The electric classroom? Not quite yet

Remember that high-school frog dissection? The smell of formaldehyde, the texture of the frog’s skin, the scalpel cutting down the abdomen. The tiny organs inside.

Teacher Mike Ice works with student Eli Eddelman as he posts on Twitter at Dunn Elementary in Louisville

Teacher Mike Ice works with student Eli Eddelman as he posts on Twitter at Dunn Elementary in Louisville

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — Remember that high-school frog dissection?

The smell of formaldehyde, the texture of the frog’s skin, the scalpel cutting down the abdomen. The tiny organs inside.

Now imagine an iPad on each student’s desk, an image of a frog on the surface, a finger run down the middle and the frog “opening up” to reveal internal body parts.

Technology can be helpful to kids in school — but it will change the experience.

And social media is influencing how kids interact, as well as how they will learn in the future.

Researcher Shannon Lowe has been chosen to fill a postdoctoral fellowship position to work with Canada Research chair Norm Friesen at Thompson Rivers University to study how technology and social media are changing the way people learn.

Unfortunately, Friesen said, there is no research on how technology affects the brain. But there are definitely some uses for it when it comes to teaching, beyond the fact of the Internet being a vast resource for research.

Teachers can set up blogs where their students can check on assignments, take quizzes or maybe even review notes or lectures from the class. They can communicate via email or Facebook — though the latter opens up debate as to whether teachers should “friend” their students — for quick questions or feedback or to keep in touch with parents.

Friesen said a blog can give teachers and students an extra voice to communicate with, but it is also extra work.

Lowe noted that the Internet isn’t the first tool that has been viewed as having educational potential. When television first came out, it was seen as a medium for mass education, she said. But it didn’t work out that way.

TV provided a steady stream of information, but wasn’t easily interrupted for students who couldn’t keep up. So while it has been used to show students short programs or for video links, it hasn’t become the tool it was originally thought it could be.

“The form of the lecture has persisted,” said Lowe.

The Internet was also seen as a way of providing mass education, particularly through online classes, noted Friesen. So far, though, teachers are still needed.

However, the Internet is finding its way into the classroom. At large post-secondary institutions like the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser, students in large lecture halls can use cellphones to provide feedback to their professors, look online for their course work and find lectures posted on YouTube.

And then there’s the dark side: cyberbullying. The same tool that can provide a world of information can also cause a world of pain to students. That’s another element to social networking among students that the education system has to deal with. Yet, oddly, Facebook was originally created as a way for university students to keep in touch with each other.

Much of what Lowe and Friesen will be examining in their 18-month study is what exists now: blended classes (a combination of in-person and online learning), Facebook, YouTube, blogs and other forms of social media.

“It means more choices for students,” said Friesen.

While people who comment on Internet chat or discussion groups are often meaner or ruder than they would be in person, Lowe said students asked to critique each others’ work are in fact too polite, not offering honest criticisms that would help colleagues improve their work.

That kind of conviviality is found in social media like Facebook, where friends add new friends and friends’ friends to their circle, and where people click on things they like as a show of support.

The down side to that from an educational perspective, said Lowe, is that students don’t learn how to be constructively critical, how to argue or debate.

Technology hasn’t yet made education more efficient, but it does make some parts of it more accessible, said Friesen. And it has opened the door to more options, like virtual schools, video links and distance education, which benefit both students and teachers.

“When teachers do take up technology, it often forces reflection on the teaching,” he said. “We need to encourage teachers as seeing they have a choice. Their choice and their role in it is crucial.”

Tips for using social media in a school setting

Teachers should use social media in classroom lessons, writes English professor Todd Finley in his blog.

He says banning such tools will stifle learning and lead students to question their teachers’ relevance. If information can easily be found online, and if students can exchange and test their ideas in a safe online environment, why should teachers insist they only use the books dictated by the people who designed the curriculum?

Finley provides some guidelines for incorporating social media tools in the classroom.

He offers several suggestions: create social media rules that are directive, but unrestricted; recognize there is a distinction between academic and informal writing; and promote constructive online discussions.

• When social media supplements and transforms curriculum, students should experience this like play. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, defend play as a “modality” of learning. Think of how kids on a playground engage in fantasy, but also invent and reinvent rules. Imagination, insist Thomas and Brown, is heightened by rules.

• Some resources — Michael Zimmer’s Ultimate Guide to Social Media is a well-organized introduction to many social platforms, as is OnlineUniversities.com’s 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media in the Classroom.

• Many students are online novices. They’ll need to be partnered with digital natives who know how, why, and when to use different social media tools.

• Glogster, Diigo and Ning were championed by educators before they caught on with teens. Since these platforms do not replicate social media hangouts that are embraced by students, they can be taught and used with little risk of encroaching on teen culture.

• Clearly separate the spaces where conversational and formal writing occur.

• Don’t require students to write “correctly” in discussion forums. These spaces should encourage teens to advance tentative theories and experiment with different perspectives. You can always ask that students to write a traditional report of their ideas later.

• Great online discussions thrive when students and instructors trust the community. If there is bullying, or if discussions are seen to be manipulated, students will withdraw.

• Introducing too many different social media channels in a semester muddies the role obligations for members. If students feel expected to learn different rule subsets for too many different kinds of online media, they just give up.

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