HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Creating a Culture of Experimentation with Social Media to Enhance Student Learning

by Lisa Colton and Derek Gale Issue: Rising Ed Trends

This article aims to demystify social media by encouraging simple, concrete steps that will enable faculty to start using these tools while ensuring that technology serves the school’s educational goals and vision.

True integration of technology into curriculum is still a new, emerging and rapidly evolving field. Often we see schools laying technology on top of curriculum to be able to demonstrate that they’re a “21st century school,” but “technology for technology’s sake” is never a good answer. What’s interesting about social media is not the technology, it’s what the technology makes possible. Further, while the current skills of teachers and available technology infrastructure may be a challenge (and of course vary widely), learning social media tools and applying them in classroom settings requires little infrastructure and minimal training.

But it does require creativity, experimentation, and a willingness to let the learning opportunities emerge. Here, we lay out 4 key lessons to help schools and teachers use social media to enhance student learning.

First, we need to acknowledge that the tools, uses and applications of technology are a constantly moving target. You could invest in a massive teacher training effort today, and by next year some of it will be passé, and new ideas and tools will have emerged. Thus, lesson number one is that we need to adopt a nimble, open and flexible culture that supports experimentation, reflection and sharing, so teachers, schools and our field as a whole engage in a constant process of iteration to improve our practice and share what’s working (as well as what’s not). How can you help your teachers be experimental and playful with the tools at their disposal?

In the software world (and now starting to expand elsewhere too), this is called “agile development.” Products are developed in an iterative and incremental process where solutions evolve through collaborations between self-organizing, cross-functional teams (which often include customers and marketers, not only the developers, and in our context could include students, teachers, parents and others). The agile approach promotes adaptive planning and evolutionary development—a constant process of responding to change.

In the Jewish day school context, we should also recognize that this approach to problem solving is a valuable skill to be teaching our students, from editing papers to science experiments to art projects. To be successful Jewish 21st century citizens, our students need to know how to solve problems, use their own networks, and apply available tools in purposeful ways. While many of them know juvenile uses of many common tools, they are quick to apply those skills to much more purposeful endeavors when challenged and given the opportunity.

For example, in collaboration with the Jewish Women’s Archive, a group of high school students contributed photos of their mothers and grandmothers to an online archive on Flickr, and researched their family histories through names, tags and groups. By chatting with the organizer of a collection of photos about women in World War II, one student even found photos of his grandmother in a DP camp that no one in his family had ever seen before.

Second, recognize that we are not striving just to use technology for technology’s sake, but as a powerful (and often simple) tool to deepen, broaden and energize student learning. Too often we see teachers layering technology on top of what they generally do, making curriculum more complicated, investing serious resources in new hardware, or chasing “shiny objects” (the latest new gadget or app) to be able to say they are using the latest technology.

Instead of layering on top, encourage teachers to think deeply about how to integrate technology into the curriculum to help achieve stated curricular goals in new, deeper, broader or more creative ways. By emphasizing the importance of gaining quality by integrating a tool, you de-emphasize the technology for technology’s sake. The result is less anxiety, fear or stress about pushing the right buttons, choosing the right tool, or the cost of major investments. Oftentimes, the most valuable tools are already at your fingertips, and don’t require a steep learning curve. They require play. Which is quite an effective way to learn.

For example, through the Darim Online Social Media Boot Camp for Educators, funded by The Covenant Foundation, the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago explored the use of a variety of simple, readily available tools in the classroom. They encouraged teachers to experiment and play, and then to document what they were doing and how it went.

One teacher used Twitter to reach out to the author of a book they recently read, and coordinated a video Skype date to connect students directly with the author. The students prepared questions and engaged in a conversation with an author—a unique, no-cost, low-stress and profound experience for all involved.

Another BZAEDS teacher experimented with an app called Explain Everything to produce her first “flipped classroom” video, which she then posted on YouTube for students to watch and comment on. By allowing students to watch a video versus listen to a live lecture, and by sending them to YouTube—a platform with which they are all familiar and of which many are regular users—she was able to offer a different way for the students to engage with her while they were in the classroom. The positive student feedback was beyond the teacher’s wildest dreams—they thought it was a cool way to learn, begged for more videos and even asked to learn to make the videos themselves.

Third, encourage a social and collaborative process of professional learning within your school community. While there is no right or wrong way to integrate technology, there are better and worse ways to achieve your goals with quality and elegance. The question is: what’s the best path to achieve it? No single professional development experience is going to teach you all that you need to know. And no one technology specialist can provide the creative ideas and full integration each teacher will need. Thus, rule number three is to workshop your ideas, share, document, and share some more. We can all benefit from learning what others are doing and how it’s going.

At BZAEDS, administrators and technology leaders are not only encouraging teachers to experiment and innovate, but also to share with one another via teacher-led professional development sessions. As teachers share, their colleagues are inspired to try new ideas, and now have a go-to person as a resource. Further, colleagues workshop ideas together in grade-level and/or cross-departmental teams, discussing what could have gone more smoothly, or how to expand on an idea the next time around. As they document their efforts, they are literally creating a toolkit of case studies for their faculty to use. (Read more about BZAEDS at bit.ly/bzaeds-blog.)

The Knoxville Jewish Day School graduated from the AVI CHAI-funded Jewish Day School Social Media Academy this year with a renewed commitment to extend their new social media and technology skill from the office into the classrooms. After considering various school-wide technology initiatives, they decided that this coming year they are piloting a new Google-inspired 80/20 approach. One of the famous benefits of working at Google is the 20 percent time program. Google allows its employees to use up to 20 percent of their work week to pursue special projects—at first random, pie-in-the-sky or playful ideas, but a number of which go on to become some of Google’s best products.

KJDS is reallocating the technology professional development funds to give each teacher the freedom and support to pursue her or his own projects. “The focus is on the experience,” says Head of School Miriam Esther Wilhelm. “Because we are offering the freedom to ‘work on whatever you want,’ we are also offering the freedom to fail, because without failure there can be no innovation or true experimentation.” Teachers will have requirements for reflection, reporting and sharing, and they hope to have a diverse set of “experts” on staff who can all serve as resources for one another. (You can learn more about their plans here: bit.ly/kjds80-20.)

Fourth, develop your own personal learning network through social media. This meta-experience will help keep you up to date on tools and functionality, will connect you to other who are experimenting and have ideas to share, and will assist you as you seek to use various tools by speeding up your learning curve and helping you hit the nail on the head the first time around. As it says in Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.”

There are a number of Facebook groups that are a great place to start. JEDLAB (facebook.com/groups/jdsmedialab) conversations are often 20-50 comments long, and members love to chew on interesting ideas and help their colleagues dream big and be creative. The JDS Social Media Academy (facebook.com/groups/jdssocialmedia) includes day school representatives who are actively using social media for marketing and alumni relations, as well as integrating these tools into the classroom, and is a great source of practical advice. Darim Educators (facebook.com/groups/darimeducators) includes Jewish educators from a variety of settings who are using all sorts of tools in their curriculum and are always willing to share their experience and offer suggestions.

We are living, teaching, and learning at a revolutionary time. The accessibility of information and engagement that our students enjoy today is truly unprecedented. The pace of change—of the technology, our students’ lives, and the culture in which we live—is rapid and sometimes overwhelming. Thus, as leaders we must be attentive to designing internal learning cultures that support experimentation, celebrate discoveries, and promote knowledge-sharing to advance everyone’s work. As Jews we are great at learning, but we need to be careful not to become paralyzed by our desire to master something before using it. Na’aseh ve-nishma: sometimes we have to do, and then we will understand.

What tools will you start playing with this year?

Lisa Colton is the chief learning officer for See3 Communications, and the founder and president of Darim Online, a nonprofit which runs social media training programs for day schools and other Jewish organizations. lisa@see3.com, @darimonline

Derek Gale is director of marketing & communications at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. dgale@bzaeds.org

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