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Social Media and Education: the new Killer App?
So much so that Ning is keeping it free for teachers
With over 14 million subscribers, Facebook has taken Canada by storm as the social media platform of choice, particularly in youth and young adult categories. In the 13-17 age group, penetration rates are 75%; in the 18-35 age group the rate is estimated to be 97%. It’s no stretch to think of Facebook as the de facto identification card of Canada’s youth. It is the primary tool that this generation uses – and not just for staying in touch and finding old friends and new ones; Facebook is also used for email, chat, and organizing one’s social life. In short, what is emerging is Facebook’s value in terms of collaboration.

We have seen many examples of Facebook’s impact among community groups and communities of interests in putting their events together or for galvanizing protests and demonstrations. However, one area that has been evolving rapidly is its role in education. This could yet prove to be the killer app – one of them, at least – that brings the platform fully into the societal mainstream and provides traction for future inroads.

Social media in the classroom: Is resistance futile?
Consider the case of Facebook being used a couple of years ago by a Ryerson University student to organize a study group as well as to complete assignments. That group, and the students’ output, came under close scrutiny and sparked much heated debate. Instead of limiting or restricting the use of social media tools for educational purposes, it our sense that educators should embrace them.

And they have. Many are using free community platforms such as Facebook and Ning.

For example, university professors and high school teachers alike are using the web to engage their students – for example, to post course work, assignments or reference material. This is primarily a “push” approach – but what about something that could pull students into a dialogue? What if you could use the platform in a more engaging way? Teachers could easily organize their class groups online. They could ensure that their students become active participants, manage their attendance, monitor their collaborations, run small surveys and quizzes – all on a highly individualized basis. They could maintain bulletin boards and post topics that actually enrich student life by encouraging timely, relevant dialogue.

In such ways, and no doubt many other ways not yet imagined, Facebook, Ning and the like could easily become an important extension of the classroom. The fact is, it will always be essential that students collaborate on assignments; with Facebook, we could actually ensure that they do collaborate, and we would know more quickly when someone needs help. Perhaps most important, we could use this platform to create a greater and more intimate sense of community within and beyond the classroom itself.

Instead of investing heavily in web-based technologies, educational institutions should consider taking advantage of a web 2.0 platform, most of which, of course, are free… for now.

Free or monetized? Learn from the example of Ning
When Ning recently announced that they were moving to a pay-per-use platform, school teachers protested in droves, demonstrating forcefully and in no uncertain terms that they have begun to adopt these principles in earnest and are in fact already realizing the potential of collaborative learning. Ning responded swiftly. Even though they are altering their business model to capitalize on their large and dedicated user base, they have bowed to the wishes of public school teachers and will keep access free for them.

In the end, students and teachers alike will be the big winners, and the potential offered to education may be realized sooner rather than later. At this point, social media resources could well offer all of the functionality our teachers require, and then some. And in the context of a true student-centered environment, aimed at fostering greater interactivity, dialogue and overall engagement, web 2.0 community platforms are hard to beat – as any student can tell you.

Resources: Ning Will Remain Free for Public Schoolteachers