Can teens learn from Social Networks?

Sign to Ban Social Networks at a library

To balance out the negative social network vibe I may have been putting forth lately, here is a positive story from Ed. Magazine, published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education about how teens are harnessing the power of their social networks to learn.

Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with My Homework focuses on research done by Christine Greenhow (University of Minnesota). Greenhow examined how teens use social networks and discovered that they are using sites like MySpace and Facebook in positive ways.

Greenhow interviewed 1,200 students in 13 high schools in Minneapolis-St.Paul, which she followed up with some more indepth interviews. The results showed that students are increasingly using their social network to connect, collaborate, share and learn. These students are developing skills they will need in the future.

The kind of skills students are developing on social networking sites, says Greenhow, are the very same 21st century skills that educators have identified as important for the next generation of knowledge workers — empathy, appreciation for diversity of viewpoints, and an ability to multitask and collaborate with peers on complex projects.

The story of Theresa Sommers, a high school student, is one that might seem exceptional, but is becoming more common.

The more she used the online social networking site (SNS), however, the more bored she became with merely being popular; she started using her time for more heartfelt conversations with friends and delved more deeply into her personal interests. A budding photographer, she posted her best shots to the site and searched forums of professional photographers for encouragement and advice. She began, as well, to seek out students at colleges she was interested in attending, even opening up a new account on Facebook, a site more heavily used by college students, to network.

Theresa is leveraging the power of her social network to achieve her educational goals. What better way to research a potential college or university than to connect directly with students who are already going there and taking subjects she is interested in?

And she even began to post some of her creative writing and would solicit advice on homework essays from her circle of friends, asking them “How long did you take on your essay?” or “How’d you write it?” Often she’d post her homework online. “Everybody does it,” she says.

Outside interests aren’t the only topics that found their way to student homepages and Sommers wasn’t the only student to regularly compare notes on school assignments. “If I am stuck on a project, I might send a chat message to a friend, and he might provide an answer or say, ‘Take a deep breath; you can do this,'” says Greenhow, summing up what students often say.

Now the thought that she is posting her homework online is one that I am sure is making most traditional educator quake in their boots. But I think sharing is a good thing, and something I hope Theresa continues to do. Human civilization is built upon sharing knowledge. Theresa is doing this, and learning this, at the micro level.

The research also took a look at cyber bullying and found that most students behaviour is exactly opposite of the cyber bully stereotype.

Far from media stories about cyber bullying, meanwhile, she found that most students use the medium to reach out to their peers for emotional support and as a way to develop self-esteem.

And what about the danger of blowing a job with a future employer because someone posted a photo of you passed out in a bathroom at your college kegger? Well, the reverse is true as well as employers increasingly use social network sites to find employees as well.

In fact, despite cautionary tales of employers trolling social networking sites to find inappropriate Halloween pictures or drug slang laced in discussion forums, many employers are increasingly using these sites as a way to find talent. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited this spring in The New York Times found that more than half of employers now use SNSs to network with job candidates. The website CareerBuilder.com even added an application to allow employers to search Facebook for candidates. “Savvy users say the sites can be effective tools for promoting one’s job skills and all-around business networking,” says the Times.

When I read studies like this, I can’t help but feel that schools and libraries that ban social networks outright are not only missing the boat, but sending a message to students that these sites are somehow bad or dangerous and not powerful tools that, when used correctly, can open up a rich and rewarding world to them. If we want our kids to be able to become responsible digital citizens, then we have to play a role in helping them learn how to do that. Banning Facebook and MySpace is not the way to do that.

Photo credit: Stopped by Mishawaka Penn Harris Public Library to see for Myself by mstephen7. Used under Creative Commons license.

2 responses to “Can teens learn from Social Networks?

  1. Pingback: Anti-social underground « Torrentfish’s Weblog

  2. I think making your kids join social network sites can help them learn so many things about other people and discover new cultures too.But parental control should be ensured so as to effectively control what they are doing.