Remember the days when back to school meant a trip to the store for new pencils, paper and maybe a spiral notebook or two? Today's students, particularly those in the higher grades and college level, have little time or interest in those analog commodities -- they're carrying laptops, tablets, smartphones and other gadgets.
Putting technology in the hands and laps of students opens a vast pool of opportunity and knowledge, but it can also be distracting. Especially when students are using those devices to check Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or any one of the hundreds of social platforms that beg for their attention right in the middle of class.
Some administrators and educators have taken things to the extreme by outright banning the use of mobile devices in the classroom. Meanwhile, others believe that classrooms are the perfect environment to break bad habits and encourage students to embrace these tools for productive means.
"The biggest challenge I face as an educator is that students use social media as a toy instead of a tool," Kathleen Stansberry, assistant professor of public relations and social media at Cleveland State University, writes in response to questions from CIO.com. "It is often assumed that millennials are social media experts because they grew up with interactive media. They may know how to use the technology behind sites like Facebook and Twitter, but they don't understand the strategy that goes into using social media to accomplish professional, personal, or organizational goals."
Social Media is a 'Constant Temptation'
Stansberry says she allows students to use mobile devices during class time because the "constant temptation" they face from social media sites won't end after graduation. "I believe learning to control social media use in professional situations is part of the learning process," she adds.
"As with any disruptive technology, social media must be assimilated into our lives -- and during the process, there will be negative impacts. Technology in the classroom results in bullying, distraction, and cheating... and also engagement, deep and authentic learning, and global interactions," Jane Owen, professor emeritus of educational leadership at Midwestern State University in Texas, writes in an email response to CIO.com. "As an administrator, I would never let the negatives overrule the positives."
Teachers have to educate students to be disciplined and responsible in their use of technology, Owen adds. "Why should the next generation have to power down when they come to school and thus receive their educations in a 60s' style classroom because educators can't figure out a way to successfully harness technology?"
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Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and professor at California State University, Los Angeles, says the impacts of social media in the classroom are mostly negative. "It has devolved into a tool of distracted students looking at photographs of ex-girlfriends' or ex-boyfriends' vacation photos during a lecture. How do we know that? The fact that they are smiling at their laptop during a rather plodding lecture on reliability and validity of diagnostic classification," she writes.
Virtually Impossible to Police
"Now only the most disciplined and focused students can focus on the task at hand, and not get lost in the mindless ravines of Instagram and Facebook. In that way, social media may be a great tool for separating the men from the boys," Durvasula adds. "It is all but impossible to police unless I put a mirror in the back of the room, and now I as the faculty member am distracted playing policewoman instead of focusing on the matter at hand - our curriculum."
Durvasula says she plans to ban the use of laptops and other mobile devices in her classroom because she's found that most of her students lack the discipline or the intellect to manage having such a distracting tool in front of them. "I have never had a social media trolling student in one of my classes perform better than average, which speaks volumes," she adds.
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The challenges presented by social media in the classroom are even more difficult for those teaching in the lower grades. Gail Leicht, an eighth grade language arts teacher in New Jersey, says social media and more specifically the obsession with the self indirectly makes it more difficult for her to connect with her students.
"Eight years ago, when I started teaching, I could make a social reference and my students would get it," Leicht writes in response to questions from CIO.com. "But now, because kids are only interested in their small circle and anything that constantly reinforces what they already know and validates their own existences, they lack any sophistication or know-how or just basic awareness of the immediate and not-so-immediate world around them."
Reinforcing Students' Obsession with Self
Leicht says her students no longer relate when she references Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or Bruce Springsteen. "I used to try to mention current events or make social references by way of examples or as a way to connect with the kids. Now it's very difficult to find any topics on which I can do that," she adds.
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Scott Silverman, associate director of student affairs at University of California, Riverside, says there are four primary cons that arise from the use of social media in the classroom: distraction, academic dishonesty (or cheating), discerning fact from fiction and cyberbullying.
"I think that the cons can be effectively managed if the engagement strategies the teachers employ for social media use are well-thought-out," he writes. "A teacher could have his or her class contribute to a wiki study guide for the upcoming exam, or students can use social media to tweet with others and learn more about a current event."
Silvermans' research for a doctoral dissertation on the effects of social media on college students' experience concluded that the benefits of social media still outweigh the risks. "Student will be more engaged when they can use all of the tools at their disposal, including social media," he adds.
Instilling good behavioral traits and educating students about the proper and more productive use of social media is paramount, says Cleveland State University's assistant professor Stansberry. Her ongoing study on the impacts of social media indicates that students feel unprepared to use social media professionally because they aren't learning about it in their college classes.
"Instead of banning social media in the classroom, educators can model responsible social media use and incorporate it into teaching styles," Stansberry says.
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