Social networking sites are extremely popular among students, but there appear to be two competing trends for social media in school classrooms and on university campuses.

Some teachers and lecturers are embracing Facebook and Twitter as new ways of communicating with students, and some universities and school boards are banning access to social networking tools entirely, citing security concerns.

Twitter in the lecture hall

Monica Rankin, a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, is using Twitter as a tool for classroom discussion, sharing links and taking notes.

Students can participate during class using laptop computers or text-messages from their cellphones, or after class to review class material and collaborate on assignments.

Rankin and her students talk about their Twitter experiment in this YouTube video.

Concordia University and the New Brunswick Department of Education are among those who have blocked access to Facebook at school, although Concordia has since reversed the ban. Chicago Public Schools have recently required its teachers to communicate with students only through their official email accounts. No Facebook, Twitter or texting.

There's even a Facebook group to ban social networking sites in schools.

Ann-Louise Davidson, an assistant professor with the Educational Technology Program at Concordia, says she understands why educators are blocking these applications.

"They have good reasons to do so. There are intense debates around the question," she says. But she insists that Facebook and Twitter "have great potential for learning in the classroom."

"Let's say I'm a French teacher in Ontario and I would like to network with other French people in Canada," says Davidson. "Facebook would be a great tool for that, but the lessons have to be designed to use those [tools] properly. If it's just going to be free time on the web, then I totally understand why the school boards would block these technologies."

However, Davidson says educating students about appropriate use of social media will need to be a part of the curriculum. 

"Kids do have access to these technologies outside school. They are powerful tools, and kids need to be taught how to use them wisely. They need to develop critical skills to select information and to make decisions about information. They also need to be critical about who they meet on the internet and what they tell them, [and] what they post."

Beyond privacy concerns

Davidson says technological skills are best learned as an integral part of a lesson, not as a separate class. "Like a computer programming language, it should be an integral part of the day," she says. "In society, people don't learn how to use a new software just for the sake of learning to use a new software. They learn to use it because they need to use it for a reason."

Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, says the problem with using Facebook and other commercial social networking tools goes beyond the privacy concerns.

Blogging before they can read

When you think about blogs in the classroom, you might not picture the students being five or six years old.

But Kathy Cassidy's Grade 1 class in Moose Jaw, Sask., uses a class blog and aYouTube account to share pupils' work with parents and other students around the world.

"The visual element is very important for them," says Cassidy. "At the beginning of the year, they are non-readers, so they get all of their information through visual and aural means. Although they can read by the end of the school year, they definitely prefer visual applications to text-based ones."

"Having said that, they do love their blog as well, I think because they feel a sense of ownership," she says.

The Grade 1s are also paired with students at the University of Regina who act as writing mentors and "blogging buddies."

Pychyl argues that while discussion groups, chat, blogs and email can be valuable tools in the classroom, using commercial products like Facebook and Twitter can lead to distraction and procrastination. Because these social networking tools can be used to follow friends and celebrities, view pictures, chat, and play games, they can create problems in the classroom.

"Facebook is like taking a person with a gambling problem to Vegas. It's just too easy to get doing other things rather than the hard work of intellectual work," says Pychyl. "And Twitter's even worse."

Pychyl says many of the functions teachers are looking to Facebook to provide can be found in social software specifically designed for education.

"The kind of things that we want to do with technology to have students work together can be easily done through other classroom management systems."

A question of context

Classroom management systems, or e-learning systems, such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn, are software packages designed for teachers to develop course material and for students to research online, communicate and submit and collect their work.

Pychyl says these tools are specifically designed for learning and connecting people to information and each other. "Going to Facebook is like saying 'Let's go do our work at the arcade,'" he says.

It's a question of context, Pychyl says, and Facebook and Twitter don't provide a context that conducive to learning. "That virtual space is for a different purpose," he says. 

"When we get into a context, our brains just go where they go most easily, which is automatic pilot, and that's not the place that going to stretch and pull you to do learning. I think some of the faculty that are [using Facebook] are just enamored with this new space, but they're not considering the larger psychological issues,"

And Pychyl says he's not the only one worried that Facebook can lead to procrastination and time-wasting.

"It's the students that tell me, 'Oh, I just spend way too much time on Facebook. It's just a black hole,'" he says.

Corrections

  • The story initially implied that Concordia University's ban on Facebook was still in place. The university lifted the ban in August 2009.
    Sep 11, 2009 1:40 PM ET