John Herman, a public school teacher and the producer of Web show Gravityland, gave a talk titled “Social Media in the Classroom” at Podcamp Boston 3. Herman said that he wanted to present what he did in his situation, presenting himself as a case study for engaging young people in educational goals through social media. For me, this proved to be the most interesting session at this year’s Podcamp Boston.
Herman, who teaches at Epping High School, began by saying the teens in his classes are watching less television and listening to more radio (e.g., Pandora). He surveys his students regularly about their media use, and he said that text messaging is the most popular form of social media, with students reporting that they send as many as 300 text messages a day. He added that one quarter of the students report their text messaging habit is a “problem.” Video gaming is the next most popular form of media consumption.
However, his students do not use email much. They mostly do have email addresses, primarily so they can sign up for other forms of social media such as MySpace. When they do use email, the primary use is to communicate with adults.
“They are beyond the buzzwords,” said Herman, “and into meaningful practice.” These students may not know how to define a blog, for example, but they use blogs regularly. They use social media and new media while they don’t necessarily know current terminology.
Herman said he recognized “a history of complex meaningful practice” among his students that he could relate to educational goals. For example, his students are constantly writing to one another via text messaging — indeed, Herman argues that they are writing far more than previous generations — and he realized that he could recognize that reality in their lives. When a student says he or she “can’t write,” Herman asks them how many text messages they send, and then points out that they are already writing.
Herman also challenges his students on what he perceives as their “true weakness,” face-to-face (F2F) communication. “Kids break up with each other via text,” he said. “Fights happen via text.” He said that there has been a decline in fist fights at his school, because most fighting takes place via text messages or other social media. Because of all this, he has placed a sign in his classroom that says “Don’t suck at face-to-face.”
Herman has found resistance to integrating social media into the classroom, particularly among other teachers who resist changing the way they have been teaching. Herman also detailed real ignorance about how teens use social media on the part of other teachers, administration, and parents.
Turning to specific tools he has used in his classroom, herman said that he does not use expensive integrated applications like Blackboard or other complex educational programs marketed to schools. Instead, he uses widely available apps like Web-based microblogging apps like Twitter, social network host Ning, online office suites such as Google Docs, video hosting services such as YouTube, etc. [As someone who has suffered through the maddening user interface of Blackboard in graduate school, he’s not missing anything by staying away from Blackboard.]
In one example of how he gets students to work collaboratively, Herman told how he revived the school newspaper at Epping High School. Due to budget cuts, there was no longer any funding for a traditional school newspaper, so Herman created Scribbler News, an online newspaper, using a WordPress blog as the publishing platform. Student reporters post stories to the blog on a regular basis.
In another example, he showed how students could post term papers on Google Docs, where he and other students could help the author revise and rewrite the paper. This use of Google Docs became so popular that now his students are writing papers for other classes online and asking Herman to read them over before the students hand them in.
This past year, Herman experimented with making one class entirely paperless using Ning. He created a social network for the class, and posted regular questions for online discussion. These discussion questions proved so popular that as the semester went on, he found that some students would post their own questions for discussion. In one case, a student skipped school on a day when s/he was supposed to participate in making a group presentation. The other students in the group tracked down the truant via text messaging, and made him/her participate in the presentation via Ning and Google Docs.
Herman also introduced his students to basic concepts of online literacy like feed readers and news readers, showing them how they could follow an RSS feed on a topic of interest to them, such as a search term. Herman said that they started out by searching for online material about themselves, but then moved on to use the concept for other subjects.
“I just say ‘meaningful practice’ in my head over and over,” Herman said. What students learn has to be meaningful to them in order for them to want to devote time and energy to it. “Or to put it another way,” he said, “I’m ‘tricking” them into learning what I want them to learn.”
(At the end of the formal presentation, one participant in the session noted that Howard Rheingold has a social media syllabus online, although the syllabus appears to be aimed at college students.)
I found Herman’s session of great interest because of the way he has been using new media to reach specific high-level ends — rather than treating new media as ends in themselves (which they are not), or using new media as means to try to reach ill-defined ends, or sticking his head in the sand and completely ignoring new media.
Herman’s session was also of great interest because of his careful observations of the ways teens are using new media. The fact that many teens are moving away from email but towards text messaging is of real interest, and I have observed similar (though less marked) behavior in myself and my own age cohort. The fact that teens are interested in working collaboratively using online tools such as Google Docs and Ning is also of real interest; we should be paying attention both to their willingness to use online tools, and (contrary to some stereotypes) to their willingness to work collaboratively. But Herman’s most important contribution to the ongoing conversation about new media may be the sign he has placed in his classroom:– “Don’t suck at F2F” — a sign which should probably be placed in city halls, churches, and other public places.