Writing about digital technology in education isn’t easy. Digital technology is constantly changing which makes it difficult to grasp from a scientific point of view, but this is our brave new world where nothing stays the same for long. Elza Dunkels was keynote speaker at the seminar Medietanken in Vasa (30.1.2015) and one of her sentiments was that the question we need to ask is how digital solutions can transform education, but we easily get sidetracked by questions like ”Should Instagram/Facebook/X be prohibited in schools?” and thus we focus on the disruptive nature of digital technology. Teachers who ask the latter question only see the digital noise, which is what Peter DePietro (2013) calls all that nonsense online that we really don’t need and contributes nothing to the learning process. Questions like that don’t challenge teaching practices. Teachers should contemplate the new directions social media can take education.
The usual didactical questions should be asked: what is the purpose of this assignment, how will it be conducted, but also what tools are needed? Before you can plan digital assignments you need to know the available technology. But you might also need to re-think your own view on knowledge and assessment. If you think knowledge can only be transmitted from teacher to student, virtual environments will be of little use to you. If you assume the only way to assess students’ knowledge is through written exams that are performed alone and preferably without access to Internet, then again, virtual learning environments will not aid you as a teacher.
According to DePietro the key to using social media successfully is to incorporate co-operation and interactive learning on different levels. Twitter can be used to summarize course content through students’ tweets, re-tweets and comments. But the real challenge lies in supporting interaction between students. The idea is to learn from each other, not to post texts only for the teacher to read. The tweets can be assessed as a collaborative assignment, through hashtags you create a wall for your course which is easy to access when it’s time for assessment. DePietro used Facebook as an exam space, where each student answered one question based on a book they all had read. The students read the answers written by other students and liked the answers they agreed on, part of the test also required commenting on answers by others. This was a novel way of actually collaborating through social media while testing/discussing content knowledge. DePietro’s aim with that test was to put content first and technology second as a way of introducing New Media to his students. If we choose the media first, it might not work well with the intended pedagogy. There are many different ways of collaborating; brain-storming sessions, developing a creative product, reflecting on different topics, writing an assignment together. The teacher need to know what the different social medias can provide, but according to DePietro it’s also important to explain to students why social media are used. For those of us who facebook or tweet recreationally it might be surprising to find that they can be used for educational purposes, and it’s quite common that students don’t take social media seriously as a learning space.
It takes time to learn to use apps educationally, which is why DePietro suggests sticking to one social media at a time. Blogging is not the same as microblogging (like Twitter), the didactical aim is probably very different, and students might get frustrated if the teacher is constantly changing the learning space. Dunkels concluded that it’s time to realize that digitalization is here, it’s staying and it’s part of our daily lives outside and inside the classrooms. The question now is what we do with it as teachers, as students and researchers.
Charlotta Hilli is writing her PhD thesis ”Upper secondary school students’ views on learning in a virtual learning environment” as part of the project DiDiDi