Social media as a tool for teaching

With the obvious lack of content regulation and the coronavirus pandemic increasing our reliance on various social platforms, is the social media revolution putting the most vulnerable students at risk? Nicola Yeeles explores

Social media is often viewed as a distraction or a threat to children’s safety, but lockdown has made some educators even more innovative when it comes to its use for teaching and learning. What’s more, the Chinese social media giant TikTok is starting to commission educational content from UK universities and charities in a sign of confidence that the teen sensation is set to refocus. As a result, keeping students safe on social media is fast becoming a priority for education organisations, but are they succeeding and do the benefits justify their efforts?

Social media is not one ‘amorphous thing’

The term ‘social media’ encompasses a range of applications. Rich Keith, CEO of specialist influencer marketing and content agency Fourth Floor, explains, “The key is not to think of ‘social media’ as one amorphous thing, but rather as distinct tools that help people navigate through their need for entertainment (video apps such as YouTube, TikTok and some of Instagram and Facebook), connection (chat apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat and communities like Discord and Reddit) and status (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter).”

He urges educators to consider not simply posting videos of classes or lectures online, but to use this post-lockdown opportunity to engage with their students’ behaviour, being mindful that video and photos underpin most social media content: “Giving students the ability to not always have to write (type) but use video and photography across the curriculum and not confining it to art-based studies would enable much better buy-in and free them to think in the way that they live their lives.”

“I feel using Twitter not only engages students with the course material, it also supports the development of key communication skills” – Dr Christina Stanley

The perks of Twitter

Threats to students on social platforms include seeing and experiencing negative content; online grooming; abuse and bullying; radicalisation and other threats posed by inaccurate information. As a result, using social media for pedagogical purposes is more common in the university than schools’ sector, although this may change as schools become more confident about managing online safety. Dr Christina Stanley is senior teaching fellow in the Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences at the University of Chester and has used Twitter as an assessment tool. She says, “I feel using Twitter not only engages students with the course material, it also supports the development of key communication skills. Learning to use it in a constructive manner helps my students become more employable.”

In London, Dr Anastasia Denisova, senior lecturer in journalism, agrees that her University of Westminster students learn more through using Twitter. She says, “When I present at international media conferences, I add bullet points and a quick summary of my presentation on Twitter; I attend the talks of other academics and provide ‘live reporting’ on Twitter. When I read a great academic article, I will share the main points as a Tweet and add a link – this means that my students and I have this depository of knowledge that we all can come back to. If students follow me, they can also explore more pathways for a media career and hopefully benefit from some of the tips they find on my Twitter.”

Safeguarding on socials

For younger students, though, the issue of how to keep them safe is a trickier question. The UK government has a stated objective to ‘make the UK the safest place to be online’ and in its Online Harms white paper from 2019 aims to make companies more responsible for their users’ safety online, especially children and other vulnerable groups. It proposes establishing a new duty of care towards users in law, which will be overseen by an independent regulator – Ofcom. David Wright, director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, says, “Empowering everybody to use technology free from harm is the mission of our charity and whilst there have been some delays, I believe that the regulator would be a positive addition to help better protect children, [and] indeed everyone, online.”

South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), as a partner in the UK Safer Internet Centre, has spent the last two decades supporting schools to both protect their students online and give them the vital digital skills they need to navigate online harms.

The question remains: is the message getting through to students? Wright says, “In 2015 SWGfL conducted a survey through Ofsted, asking all those involved in schools how they educate/learn about online safety.

The educators mentioned tutor time; Personal, Social, Health and Economic education or PSHE; and computer studies lessons, while the students themselves mentioned only occasional assemblies.”

It’s clear that many schools must do more to embed the messages across the curriculum.

social media

Encourage kids to talk

But when time is tight, it can be tempting to focus on what can go wrong and hope that students will learn from mistakes. Wright says, “We are critical of a manufacturing approach – for example, where a year group watches videos of extreme harm online. This provokes shock and awe if the students can’t see themselves in that position and it’s therefore entertainment.” He warns against raising awareness of particularly harmful websites by name, stating: “With warnings like ‘don’t go and look at it’, all you do is heighten curiosity and interest; you drive people, especially children, to go and look at it. A more effective message for a school to give to pupils and parents is that if you do feel uneasy about anything come and talk to us about it.”

Maria Pinto, regional director at Watchguard Technologies, says, “Children should know that sharing too much personal information can make them more vulnerable to attack or cyberbullying. Social media accounts are a treasure trove of birthdates, education histories and family relations, commonly used in online security checks.”

“They also need to be aware that more cybercriminals are using social platforms like Facebook and Instagram to distribute malware via phishing. On social media, young people are more likely to click on links they would typically avoid in an email.”

Wright argues that much of the ongoing social media advice is 10–15 years old: “For example, [saying] ‘don’t post personal information online’ – with social media that’s the entire point… Some of the messaging lacks sophistication and relevance in terms of where social media is today and that can be dangerous.”

The organisation’s 360° safe tool allows schools and academy trusts to review their online safety provision, benchmark it against good practice and other schools/academies, produce action plans and access good practice resources. One example comes from Somerset; in 2019, Castle Cary Community School became the 400th school in the UK to gain the prestigious online safety mark for excellence in online safety provision.

They were praised for their whole-school approach with an effective online safety committee, excellent regular communication with parents and rapid responses to issues parents raised, as well as high visibility of online safety around the school.

Wright concludes, “Social media can bring tremendous benefits in the levels of interaction with students and student engagement, and bring the educational institution closer to the students. On the other side, we have to be fully responsible and knowledgeable about the consequences and challenges of social media.” The government’s new regulatory framework may go some way towards helping educators overcome those challenges.

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