Social Media in K-12 Schools

Teacher Editorial  |  By Dawn Rothwell

Social Media Access in K-12 Schools

Photo Credit: William Iven
Photo Credit: William Iven

As a high school teacher and administrator, I have witnessed both the positive and negative effects of social media in the classroom for teenagers.  It is easy to implicate social media as a distractor for students in the classroom, as well you would not have to wander very far to bump into a teacher who has some story about how social media has been used for cyberbullying.  As a result of these concerns, educational policy makers have introduced a variety of Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) over the years to monitor and control students’ use and access to technology based on competing policy frames (Ahn, Bivona, & DiScala, 2011).  Should school policies be framed in safety (to monitor and block student access to new technologies) or should policies be framed in media literacy (to integrate and teach students how to utilize new technologies within the classroom)?  Our experiences as parents and educators during the rise of social media has fueled the debate regarding the merits of social networking in schools.  What is the suitability of social media use in K-12 schools?  To help address this question, I have turned to a recent review of research-based literature conducted by Greenhow and Askari (2017), to further help inform us on these current issues in education regarding the use of social network media (SNS).

What does the research say?

Photo Credit: Saulo Mohana
Photo Credit: Saulo Mohana

Over the years, there have been many studies conducted to investigate the pedagogical potential of using social media in schools.  The use of social network sites have been cited as having potential to support collaborative knowledge construction, timely access to information, academic help-seeking, development of communication competencies, and blurring the lines between learning, social, and leisure spaces (Manca & Ranieri, 2013).   However, many teachers remain uncertain about if they should incorporate social networking media into their lessons or how to meaningfully integrate SNS into their classroom practices.  Greenhow and Askari (2017) surveyed a decade of educational research literature (2004-2014) to examine “how such technologies are perceived and used by students and teachers in K-12 education with what impacts on students’ learning or teachers’ pedagogy” (p. 624).  Their research uncovered five common themes in the studies they surveyed: students’ informal learning outside of school; students’ formal learning in schools and classrooms; connections between in- and out-of-school learning; pre-service teachers’ perceptions and practices, and in-service teachers’ perceptions and practices.  The exploration of research within these five themes may help further our understanding of if, how, and why we incorporate SNS into our classroom practices.

  1. Students’ learning in informal learning environments

Studies have found that students’ have used SNS in informal learning environments as a space to organize group activities, seek social support, validate create work (Erjavec, 2013), and provide students a platform for self-expression and assistance with school related tasks (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009).  Despite these encouraging outcomes, not all studies have reported positive effects of SNS use in education.  Rosen, Mark, and Cheever (2013) found that students are easily distracted by social media sites and reported an average time on task for the students in their study was six minutes (middle and high school aged students).  As a result, these researchers suggested that encouraging students to take short ‘technology breaks’ may improve their ability to study more efficiently.

  1. Students’ learning in formal learning environments

A third of the studies reviewed by Greenhow and Askari (2017) focused on students’ learning within the classroom.  These studies highlighted the usefulness of SNS to facilitate greater task engagement, interaction, and new literacy competencies (Veira, Leacock, & Warrican, 2014).  73% of students reported using Facebook for communicating with classmates, group collaboration, and getting help with homework (Fewkes & McCabe, 2012); however, only 27% of teachers reported integrating SNS into their teaching.  Consequently, these researchers suggested that teachers need more help recognizing how to utilize SNS as a learning and teaching tool.  In fact, there was some consistency amongst the research indicating students are reporting a desire to self-organize and generate ideas using SNS (Casey & Evans, 2011), but argued that the effectiveness of SNS in the classroom is greatly influenced by the teachers ability to enact a culture of collaboration and co-production, as well as establish expectations for learning attitudes.

  1. Connecting students’ in- and out-of-school learning with SNS

Of the 24 studies that were reviewed by Greenhow and Askari (2017), only three studies attempted to explain the connections between students’ in- and out-of-school learning with SNS.  Glusac et al. (2014) found that “the more time students spent informally with social network sties and similar technology, the more they craved the use of those tools in their learning environment – especially for visualizing difficult material” (p. 636).  However, despite the majority of students aged 14-17 reporting that social media generally makes learning more interactive, engaging, and fun when used informally out of school, participants felt that the current use of social media in school is limited and mainly used for assignment submission and grade management (Mao, 2014).  Once again, the effectiveness of social networking media in classroom lessons seems to be hinged upon teachers’ ability to effectively incorporate these technologies into their pedagogical practices.

  1. Pre-service teachers’ perceptions and practices

Pre-service teachers’ are generally younger, beginning teachers still undergoing their teacher education.  Lei (2009) found that despite pre-service teachers’ willingness to try to incorporate social media into their pedagogical practices, they lacked experience and expertise in integrating these technologies into teaching and learning.  Similarly, Sadaf, Newby, and Ertmer (2013) found that pre-service teachers intend to use SNS to increase student-to-teacher and student-to-student interactions, foster collaboration, and share content knowledge; however, they highlighted the need for teacher education programs to simulate these experiences for these beginning teachers to improve their effectiveness at employing these technologies.

  1. In-service teachers’ perceptions and practices

Unfortunately, only one study reviewed by Greenhow and Askari (2017) addressed in-service teachers’ perceptions and practices.  This particular study conducted by Wang, Hsu, Reeves, and Coster (2014) followed 25 middle school science teachers use of Edmodo over four years.  The results of this study revealed “teachers’ positive shifts in their teaching practices by gradually ceding control over the use of technology to students, and the positive impact of this on students’ ICT skills and science learning” (Greenhow & Askari, 2017, p. 638).

So what does this mean for teacher practice?

The research explored by Greenhow and Askari (2017) does identify that SNS “may enhance motivation, higher-order thinking and digital literacy development” (p. 640); however, it lacked a review of studies that monitored the social impact of SNS, as well as there were limited studies that attempted to establish the technology’s effectiveness at improving student learning.  In fact, according to Greenhow and Askari (2017), “no accumulation of studies were found suggesting ‘best practices’ for integrating this social media into pedagogy, tied to student learning outcomes” (p. 642).  This is very unfortunate as parents, teachers, and policy makers are looking for evidence-based data to base their support or rejection of social networking media in classroom practices.  Despite these weaknesses in the research, I still believe that the current research available can still inform our practices with SNS as the field of educational technology advances.  Firstly, the research reports that students’ out-of-school experiences do not align to their in-school experiences of SNS.  Students believe that SNS can provide supports for learning, academic help, collaborative learning, and self-directed learning activities; however, their in-school experiences with SNS primarily reinforce traditional pedagogy and assessment (Greenhow & Askari, 2017).  This leads me to my second take-away – teachers, in general, need more assistance understanding and integrating digital technology into their classrooms.  In fact, this literature has identified a need for “sustained professional development opportunities that expose teachers to research about students’’ experiences with social media and to techniques for assessing their students’ knowledge, attitudes, and expectations” (p. 643).  These efforts to educate teachers to digital technologies using research based studies may help bridge the theory-practice gap until more studies in the field of educational technology are conducted.


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Casey, G., & Evans, T. (2011). Designing for learning: Online social networks as a classroom environment. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7), 1-26.

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Veira, A. K., Leacock, C. J., & Warrican, S. J. (2014). Learning outside the walls of the classroom: Engaging the digital natives. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 30(2), 1-18.

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About the Contributor

Dawn Rothwell is a high school mathematics teacher and administrator with over 16 years of experience in both Canadian and International contexts. Upon completing a Masters of Education degree in Educational Policy Studies, Dawn began focussing both her theoretical and practical professional learning in the areas of policy, technology, and educational change and has now completed the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate through BOLT.

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