Young people today live in a media saturated world. They have unprecedented access to an array of media and devices and can spend on average a quarter of their day interacting with various technologies (Roberts and Foehr, 2005; Vie, 2008). A large part of this interaction with technology is through social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook. Due to the popularity of this type of communication, it has been noted that the way people traditionally communicate has changed (Vie, 2008). In an educational context, this has impacted traditional forms of literacy which, in turn, has impacted on how and what curricula are taught in the classroom. Without a doubt, the phenomenon of social networking is widespread among young people today and is something educators need to understand and embrace in order to utilise it as a teaching tool and to relate to today’s students.
‘Generation M’ is a label given to young people born between the early 1980s and late 1990s. They have grown up with technology and are fascinated and comfortable with using it. On average they spend a quarter of their day interacting with numerous types of media on various devices. Despite different students’ socio-economic status, most have access to the internet and other technologies (Vie, 2008). Due to students’ high level of participation in online social networking sites, social media is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed in education.
Despite the obvious need for educators to embrace and engage in social networking, there are some issues that may prevent this. The first issue is the ‘digital divide’, which is a term used to describe the gap in technological understanding and skill between teachers and students (Vie, 2008). This gap can result in students being more adept than their teachers in using modern technologies, which leads to a potential fear or lack of confidence in teacher use. To overcome the digital divide, teachers need to catch up with Generation M and engage more with modern technologies. In addition to seeking instruction on how to use different technologies, actively engaging will enable teachers to understand how to use them and develop ways of incorporating them into their curricula.
In relation to social networking sites specifically, another barrier preventing educators from participating is the issue of privacy and surveillance. In a survey conducted by Stephanie Vie in 2006 (Vie, 2008) she found that the main reasons for teachers’ nonparticipation in social networking sites were privacy and surveillance, teacher identity and time. In online convergent spaces, of which Facebook is an example, the traditional hierarchy of the classroom is inverted. It enables students to survey and scrutinize their teachers which can be uncomfortable and confronting for some. Although online surveillance is associated with privacy invasion, Albrechtlund (2008) suggests that online social networking can be empowering. This empowerment comes from people voluntarily engaging with others and constructing identity. By voluntarily engaging it changes the role of the user from passive to active taking away the fear of being ‘under surveillance’.
Due to the high level of participation of Generation M in online social media, it is important for educators to integrate it into instruction. This can be done by incorporating aspects of social media into both pedagogy and content.
Social media allows students to interact with each other and share content in an accessible way. Teachers can take advantage of social media in the classroom by using it for instructional purposes. For example, teachers can use social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook to facilitate discussion or have students interact with a digital stimulus. This will not only engage students more in learning but has the potential to enhance and continue instruction beyond the four walls of a traditional classroom.
In terms of content, a key area in which social media can be used in education is literacy. The traditional form of composition in the classroom is the essay. However, with the growth of digital technology this form is becoming irrelevant to a lot of young people. Today, social media enables us to be exposed to, and connect with, multiple forms of media such as videos, photographs, and online dialogue. On social networking sites, students are able to practise writing their own content, while appropriating and remixing others’ content (Vie, 2008). The creation of an online profile requires a complex process of self-representation, which can be used as a teaching tool in the classroom.
In addition to practising writing skills, teachers can also use social media to raise important literary issues. Even though Generation M are competent in using various technologies, they may not be able to think critically about technology literacy issues. As Selfe & Hawisher (2004 as cited in Vie, 2008) state, technological literacy “connects social practices, people, technology, values, and literate activity, which, in turn, are embedded in a larger cultural ecology”. Issues such as authorship and ownership, rights to user-generated content, and the powerful use of marketing on social networking sites are all important issues that can be raised in the classroom with regard to social media.
Social networking sites have great potential for use in today’s classrooms. It can inform pedagogy, and be used to teach key ideas about technological literacy. However, teachers need to be participating alongside students in order to be fully aware of the possibilities social media can offer. This means bridging the digital divide by being educated on how to use modern technologies, and engaging with social networking sites. Although there are legitimate reasons for teachers to be hesitant in doing this, it is crucial for curricula to be relevant to students today. This means fully engaging in the world of social media, and applying the opportunities it provides to the classroom.
Albrechtslund, A. (2008). Online social networking as participatory surveillance. First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 – 3 March 2008. Retrieved 26 March 2013, from http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2142/1949.
Roberts, D.F. & Foehr, U.J. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved 26 March 2013, from <http://www.kff.org/entmedia/7251.cgm>.
Vie, S. (2008). Digital Divide 2.0: “Generation M” and online social networking sites in the composition classroom. Computers and Composition. 25, 9-23.