Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Facebook in Teaching & Learning: Meeting the Net Generation on Their Level

Without a doubt, we live in the age of Facebook. Its millions of users attract millions more seemingly every day as easier access to technology and internet proliferate modern day life. The social firestorm that it is has not come without controversy. Private lives become more and more public and the question of personal privacy and property becomes increasingly muddled. Many peers my age have thought critically about de-activating their Facebook accounts in attempt to reclaim themselves from the public sphere. Already having graduated high school and having laid the foundations for our adult identities when Facebook first emerged, we can easily recall the simpler days before Facebook’s arrivals and sometimes even long for them. Those just a few years younger than us who are definitively considered to be kids of the Net Generation, however, have never known a world without social networking defining their adolescence. Herein lies the challenge for adults, parents, and teachers raising up this generation to follow and forge new footsteps in the world.

Even a younger adult like me must re-adjust her expectations about how these youth perceive the world. As an aspiring teacher, this burden is in some ways even greater as I must learn to try to make an old machine—the U.S. education system—remain contemporary and relevant to its users—students. Though not currently in a classroom, I do work with high-schoolers in a weekend mentoring program. At 15 and 16, they do not know life without Facebook since they were only 7 or 8 when Facebook first arrived. The irony is that this particular group of students was not even in the U.S. when Facebook hit since they are all recent immigrants. One can imagine how wide the socio-cultural, technological gap was when they first arrived in the U.S., and then wonder in amazement how quickly and easily they bridged it to become prolific users of the internet. In spite of their beginning proficiency in English, they chat, check-in with each other, share likes and dislikes, and articulate their hopes, dreams, and frustrations, illustrating an impressive fluency in this medium of communication. It is a tool that has allowed them to bridge the worlds of identity they balance between their new lives in the U.S. and their previous lives in their home countries. They wear their hearts on their Walls, and in order to strengthen our mentor-mentee relationships with them, as group leaders, we utilize Facebook to meet them on their level.

We share interesting news articles and resources about current events with our mentees, and also comment and joke with them. There are many photo albums full of funny pictures with equally entertaining captions. Managing this kind of online relationship with them is not a difficult task for most of the mentors since we are Facebook users ourselves, and our relationship with them is not such a formal one that overtones of being viewed as authority figures loom. But naturally, this kind of relationship may prove to be more difficult for classroom teachers who often struggle to maintain respectful student-teacher relationships in-person in their classrooms. Thus, the pros and cons for teachers of using Facebook in the same manner that we do needs additional consideration. While I am actually quite apprehensive of having this kind of online relationship with my future students and think it is precarious for a teacher to maintain, I have heard of teachers who manage it with great success.

Therefore, it should not be stricken from teachers' toolboxes as a way of facilitating teaching and learning, and even more so of fostering relationships, but it is a personal choice for each teacher depending on her or his level of comfort with the technology. I think what is possible and within reach of all teachers is finding a way to allow Facebook and other social networking tools to become a medium for student-centered, self-directed learning. However, students capable and mature enough to manage self-directed learning do not come out of thin air, so internet literacy and manners must be a part of classroom dialogue and teaching. This literacy is not just the responsibility of teachers to impart, but parents as well. Those less familiar with Facebook shy away from trying to understand it as a lens through which their youth view the world, but in doing so, we deprive them of skills needed to think critically and discern appropriate uses of this sometimes unwieldy medium. With our high-schoolers, mentors rarely hesitate to "call out" mentees when they use derogatory or hurtful language with their group peers on Facebook. While it is not the opportunity to lecture in full on the reasons why they should adjust their online behavior, it is still a veritable "teachable moment". In the classroom, these should not just be teachable moments, but standard parts of the curriculum, for instance in an English Language Arts class when students learn to manipulate character, voice, and perspective in their writing.

I agree that Facebook as it stands today may not be the best modality for teaching and learning, but teachers and parents much understand that it is a modality among adolescent learners that will not disappear any time soon. Therefore, they need to supply their students and children with the appropriate skills to manage this modality of life just as they might teach them to deal with writing an analytical argument in essays or financial responsibility at home. At its very core, Facebook is a tool for communication, and communication is at the heart of how we pass on our knowledge and history to future generations.

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