Social Networks are Supposed to Serve Us, Not the Other Way Around

I was having a meeting yesterday with an educator who wanted to get better acquainted with the online social realm and start cultivating a Professional Learning Network.  Of course, we started with Twitter as a cornerstone for building a PLN, though our conversations wandered into Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.  There is no doubt that if you’re just starting to dip your toe into the online world of social networks, it can be pretty overwhelming, and I could sense that somewhat from my colleague.  At the end of our conversation, I wanted her to be perfectly clear on one thing:  Social networks are supposed to serve us, and not the other way around.

While I have made an effort to join many different social networks (mostly to understand what they’re all about), I don’t feel any obligation to participate in networks that don’t serve my needs.  In general, here is where I put my energy:

  • Facebook – Personal connections with friends and family
  • Twitter – Professional connections and learning
  • Google+ – The occasional update, mostly because it’s a place where I can post files publicly that I hope others will find useful (e.g. my creative commons images)

I get why other people fall in love with Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and other networks.  But, no matter how good these other networks are at what they do, they don’t serve my needs enough to warrant much of my time.

This got me thinking about how I promote social networking in education.  Personally, I have had tremendous success with integrating social networks into my classes in the past (Wikis, Ning, Elgg, Edmodo, GAFE, etc.), and I encourage other educators to try it with their classes.  However, I have heard many teachers complain that, “kids don’t use the course wiki/blog/site; they don’t want a Facebook for education!

I have a strong inclination to think that this lack of participation is an issue of relevance:  Your online classroom exists to serve your students, and not the other way around.  So, if you’re kids are not engaged with your site, you may not have adequately answered the question, “what do my students really need this site for?,” and by extension, “how do I redesign my site or my approach to social networking to address that need?”  (Remember, creating a class blog so that you can assess your students’ writing skills serves your immediate needs, not theirs.)

Here are a few questions to consider if you’ve been disappointed with how your students use your class site:

  • Are you holding onto the reins too tightly?  (e.g. “You are required to write two blog posts that connect to our Sound unit by the end of the week.”)
  • Do kids have the freedom to take some ownership in the online space? (e.g. “Sir, I added a section for funny Physics videos!”)
  • Are you empowering leadership? (e.g. “Melissa – will you be in charge of posting a tricky math problem on the class site every Friday?”)
  • What can kids get on your social network that they cant get anywhere else?  (e.g. Hint:  Class community – Students making help videos, posting photos from class, or sharing inside jokes, etc.)

To be clear, I don’t think you should try and compete with Facebook – you cant, and shouldn’t.  Facebook (or whatever kids use) is already serving the social needs of your students.  What you are trying to do is serve the learning needs of your students.  Posting up assignments is a start – the kids definitely need to have those.  But cultivating a community online that is focused on learning will serve the other needs of your kids:  the need to feel connected to others in learning, the need to have a voice in learning, the need to laugh and have fun while learning, and the need to ask questions and get support while learning.  This is what will make your social network relevant to your students.

Photo Credit:  Tanja Scherm


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