Social Media for Middle Level Classrooms

Research Summary

By: Alicia Wenzel, Ken Carano


Seventh grade teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff piloted a social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom. By the end of the year, 20% of students school-wide were completing additional assignments for no credit, grades increased more than 50%, and chronic absenteeism reduced by at least 30%. This school, for the first time in its history, met its adequate yearly progress goal for absenteeism. (Kessler, 2010)

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches.

Middle level educators continuously seek practices to enhance learning and increase achievement of middle level students. Thus, many teachers are integrating technology with instruction especially since young adolescents are frequent computer users and find technology very engaging (Simpson & Clem, 2008). Downes and Bishop (2010), in their four year study on technology integration in middle level education, found that teachers and students feel strongly that technology is an essential learning component because it assists with engagement, makes education relevant to students' lives, and serves as an inspiring force (p. 31).

One type of technology teachers are adopting is the use of social media. Social media are web-based, highly interactive platforms that provide space for creating online communities of people with similar interests and activities where individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content (Kietzmann & Hermkens, 2011; Lamphere, 2012). While most AMLE research summaries tend to report on empirical research, this summary provides current information from a combination of empirical studies and conversation driven by opinion, emotion, and experience. Due to the newness of social media, particularly its use as an instructional tool in education, sharing perspectives—often found on blogs—of those presently using social media in middle level classrooms can help inform educators considering this curricular approach.

As emphasized in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010), engaging students in "active, purposeful learning" is one of the hallmarks of successful middle level schools. "Additionally, learning experiences are greatly enhanced when all students have the technology to access rich content, communicate with others, write for authentic audiences, and collaborate with other learners next door or across the globe" (p. 16). Incorporating social media as an instructional tool can provide potential benefits for students and teachers (Krutka, 2014a). In 2010, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 73% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 use social media (Lenhart, Purcell, Aaron, & Zickuhr, 2010).

Since then, the percentage has probably increased. Integration of social media has the engagement factor teachers and students seek while enabling students to gain a variety of academic and social skills (Richardson, 2011). Many educators are using social media to help bridge the gap between schools and the outside world by finding innovative ways to engage and extend student learning (Storz & Hoffman, 2013; Varlas, 2011). Due to these features, social media has enormous potential in middle school classrooms.

Though social media use by students and teachers is increasingly popular, debate exists on how to best use the medium and how to protect users and ensure ethical use (Kepple, Campbell, Hartshorne, & Herlihy, 2015; Weathersbee, 2008). This research summary provides an overview of social media types, addresses benefits and challenges with incorporating social media into student learning, and offers suggestions for practice. Resources for teaching and learning are also included.

Social Media Types

Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) identify seven types of social media:

  1. collaborative projects (e.g., Wikipedia)
  2. blogs and microblogs (e.g., Twitter, Kidblog.org)
  3. social news networking sites (e.g., Digg and Leakernet)
  4. content communities (e.g., YouTube and DailyMotion)
  5. social networking sites (e.g., Facebook)
  6. virtual game-worlds (e.g., Minecraft, World of Warcraft)
  7. virtual social worlds (e.g., Second Life)

Other common social media sites include FourSquare, LinkedIn, Flickr, edmodo, Pinterest, and YouTube. Some social media are a combination of two or more of the types Kaplan and Haenlein outlined. For example, Shi, Rui and Whinston (2014) explain that Twitter is a blend of broadcasting service and social networking. Many social media sites can be accessed through mobile applications (e.g., iPhone, Blackberry) as well as desktops and laptops.

Benefits of Incorporating Social Media in Middle Schools

Increased Student Engagement, Learning, and Citizenship Education

Social media sites provide a forum for extending the traditional classroom with an array of benefits that fit This We Believe (2010) tenets by capitalizing on students' personal backgrounds and cultural experiences to further learning. Increased student engagement and learning and citizenship education are benefits related to social media use in school. For example, middle grades students can discover how technology-assisted writing can foster innovation, global communication and participation, and creative problem solving with a broader community. Purposeful use of social media can help develop responsible, productive digital citizens whose natural love of learning will travel with them throughout their lives. Ramsay's Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing? Collaborating in Class and Online (2011) shares reflections on the integrated collaborative technology writing activities she incorporated in her classroom to advance students' learning experiences. She found that her students engaged for longer periods of time in writing tasks due to online collaboration. Further, Ramsay purports that technology-assisted writing can nurture student creativity, communication, and problem solving skills while developing digital citizens.

Social media provides students with options for creating authentic, creative products through tools such as blogs, YouTube, and podcasts (Frye et al., 2010; Lamb & Johnson, 2010). Students can also use social media to research content material in order to develop new knowledge (Frye et al., 2010; Lamb & Johnson, 2010). Additionally, social media helps facilitate differentiation by allowing the needs of creative learners to be met through a cooperative learning environment. Students are better able to balance their individualism with the need for contact with others, allowing new ideas to flourish (Garrett, 2011; Shoshani & Rose Braun, 2007).

Collaboration and Relationship Building

Social media can help adolescents develop and strengthen collaboration skills as they share knowledge, learn with and from others, and are active in the learning process (Fewkes & McCabe, 2012; Jackson, 2011; Liu, Liu, Chen, Lin & Chen, 2011;Yu, Tian, Vogel, & Kwok, 2010). Further, through collaboration on social media platforms, constructive and meaningful teacher and student relationships can develop (Connolly, 2011). Social media outlets, such as Twitter, are being utilized by teachers for informal professional development as educators worldwide share resources and best practices (Krutka & Milton, 2013).

Bridge the Digital Divide and Increase Access and Equity

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) states that digital skills are essential for "students to work, live and contribute to the social and civic fabric of their communities" (2014, para 2). Further, ISTE purports that equitable access to technology-integrated learning opportunities is vital to bridge the digital divide and increase students' chances for success (2014). However, as the National Center for Education Statistics shared (2012), the digital divide is increasing and, thus, children without access to technology can be left further behind. Therefore, inclusion of social media in education activities is necessary to help increase equity among students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds by increasing access to information and information technology (Darling-Hammond, Zielezinski, & Goldman, 2014; Grinager, 2006).

Darling-Hammond et al. (2014) recommend the following practices to promote optimal learning opportunities for all students: (a) technology access policies should aim for 1:1 computer access and ensure that speedy internet connections are available, (b) policies and practices should favor technology that promotes high levels of interactivity and engagement and that allows for varying learning choices and opportunities, (c) instructional opportunities should enable students to use technology to create content as well as learn material, and (d) learning environments that provide significant and varied levels of teacher support and opportunities for interactions among students as companions to technology use (p. 14-15).

Challenges Related to Incorporating Social Media in Middle Schools

There are a variety of challenges middle level educators must consider when incorporating social media in young adolescent classrooms. The first issue many educators currently face is equitable access for students and teachers. Further, uncertainty exists on the type and frequency of professional development for middle level educators that addresses ethical and appropriate use of social networking. Additionally, educators must learn how best to help students navigate safely and monitor students in a virtual environment. Lastly, educators must recognize the possibility for distractions and overstimulation that is often linked to certain types of social media and networking activities (Chen & Bryer, 2012).

Access

Access to technology for students and teachers has tremendous benefits particularly if accompanied with appropriate learning opportunities. However, gaining consistent and equitable access remains a challenge for all levels of learners; therefore, making technology available to all students should be a priority among educators (NMSA, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Educators and policymakers need to provide the appropriate technology funding and related professional development so students and teachers have the equipment, knowledge, and skills necessary for taking full advantage of what technology can offer.

Professional Development

It is imperative for educators to have professional development opportunities that enable them to learn developmentally appropriate best practices for preparing students (NMSA, 2010). This includes how to utilize all that social networking has to offer. For teachers to understand the features, benefits, and limitations to social media sites, they need appropriate and sustained training, time to practice newly learned skills, and time for collaboration with colleagues to hone teaching practices (Boss & Krauss, 2007). As teachers have different levels of technology use knowledge and interests, department and grade-level conversations should occur to identify specific needs.

Monitoring, Safety, and Ethical Use of Social Networking

AMLE (NMSA, 2010) believes that middle schools must provide adult advocates to middle school students to guide academic and personal development in an inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive school environment (p. 35). This can be challenging in a face-to-face environment and even more difficult in a virtual environment (Schmitz, Sigler Hoffmann, & Bickford, 2012). Kessler (2010) purports on the blog, www.mashable.com, that the best way to keep young users safe is to teach them how to be safe. Students need to learn how to make great choices about what they share and what are appropriate actions with others, and always review and manage their online reputations in light of others' ability to contribute to that reputation either positively or negatively with a few clicks of the mouse (Richardson, 2011).

Protecting students in all learning environments is essential. Having explicit and consistent conversations and policies about how to do this ethically, legally, and effectively must occur before and during use of social media and involve input from key stakeholders. Edutopia.com, a website published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and highly regarded by the educational community, provides thoughtful resources on creating social media guidelines for schools. A useful handbook found on Edutopia.com was created by Anderson, in collaboration with Facebook (n.d.), on How to Create Social Media Guidelines for Your School.

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a challenge many face when incorporating social media activities. Vise (2011) shared that "one-third of all unoriginal content in student papers came from social networks, including Facebook and all of the various 'content-sharing' sites where users post and share information" (para 5). However, using plagiarism checking software like Anti-Plagiarism, DupliChecker, PaperRater, or Plagiarismdetector, can ensure that work presented is the creation of the author with credit provided to sources. In tandem, teachers must continue to address the issue of plagiarism including how to determine if sources are credible and having clear and consistent plagiarism policies regularly disseminated to students and parents.

Classroom Strategies for the Inclusion of Social Media in Learning

Research suggests that discussions and collaborations are the most common social media classroom strategies (Chen & Bryer, 2012). Frye, Trathen, and Koppenhaver (2010) proclaim that blogs offer students the ability to publish work and comment on others' writing, which increases motivation. At the middle level, Wilson, Wright, Inman, & Matherson (2011) provide examples demonstrating best practices of how students use blogs successfully to study current events and respond to textual material and a variety of other assignments. Manfra and Lee's (2011) qualitative case study used audio and video recordings of classroom sessions, student blog comments, and semi-structured interviews to demonstrate the potential of using blogs to differentiate instruction and meet learning goals of at-risk learners. Smith and Throne (2009) also speaks to the value of social media in serving as a tool for differentiation.

Holcomb, Beal, and Lee (2011) present two instructional projects and two instructional tools as examples that suggest Web 2.0 tools can enhance and maximize curricula by giving students the means to "take on real world problems, engage in intensive research using methods suited to their style of learning and share their findings with their collaborators and colleagues" (p. 103). Carano and Stuckart's (2013) qualitative study examined the impact of social media activities between US students and Peace Corps Volunteers in Swaziland and between US students and Malaysian high school students. Findings demonstrate how social media sites can be used to connect classrooms and cultures across the globe while providing students with increased intercultural awareness and student learning.

Cabiness, Donovan, and Green's (2013) middle school case study of students using wikis in a world history class demonstrated that a classroom wiki had many benefits. The flexible environment of the wiki supported collaborative learning allowing for extended learning and opportunities to go in-depth into concepts that may not have been allowed due to regular class time restrictions. Further, higher order thinking skills were evident in the student posts. Additionally, the wiki environment created a learning community that went beyond the regular classroom walls enabling students to collaborate with all six classes of students enrolled in the campus world history courses.

Another classroom strategy has enabled students to instant-message (IM) teachers and peers with homework questions via smartphones (Davis, 2010). Twitter, an online social networking service, provides an IM outlet used to encourage students to engage in class activities through a variety of activities such as centering on primary documents or analytical questions and bringing in outside expert perspectives (Krutka & Milton, 2013). Krutka (2014b) and his 20 social studies methods students examined the pedagogical possibilities for social media use in middle and high school classrooms. Surveys, reflective journals, and field notes indicated that Twitter was the most beneficial social media site to use in the class because of its many possibilities. Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009) suggest that the medium is useful for encouraging concise writing.

Further, Elavsky, Mislan, and Elavsky (2011) employed mixed-methods research to examine student outcomes produced by using Twitter. Using descriptive statistical analysis of tweets and surveys, Elavsky et al. found using Twitter to "back channel,'"—an activity that allows students to maintain a dialogue or ask questions about an activity that is happening concurrently—can expand students' understanding of key class concepts. Finally, the literature indicates that Twitter can also be used as a sharing resource (Matteson, 2010), as a means for historical perspective-taking and reenactment (Krutka & Milton, 2013; Lee, Shelton, Walker, Caswell, & Jensen, 2012), and even as a source for, and subject of, media study (Rinaldo, Tapp, & Laverie, 2011).

Conclusion

Social media is an increasingly popular technology medium for educators and students alike. Research shows that social media can increase student learning and engage students who otherwise may be disinterested in the classroom (Darling-Hammond, Zielinski, & Goldman, 2014). Richardson (2011) states:

Social media afford[s] the opportunity for all children with online access to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, do real work for real audiences for real purposes, find great teachers and collaborators from around the world, and become great teachers in their own right. (p. 3)

This real-time communication can increase student accountability, build relationships, allow for differentiation, and expand understanding and skills.

Of course, there are drawbacks for students including security risks or privacy concerns. Some students may find social media activities distracting and lack supervision from an administrator. Yet, these drawbacks can be addressed by thoughtful selection and expectations of activities, set-up, and monitoring of students, process, and outcomes. Used prudently, social media can be a valuable tool in educational settings so middle level learners are provided engaging, relevant, and interconnected learning opportunities (Connolly, 2011).


References

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Fewkes, A. M., & McCabe, M. (2012). Facebook: Learning tool or distraction? Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 28(3), 92-98.

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Annotated Reference List

Lamphere, N. (2012). Introduction to social media. Retrieved from http://prezi.com/xjetcvfh-chj/introduction-to-social-media/

This hands-on workshop provides an introduction to the social web and current, popular tools and topics. Definition of terms with related videos are presented as well as resources for publishing, communicating, and sharing images, videos, and bookmarks.


Schmitz, M., Sigler Hoffmann, M., & Bickford, J.H. (2012). Identifying cyberbullying, connecting with students: The promising possibilities of teacher-student social networking. Eastern Education Journal, 41(1), p. 16–30.

 

This article provides suggestions of how teachers can productively use social networking to connect with students socially and to identify and supervise cyberbullying. Additionally, a range of school districts' policies on social networking sites are examined with many addressing teacher and student abuses and misuses. Also included are reflections on social media use and cyberbullying as well as implications for providing a safe, inclusive, and supportive school environment.


 

Smith, G. E. & Throne, S. (2009). Differentiating instruction with technology in middle school classrooms. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education

This book explains the benefits of combining differentiated instruction (DI) with technology, encouraging teachers to "re-engage students by bringing lessons out of the past and into the student-centered reality of digital-age learning." Resources are offered that can help make DI a reality in the middle school classroom. Also included are sample activities for incorporating DI in a variety of core subjects and areas.


Recommended Resources

Commoncraft, (https://www.commoncraft.com/) is a website that contains engaging, informative short videos for introducing various topics to teachers and students. The topics include money, politics, history, society, safety, with a majority of topics on technology. Specifically, there are videos addressing social media that include Twitter, online photosharing, social bookmarking, wikis, and many others that would be of interest and use to middle school students and teachers.

Traffikd, (http://traffikd.com/social-media-websites/) contains a list of social media and social networking sites that is updated frequently. The range of categories shows the potential in a wide variety of classes and learning experiences for middle level learners.

Onlineuniversities.com offers 100 ways to use social media in classrooms, http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/05/100-inspiring-ways-to-use-social-media-in-the-classroom/. Ideas for the K-12 classroom and university level are provided including class projects and ways to increase collaboration and communication between peers and between students and teachers and for preparing students for life outside of the classroom.

Edudemic: Edudemic, http://www.edudemic.com/guides/, connects education and technology providing many useful and popular resources and teaching guides for using "some of the best and most popular resources available today" including Twitter, flipping classrooms, keeping students safe online, choosing the best digital content for students, and others added frequently. Edudemic offers dozens of articles with resources and "how to" information for using social media in ways that foster student learning.

Edmodo: Located at https://www.edmodo.com/, Edmodo is a free social networking platform that has been referred to as the Facebook for schools and is a safe and teacher-controlled environment in which students must be provided an access code to join and anonymous posting is not possible. Edmodo is primarily a tool for within-class communication, but it also provides several ways for classrooms to connect with other classrooms. There are many features and ways to use Edmodo. A few classroom examples include sharing files and resources with students and other classrooms in real time, creating polls for students to vote online, writing short summaries of lessons for absent students, and posting homework information.

#edchat: An ongoing Twitter (https://twitter.com/) discussion that serves as informal professional development for educators by allowing participants to join to discuss and learn about current teaching trends, how to integrate technology, transform their teaching, and connect with inspiring educators worldwide. Moderated topical chats are held at noon and 7 p.m. (EST) each Tuesday with different topics.


Author Information

Alicia Wenzel is an associate professor of education specializing in curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Western Oregon University. Much of her research has focused on curriculum, assessment, and middle level education.

Kenneth T. Carano is an associate professor of social studies education at Western Oregon University. His research interests include using technology to teach from a social justice framework in an increasingly interconnected world.

Citation

Wenzel, A., & Carano, K.T. (2015). Research summary: Social media for middle level classrooms. Retrieved [date] from http://www.amle.org/TabId/270/artmid/888/articleid/553/Social-Media-for-Middle-Level-Classrooms.aspx


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