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The Power of Social Media to Engage Students Online

Lisa TextingTeachers should want to be where students are engaging.

Today that means being online, said Lisa Nielsen, New York City Department of Education’s director of digital literacy and citizenship. Nielsen is also the brain behind the Innovative Educator blog and co-author of  “Teaching Generation Text.”

When Nielsen looks back on her school days, she remembers being a good student, but she also remembers just not being that into it. What was going in the classroom really didn’t connect to what was going on in life, she said.

With social media, teachers today have a chance to break through to students like Nielsen used to be. Technology allows teachers to show how what students are learning — saying and writing well — connects to things students care about and gives kids a chance to make a mark on the world.

“I have always been really interested in giving kids a real voice in this world,” Nielsen said. And it is an effective way to get students’ attention, too.

Early in her career, Nielsen saw elementary school students become engaged with writing when they were able to create something as simple as how-to books for real people to read. Suddenly, the writing mattered.

Technology has made reaching that real audience on real topics even easier.

“(Social media) is one of the most amazing tools for reaching an authentic audience,” Nielsen said.

“When we start to think about my days of schools being irrelevant and boring, it doesn’t have to be like that anymore. Now, students can change their lives and the world for the better.”

After putting together an early technology library, working with children on connecting the outside world with other tools, Nielsen said she quickly realized the power of social media, and her enthusiasm shows.

“I was like ‘this is freakn’ awesome,’ ” she said.

Still, many teachers or administrators are fearful of allowing digital teacher/student connections. Some have gone so far as to ban those relationships. While Nielsen understands the concerns behind such rules, she thinks they can stifle teachers’ ability to influence and guide education where they can have the biggest impact.

“We need to be involved in the lives our children online,” she said. “You don’t want inappropriate behavior in real life or online. But you want teachers to be part of the lives of their students.”

Nielsen has a few guidelines that she believes helps improve the teacher-student online connection by giving students a guide to their work and helping them understand their potential impact on the world around them.

Give kids access to their digital education

Whatever it is that students create, make sure they have access to their work when they leave. That makes it more than a class assignment. It gives projects real impact in the larger world and gives the student a sense of ownership.

“Make it a real blog, a real website, a real Tumblr,” Nielsen recommends.

You don’t have to “friend” your students

Many teachers worry about how to appropriately connect with students online. One of the Nielsen’s recommendations is to have teachers create groups that students join on Facebook. That way there is the connection without invading a student’s (or teacher’s) privacy.

Teach students to do social media well

A student who does social media well is better poised for a career or college. It makes sense that teachers would help students put their best image out into the world. Nielsen has a few tips for doing just that. She has teachers go through a social media makeover first, so they can walk their students through it.

Create age-appropriate social media interactions

Students are never too young to share their work or ask questions of the wider world. It’s just important that they do so within appropriate bounds. Nielsen suggestion a class Twitter account that allows students to ask questions or share work. People do respond.

To engage students today, Nielsen said, social media must be part of the classroom.

“In the 21st century, it is really educational neglect to not teach this,” Nielsen said.

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