Last week I participated in an interesting webinar on the use of blogging to teach college History courses. History professors from around the country discussed different kinds of assignments that could incorporate blogs and raised concerns about the use of blogs, including the relevance of the format to teaching History, the challenge of grading blog posts, and the fear that students will not approach such assignments with the same thoroughness as essay assignments.
While the webinar was incredibly useful to me as a professor, results from the 2012 Pew Internet and American Life surveys that were published last week make me wonder how relevant blog assignments will be in the next few years. The results reveal that today’s generation is really turned on, but not in the 1960s way: when the Millennial Generation turns on, they do not tune out and they do not drop out. Instead, they are constantly “hyperconnected”:
- 95% of teens ages 12-17 and 96% of those ages 18-29 use the internet
- 76% of the 12-17 demographic and 84% of those 18-29 use social networking sites
- 77% of those aged 12-17 and 97% of those who are 18-29 have cell phones
This means that today’s students are fully engaged in online activities, and more relevant for educators, are less engaged in the extensive writing that blogs require. Instead, they are writing status updates that are shorter and less analytical than blogs. More importantly, however, the researchers found that “a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes, a loss of patience, and a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as ‘fast-twitch wiring’ will be characteristic of this cohort of ‘hyperconnected’ young people.”
This follows up on Pew’s 2010 surveys, which queried the Millennial Generation of young adults ages 18-29 on their use of social media and the Internet, and revealed that today’s high school and college generation are turning away from blogs and instead spend their time on social media networks. If this is the case, and student blogging is declining, educators may want to rethink assigning block writing to their students.
Yet there is an interesting split among education experts about whether the digital obsession of today’s students will be a good thing or a bad thing. In last week’s survey, approximately half of all respondents believed that today’s students will be better equipped with the technical skills needed by the job force of tomorrow, while the other half worry that today’s students will lose social skills, will lose critical thinking and deep cognitive functions, and are overly distracted.
Similar concerns were more than evident in the responses of my colleagues during the webinar. When we shifted into a discussion about Facebook, Twitter and other applications of social media in the classroom, some participants expressed concerns about incorporating social media into their course materials—in fact, a significant number of participants did not have Twitter accounts. They also reported problems with student participation and performance in social media, sharing stories of students who failed to understand the technology of Twitter, did not pay attention to rules about plagiarism, and of course Facebook pages that went nowhere. In my own experience, many of my students did not know what Twitter was, did not want to sign up for it, and then misunderstood it. When I recently posted a notice to Twitter cancelling class due to illness, students either had not checked Twitter and showed up anyway, or got the date wrong and did not come to the following class.
More recent research seems to validate instructor fears. According to USA Today, “When Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania blocked access to several popular social media sites for a week last semester as a consciousness-raising exercise, 25% of participating students reported having ‘better concentration in the classroom.’” There is also a developmental issue: a recent study by Stanford researchers that was published by the journal Developmental Psychology found that among girls ages 8-12 “indicated that negative social well-being was positively associated with levels of uses of media that are centrally about interpersonal interaction… Media multitasking was also associated with negative social indicators.” In other words, the more social media that these girls participated in, the less happy they were. While Matt Richtel points out some of the flaws of this study in The New York Times, educators may want to monitor how they use social media, so that they do not inadvertendtly contribute to any harmful consequences from the use of social media, for the health and well-being of students at all stages of their intellectual development.
The question of social media use in the classroom also raises other important issues for educators. Will the problems that plague social media negatively affect course content? For example, virtual communication lacks certain key characteristics that help clarify meaning and intent, turning what might be an innocent comment into one that is easily misinterpreted. Recently I’ve had to counter some fairly distressing questions from students who struggled to find the right language with which to ask questions in the traditional classroom. One student, in trying to comprehend the Holocaust, asked, “What’s wrong with the Jews that makes people hate them so much?” This was a spoken comment that clearly appears anti-Semitic. In reality, she did not mean it to be. Her obvious horror at anti-Semitism and complete confusion over why anyone would hate a group of people for any reason was made completely clear by her facial expression and hand gestures when she asked that question. But her words came out all wrong–also to her complete horror. When I asked her more questions, it became clear that what she really meant to ask was “what did the Nazis and people of that era think was wrong with Jews?” Her general distress prevented her from finding the right words. But if that question was submitted via online social media, without the additional information about her tone and demeanor, the discussion could quickly have become much more uncomfortable. Thankfully, the cues that showed me and her fellow students what she was really asking turned what could have been a moment out of American History X into a truly teachable moment.
I wonder if social media tools will enable educators to turn such potentially incendiary moments into positive lessons. Can you do such a thing in, say, Twitter’s 140-word limit? Not to mention the fact that somewhere, out there on the Internet, students’ names could be associated with thoroughly distasteful comments that emerge when they have difficulty expressing what they actually mean. Do educators have a responsibility to protect students from making mistakes that will be forever recorded and searchable?
All of these issues, and probably many more, need to be taken into consideration by educators when they create courses that embed social media, and by Millennial Generation students when they participate in them. As for me, I’m still hopeful that today’s technology can be harnessed in such a way as to create meaningful opportunities for critical thinking. I am looking forward to cynically cashing in on the current vampire craze by assigning a Vampire Blog to my students, in which they have to imagine they are immortal Children of the Night and comment on major historical events through a long contextual perspective!