Teaching Social Media in Our Schools

Winter 2015

Parents and teachers are scared of social media in part because students sometimes use it in mindless and daunting ways but also because many parents and teachers don’t understand its possible benefits. Few, if any, of us are teaching this generation of students how to use social media productively to nurture intellectual passions and develop marketable skills. Students are not following social media accounts that provide information and inspiration. Instead, they do stuff like take photos of their lunch, try to acquire more “likes” than their friends, and embarrass one another with less than flattering photographs.

Educators need to begin to help students build their own responsible digital profiles and use social media for academic enrichment. What crosses students’ desks, or appears in their social media feeds, should be substantive and based on their interests. The best way to create a culture of curiosity, exploration, and sharing is to teach students how to manage content and conversations online. Students who are interested in business, for example, should be guided to the Twitter/Facebook/RSS feeds of the Wall Street JournalBusiness InsiderFinancial Times, or The Economist. Students who are interested in psychology should be guided to Psychology TodayPsychobest, and Psych Central. Unfortunately, there’s little time for this guidance in our crowded curriculum — and, on their own, students can’t be bothered to seek out educational content in place of their social updates. Yet this content, ideally grounded in a student’s curiosity, could form the basis of a lifelong intellectual passion or even a possible career.

Educational institutions equip their graduates with the research skills, organizational skills, analytical skills, and verbal/writing skills to succeed in the workforce. This has been true for decades. But thanks in large part to technology, the professional landscape has changed so much that it’s hard for students to figure out in which industry, or for which cause, they would like to employ their acquired skills. As it is, most universities do not invite academic specialization until students are in their final two years. The best way to help students with these issues is through social media.

Social media provide a forum through which students can learn about and engage with industries and professionals that represent a wide range of intellectual opportunities. The forum invites dialogue and content updates in real-time. We need to teach students what to read and watch in order to develop expertise in a given field. And we need to teach them how to post, like, comment, inquire, reply, and connect in ways that benefit students and their chosen fields of interest. As educators, we know that the best learning is a product of guidance, encouragement, and debate. If there’s a student who is interested in technology, I want to help him or her read, analyze, and debate content from MashableGizmodoCNETWSJD, and Wired, to name a few. If a student wants to save the planet, I’d like to point him or her toward GreenpeaceClimate Desk, and Green Living, and other environmental groups doing good work.

Upon graduating from college in 2009, my friends and I were asked by executives to use the academic skills acquired in college to curate and deliver information that could help organizations advance their brand, cause, or mission. Frequently, we were also asked to combine these skills with our knowledge of social media in order to reach new audiences. Independently, we realized that our ability to flourish in our young careers depended upon our connection with industry leaders, consumption of up-to-date content, and creation of digital profiles, whether for a company or as individuals. Far more effective than a paper résumé, strong digital profiles are the best way for young professionals to progress in a given field, and even move from one field to another.

None of our professors ever advised us to explore social media, nor did they talk about the changing economy that we would inherit as young professionals. Today, economists keep referencing the “startup economy,” but schools aren’t teaching students how to navigate this landscape. Educators should guide students not only in their consumption of information but also in finding internships and other experiential opportunities to build an authentic résumé in a given industry. Ideally, social science teachers should encourage students to follow Re/codeTechstars, or Kickstarter so that they can feel empowered to build their own brand and start their own business when the time comes.

Ironically, if schools taught a class on social media, and that was the only class students took, some could still find employment monitoring feeds, creating snapchats, producing vines, or curating Pinterest for a business. Businesses will pay for these services. Young graduates who have learned to harness the power of social media, update pages, curate a digital footprint, and forge connections to make themselves knowledgeable in their content area and valuable to their employers.

Fulfillment comes from exploring a wide variety of interests and developing an understanding of them all. It’s time to help students pursue interests outside of their core academic courses — or as an extension of a core academic field that deeply interests them. It’s time to help students learn how to customize their own learning and engage in professional dialogue in an appropriate manner. With our guidance, students will feel prepared and confident navigating the professional landscape they inherit. Social media have disrupted society. The learning environment is changing, the professional environment is changing, and schools should be changing with them. If we want our students to be curious, informed, and competitive, we need to acknowledge, appreciate, and, finally, teach social media.