Being social in teaching and learning

Social MediaI have been using social media tools for about 11 years. My wife and I started teaching internationally in 1999 and finding an efficient and effective way to communicate with family and friends became a necessity as our personal and professional community grew. I created a personal blog in 2005 while we were working at our second international school to keep in touch with family, friends and former students and colleagues.

An international audience inspires

Although I incorporated very little of my initial foray in social media in my teaching and learning, I did realise that using an Internet-enabled communication tool gave me access to a massive audience. This was especially valuable in the context of international schooling where students’ extended family in other countries wanted to know how they were doing and what they were learning.

A direct result of this realisation was completing an action research project that aimed to study the effect on the learning outcomes of marine biology students when they were asked to create a public website on a sea creature of their choice. The students enjoyed that their work was on display for ‘everyone’ and it inspired them to take more care with the presentation of their work. However, not all the students enjoyed showing their learning in a digital format and the content management system (CMS) proved to be unintuitive too – it was the early days of the CMS as a content delivery system …


I taught an asynchronous online class, Oceanography, for the The Virtual High School for 2 years. The students in my class were from all over the world. The learning management system was not as well designed for collaboration as some of the ‘new’ social media platforms of that time. I encouraged my students to collaborate via Facebook and many of them told me during and after the course that the study groups they formed on Facebook proved to be very helpful in helping them stay motivated. Facebook helped them to get to know each other on a more personal level, something the official learning management system didn’t facilitate well.


I joined Twitter in 2008 and a whole new world of learning opened up to me. One of the challenges with teaching in international schools at that point was that I only networked with like-minded educators from other schools once every two years due to cost constraints and the massive difference between local and international schooling systems. Twitter enabled me to communicate in real time about a challenge or a problem, as mentioned by Brian Crosby1 in the Connected Educators video, enabling me to be more productive as a teacher. It also ensured that I stayed current with developments in the North American education system on a day to day basis.

To this day Twitter remains my favourite social media platform. I am trying to be thoughtful about who I follow on Twitter to ensure I get access to a broad range of ideas. It helps me to be a more reflective practitioner as I consider the impact of other people’s ideas on my understanding of effective teaching and learning – even if their ideas differ from mine.


As I started following some of the links people shared on Twitter, I discovered that many educators loved sharing best practice, teaching and learning frustrations and their dreams for the future of education via blogs. I started curating the RSS feeds2 of these blogs with Google Reader, a now-retired RSS feed reader. It provided me with a wealth of current ideas and thought in the world of education. It became a valuable source of teaching and learning research as my colleagues and I attempted to integrate educational technology effectively into our subject areas. I realised that it had great potential as a classroom resource for students and I encouraged and taught them to do their own curation for long-term research assignments.

I presented some of my ideas at a education conference for international educators in 2012 and you can still download (the now outdated) eBook from this website (just follow the links above to My Publications3).

The challenges

I will briefly discuss the challenging aspects of social media from a professional learning and teaching point of view.

Professional learning
I have found two challenges with learning via social media. The first is that learning from social media can be like drinking water from a fire hydrant: it is very easy to be overwhelmed with the deluge of information. You have to be very intentional about curating what you want to read. I have found that curation tools such as Feedly4 and Paper.li5 enable me to learn what I am interested in when I have time for it. Here are three web newspapers that I am curating with the help of

The second challenge with learning via social media is that social media can often be a lot of noise – and I say this at the risk of being part of that din. What I mean is this: since it is easy for everyone to publish her or his thoughts, a lot of social media is based on opinion and it is well-known that carefully crafted media can be used to influence people, whether the idea being propagated is evidence-based or not. Politicians do this very well …

Now I realise that you can prove anything with ‘evidence’, but I believe in education we have to be very deliberate about choosing to digest teaching and learning ideas that are based on evidence. It doesn’t mean we can’t travel in uncharted waters but we have to try to do this in an informed way. As I have mentioned in my previous post, I believe that the principles of sound teaching and learning have not changed much over the years. Alfie Kohn echoed this in an article6 that addressed the thoughtless use of educational technology in education. I quote (emphasis mine),

We can’t answer the question “Is tech useful in schools?” until we’ve grappled with a deeper question: “What kinds of learning should be taking place in those schools?” If we favor an approach by which students actively construct meaning, an interactive process that involves a deep understanding of ideas and emerges from the interests and questions of the learners themselves, well, then we’d be open to the kinds of technology that truly support this kind of inquiry. Show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct—and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested—although it’s important to keep in mind that meaningful learning never requires technology, so even here we should object whenever we’re told that software (or a device with a screen) is essential.

My biggest concerns with the use of social media in the classroom are around the privacy and safety of students. I realise we can teach our students digital citizenship skills and we are fortunate that groups like Common Sense Media has produced fantastic resources7 for this. However, do teachers want to be complicit in social media services’ openly acknowledged collection of users’ interests in order to increase their revenue?

Another challenge that can be addressed via careful planning and curation of content is the fact that social media platforms have been designed to connect people. Since students usually do not use social media within the context of education, it must not come as a surprise if students do not ‘stay on task’ when learning tasks do not have a very specific function for social media in a lesson.


Social media has become an integral part of modern society. It enables us to connect and collaborate with a global audience and it can contextualise teaching activities. When social media tools are used thoughtfully, they can add real value to any classroom.

References and notes:
1. Connected Educators. (18 September 2013). Retrieved 18 March 2016 from
2. “RSS (Rich Site Summary; originally RDF Site Summary; often called Really Simple Syndication) uses a family of standard web feed formats to publish frequently updated information: blog entries, news headlines, audio, video. An RSS document (called “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”) includes full or summarized text, and metadata, like publishing date and author’s name”. Retrieved 18 March 2016 from
3. Blom, B.J. (2012). Social media for professional development and classroom research. Retrieved 18 March 2016 from
4. Feedly. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from
5. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from
6. Kohn, A. (16 March 2016). The overselling of educational technology. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from
7. Common Sense Education. Retrieved 19 March 2016 from

Photo credit: mkhmarketing via / CC BY

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