes so far as to advocate the “paperless classroom” as a sign of 21st-century learning. In her Richmond Hill classroom, Ratti has her students use phones to instantly text responses to surveys or questions. The results are displayed on the SMART Board.


Whatever happened to "no hand-held games at school"? In Aviva Dunsiger's class, Grade 1 kids use their DSs to answer questions and share information with the group.

Ratti’s students also use Twiducate, a social networking site for schools, to communicate with each other and teachers. The topics range from study questions to links to useful web sites for research.

These types of tools, observes Ratti, blur the line between playing and learning, making education goals more fun. “When we use technology like this, engagement is high,” she says. “The students are eager to participate.”

Capturing that type of interest is key for the most effective learning. When Xavier Lambert, OCT, was learning Shakespeare as a student, “you could hear the yawns,” he says. Now, as principal at Coll&eagrave;ge français in Toronto, part of the Conseil scolaire Viamonde, Lambert is taking yet another approach to make Shakespeare - in this case Romeo and Julit - come alive. His Grade 11 students are using an app called Shakespeare in Bits, allowing them to read the play on an electronic device and get animation at a single touch to illustrate every line of every scene. The app also gives modern translations for difficult words and phrases, study notes, plot summaries and analysis.

“The first thing you have to do is catch the kids’ attention,” says Lambert. “Once you have them interested, it’s a lot easier to discuss the concepts.”

His board has also created a portal called Cyberquartier, where teachers and students can share information via school and class online communities.

At Central Elgin Collegiate Institute in the Thames Valley DSB, students have used weekly blog posts to connect what they’ve learned to their own experiences. Danika Barker, OCT, who teaches English and media at the school, says blogging helps students to “think about what they’ve learned and make connections.”

The technology allows for other types of connections, bridging distances. Zoe Branigan-Pipe, OCT, says her first “aha moment” came when her class at Lawfield Elementary School in the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB used conferencing (and later blogging) to connect with a team of explorers in the South Pole.

“We could say to these people, ‘What are you looking at right now?’” says Branigan-Pipe. “My class was in awe.”

Later, Branigan-Pipe (who teaches at Brock University’s Faculty of Education) used Skype to link her students with kids in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Arizona and Australia.

Such connections are exciting for students, she says, but beyond that they can link to the curriculum. For example, in geography or social studies, getting the direct perspective of students in different parts of the country or world has a huge impact. Instead of getting information from books or a teacher, students can access information anytime, anywhere. “And they’re getting it first-hand,” she says.

That’s one of the best arguments for using this type of technology, agrees Ana Barbosa, OCT, who teaches Grades 1 and 2 at Toronto’s école élémentaire Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau in the Conseil scolaire Viamonde. Her students are using Skype to link once a month with peer students in a classroom in France. Barbosa says the cyber collaboration allows her students to grasp directly that French is spoken all over the world. Plus, Skype lets the children in both classrooms talk about their community and country. “What we tell them in the class is abstract; we want them to touch the culture,” says Barbosa.

Aviva Dunsiger, OCT, is yet another teacher who relies on Skype and Google Docs to allow students to collaborate. In her Grade 1 class at Ancaster Meadow Elementary School in the Hamilton-Wentworth DSB, she also uses Kidblog (designed for schools) as a portfolio of student work. Parents can read the comments that come from fellow students and other teachers too.


Shakespeare goes high tech in the classroom of Jennifer Bee, OCT. Grade 11 students get seriously into their material as they role-play characters from the Bard's classic Romeo and Juliet with the educational application Shakespeare in Bits.

Twitter is another useful tool. Dunsiger’s students take turns as daily tweeters on the class Twitter account, reviewing and reinforcing what they’ve learned that day. Dunsiger also uses Twitter to follow up on concepts. For example, she tweets her students with a request to locate a certain-shaped object, and the students tweet back what they find.

Why augment traditional teaching with tools like these? “The Ontario curriculum governs what we’re teaching, but my job is to ensure they’re learning it,” says Dunsiger. “These tools help ensure that they learn in a more meaningful, fun and engaging way.”

Curriculum expectations come first

There’s something to be said for the fun factor when considering how digital tools can be used in the classroom.

Emmanuel Duplàa, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education, has a research focus on integrating technology into education. In 2010 he published a paper on how even multi-player online games can further literacy and numeracy goals.

As he noted, many researchers have explored the educational principles at play in these games: Students are active, not passive; they have control over their actions, and as they get a reaction become increasingly motivated; and they have the opportunity for experiential learning. In short, says Duplàa, these online experiences support learning.

The first thing you have to do is catch the kids' attention. Once they are interested, it's a lot easier to discuss the concepts.

The same can be said for many forms of social media and electronic communication. Their prevalence in the lives of students is a compelling reason to consider incorporating them into the classroom - but according to Dunsiger that alone isn’t reason enough.

“The curriculum expectations have to come first,” she says. “It’s not about blogs or learning how to tweet; it’s about meeting expectations.”

For example, the daily tweets help Dunsiger to assess her students’ active listening skills - whether they can take what they’ve learned, think about it, and express it concisely.

Student blogs, meanwhile, help with reading and writing for a purpose, giving students an audience for their ideas. Dunsiger noticed that her students, on their own, become more attentive to things like spelling and punctuation when they start their blogs. “They know that others will read what they’ve written, and that they won’t get comments if they don’t write in an understandable way.”

If she didn’t see results, says Dunsiger, she wouldn’t use these e-tools, no matter how enjoyable they might be.

Barker agrees that the tools may be “fun and cool” for many students, which is helpful, but that’s not why she’s a fan. Instead, she sees how student blogs, for example, can be an integral part of discovery.

“In the past, students would keep reading journals, and I would write comments,” says Barker. “Now, we move from the teacher being the keeper of all knowledge to empowering the students. We talk about the importance of having an audience, commenting on one another’s work, and what makes a constructive comment. Assumptions can be challenged, and as a class they can help each other.”

Tools for learning ... and learning the tools

Some teachers say that social media and other Web 2.0 applications are legitimate subjects to learn about in their own right. These are the tools that students will need to use for work and in life. They’re how people will share and retrieve information, communicate and collaborate. “Members also use the Internet and social networking sites as instructional tools and for professional development, seeking information on lesson plans, new developments and methodologies,” the College’s professional advisory says. So school is the appropriate place to start mastering them. “We can’t just say, oh they’ll learn it on their own,” comments Branigan-Pipe.

“Today’s students will be active contributing adults in a connected world,” says Ben Hazzard, OCT, a program consultant with the Lambton Kent DSB. “We can help them understand how to use these tools in productive ways.”

Part of education - and part of our new world - requires a critical understanding of content, notes Hazzard. He adds that social media and electronic communication are often ideal tools to facilitate critical reflection; the question is whether that always happens naturally.


Kids in Aviva Dunsiger's Grade 1 class can doodle as they learn with this Smartpen (from Livescribe), which synchronizes everything they hear with everything they write. "These tools help ensure that they learn in a more meaningful, fun and engaging way," says Dunsiger.

Yes, students are typically adept at using digital tools. But technical proficiency doesn’t necessarily mean you’re skilled at knowing how to collaborate or think critically about the information you produce, disseminate and receive. As with any tool, students need to be trained on the most rewarding and beneficial uses.

Safe place to learn

If social media and electronic communication are so important in the classroom, then what stands in the way of their wider adoption?

To Ratti, part of it is concern about issues like student privacy and proper conduct online. But such fears are largely unwarranted, she suggests. For instance, the Twiducate site that she uses is protected. And beyond such technical safeguards, many teachers say that there is no safer place than the school itself to discuss the proper use of tools like social media, privacy, digital identity and respectful language.

Being a literate citizen means something very different than it used to. Literacy needs to include the ability to function online

If you’re worried about the misuse and abuse of technology, “the classroom is the perfect place to learn,” says Lorna Costantini, OCT, an education consultant and former Ontario family studies teacher and school board trustee. Other teachers say that it’s folly to blame any piece of technology; improper use is almost always the fault of the user, not the tool.

The College’s professional advisory points out that awareness is key and the onus is on members to know and respect proper professional boundaries with students. “The most popular social media applications were not created specifically for education purposes, and their use can expose members to risk when it comes to maintaining professionalism,” the advisory says.

To minimize risk the advisory advises avoiding exchanging private texts, phone numbers, personal e-mail addresses or photos of a personal nature with students. It also recommends maintaining a “formal, courteous and professional tone in all communications with students.”

Costantini, who runs a web site called Our, about using technology to support education, welcomes the advisory. Yet she suggests that another fear comes into play: “Too many people don’t understand technology like this so put barriers up, saying they don’t need it to achieve their goals.” As with many new tools, she says, a lack of familiarity can make it harder to embrace.

Policies need to keep pace with technology

Branigan-Pipe agrees: “Things are changing so fast in the social media world, for example, that policies can’t keep up. Also there is not a lot of education for teachers on this topic. All districts should put as much emphasis on this as on how to teach literacy and math properly.”

The Ministry of Education already has a robust provincial e-learning strategy, and spokesperson Gary Wheeler says the Ministry “encourages the use of digital materials in our schools.”

But a lot of advances in the classroom in this area, says Branigan-Pipe, are coming from “a huge underground movement in education, where we teachers follow each other’s blogs and learn from each other - it’s not coming from above.”

Lucier urges Ontario’s teachers to research what’s so captivating about learning in an online environment, to follow blogs and to explore the potential.

“Teachers in the classroom have permission to do their job the way they’ve always done it,” says Lucier, “but they also have a responsibility to be learners about this.”

By focusing on these instruments as both engaging learning tools and something that is increasingly part of daily life, teachers can do their students an important dual service.

“We want students to be literate citizens,” says Branigan-Pipe. “To be able, when they’re finished in the education system, to read, write and do math. But right now the idea of a literate citizen means something very different than it used to mean. Literacy needs to include the ability to function online.”

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