Reading, Writing, and … Twittering?

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube aren't yet an integral part of twenty-first century education, but they're no longer viewed strictly as distractions. Few educators who are paying attention are still rolling their eyes at this “fad.” Social media is simply a fact of life for all of us, they realize, and for modern students, the “digital natives” populating today's classrooms, it's an essential part of how they deal with information and with each other.

Digital Literacy

Until very recently, schools that banned students from using social media in the classroom were commonplace. But in the last few years, that attitude has begun to seem quaint, old fashioned, and downright counterproductive. In fact, a growing number of educators are integrating social media into their curriculum, and some are even suggesting that it's their responsibility to teach students how to use it, to help them develop a kind of digital literacy.

Palo Alto, California, high school teacher Esther Wojcicki, who also serves as Chair of the Board of Creative Commons, said it best in a 2010 interview with the author of this book for The Technology Horizons in Education Journal:

People worry about online predators and they forget that students are already putting everything about themselves on Facebook. Their fears are preventing us from teaching students the appropriate use of technology in the schools. They grow to be adults and they get ripped off left and right, because they can't distinguish between an advertising website and an information website. They can't distinguish between fact and fiction. These schools are abdicating their responsibility for teaching kids how to deal with the web.

What's a Digital Native?

The term was coined in 2001 by author, game designer, and educational thought leader Marc Prensky in an article entitled “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” He wrote: “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.”

Self-Directed Learning

In a 2009 study of youth and new media sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation (“Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures”), researchers found that it's not a waste of time for kids to hang out online. In fact, their research showed that the Internet is actually empowering a generation of students that grew up with technology to pursue self-directed learning on their own terms and time schedules.

For the majority of youth in the United States today, social media are now part of their everyday lives, the researchers found. “Ten years ago, if I had stood in this room and said that most kids in the U.S. will have made a personal homepage, I probably would have been laughed out of the room,” said Dr. Mimi Ito, the report's lead author, in a presentation at Stanford University. “Now, in an era of MySpace, that statement is completely unremarkable.”

The ubiquitousness of social media allows students to pursue learning in self-directed ways, the researchers concluded. Students have greater access to information, as well as other people who share their interests, but are not part of their local communities.

The “Millennials” are the members of the post — Generation-X generation. Gen-Xers were born after the Baby Boom between 1980 and 2000. The Millennials are sometimes called Generation Y or Generation Next. This is the generation that is the most comfortable with computer technology, because it has always been a part of their lives.

Offline Values

Parents and teachers might find another of the study's conclusions comforting: As weird and unintelligible as kids' online expressions may be, the basic values those kids learned in the offline world follow them into their new media practices.

“We do not believe that educators and parents need to bear down on kids with complicated rules and restrictions and heavy-handed norms about how they should engage online,” the researchers write in the study's conclusion. “For the most part, the existing mainstream strategies that parents are mobilizing to structure their kids' media ecologies, informed by our ongoing public discourse on these issues, are more than adequate in ensuring that their kids do not stray too far from home.”

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