We’re always on, always connected, professors and students alike. Higher ed institutions are no different. In the U.S., one hundred percent of four-year accredited universities, private and public, have a social media presence. As pervasive as social media is, its adoption for teaching purposes has not yet been fully integrated into curricula. Is it because we don’t want to mix the personal with the professional? Do our students really believe that using social media in class will replace their ‘pleasure’ (socialising) with ‘pain’ (learning)? A healthy dose of social media must be part of the post-secondary curriculum, even more so for teaching and learning foreign languages.
What exactly are social networks? We know Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, WordPress, Tumblr; some may even remember Friendster and Myspace. Yet, defining what they are and what they do is challenging. A most simple definition would be that they are “computer-mediated tools that allow users to create, share and exchange information.” Users generate content—audio, visual, text or a combination thereof—, which can be shared either publicly (open to all users or the general public) or privately (select users only allowed) or somewhere in between (permission-based), on an online network. Simply put, it’s a way to communicate and exchange information like never before.
Community and Identity
Social media can connect the Italian language community and culture to the classroom in innovative online learning spaces that extend the traditional physical boundaries of the classroom and provide real-life, socially relevant situations with authentic and organic exchanges while engaging speakers in the target language.
In this online space, we can encourage our students to suspend or reflect on their beliefs of what they think they know about language, culture, language learning, and learning in general, and become a member of community comprised of digital technologies to communicate, learn, create, connect and participate in culture. “The online identity our students assume on social media sites, — according to danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft and founder of Data&Society (New York) — conveys their membership within that community.” To build different communities for our students in the target language and culture will allow the student to be more engaged in an Italian identity, and strengthen their learning potential.
Who belongs to this community? Teens use social media for socializing mostly with their peers, people they already know, and slowly expand their social circle to include friends of their friends, a natural evolution. In a social learning situation, these same rules apply so the instructor may create a community of students from the same class, students from the same course but different sections, introduce native language speakers (evolving from the communal connection of peers), and perhaps even famous Italian personalities who are active on social networks.
Openness and Connectedness
Why would we use social media platforms that were not designed with teaching in mind? Because this is the way students want to learn – a mix of instructional models including social media that provide opportunities for self-directed, collaborative learning. When learning is personalized and students participate voluntarily, learning becomes more engaging and effective.
The first time I taught with Twitter in 2009 in the intermediate Italian classroom, some truly unexpected learning situations arose that positively impacted student learning. Through an organic evolution within the Twitter community, Giovanni, an Italian preparing for a trip to New York, solicited travel advice. After a brief exchange with Giovanni, I introduced him to my students using a tweet, and they happily exchanged information with him about some less touristy things to do in New York. “Thank your students and tell them I appreciate the effort they are making to learn Italian because I too am trying to improve my English (very poor) – Giovanni wrote – Anyway, congratulations on using these social tools to teach Italian and to push your students to relate to us Italians in a simple and fun way! (smiley emoticon)”
Not only is tweeting fun and simple (not at all intimidating with only 140 characters), but it also opens up a real world experience for negotiation of meaning through an authentic interaction of input, output and context. The opportunities afforded by open and connected social media tools cannot be emulated in a traditional classroom setting.
Seven years ago, a Wordpress blog post on Italian immigrant Roger Morigi, master stone carver whose gargoyles adorn the Washington National Cathedral brought about another a-ha moment of openness. A student (who now teaches Italian in NJ) wrote an excellent article in Italian based on a textbook reading, which was then elaborated through additional research including videos and images. On the very last day of the semester, the blog post received a comment. “I came across this site by chance, I am the grand niece of Roger Morigi (he was my grandmother’s brother) – shared Muriel Campi – and I can assure you that beyond being a master stone carver (“The Stone Carvers” won an Oscar in the U.S.), he created marvelous sculptures. Moreover he was a fantastic person. Reading this blog post to his memory I was moved.” This feedback is priceless.
As educators, we must always put the pedagogy first, the technology second. Keeping this in mind, we should indeed acknowledge that the potential of social media is endless, so it’s our responsibility to make clear the objectives and expectations for socials in the classroom. Like many faculty members, I too have explored the promise of using social media as a supplemental tool. Since my area of expertise is the language classroom, in the next posts I will share experiences, offering tips & tools, putting the pedagogy first, for integrating social network sites that are currently all the rage according to the Pew Research Center’s Teen Relationships Survey (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Google+, Vine, and Tumbler).