Teaching Science Socially: It's (Not That) Complicated

In her book It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd (@zephoria on Twitter) dispels many of the myths and misconceptions that parents, educators and journalists today perpetuate when it comes to teens’ use of social media. Teens are “addicted” to gadgetry for its own sake. Teens are “digital natives” adept at navigating virtual spaces and online information. Teens today don’t care about their online privacy. According to Boyd, these are just some examples of myths that don’t hold water when we consider empirical research on teens’ uses and perceptions of social media.

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According to Boyd: “most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such – they are compelled by friendship. The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end.” Today’s teens overwhelming use social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, SnapChat and Instagram to connect with their friends, tell stories, share pictures, remix and share information they find online. But while today’s teens tend to be more comfortable than adults with using social media to connect with friends, share their stories and search for information relevant to their day-to-day lives, this doesn’t mean teens are “social media literate.” On the contrary, most young people today don’t read social network privacy settings (but then, who does, right?) and don’t inherently know how to differentiate between credible and “junk” information online.

“Locked indoors, unable to get on their bicycles and hang out with their friends, teens have turned to social media and their mobile phones to gossip, flirt and socialize with their peers. […] The key to helping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn’t more restrictions. It’s freedom–plus communication.” – Let Kids Run Wild Online, TIME

My question, in reading Boyd’s book, is this: Why aren’t more teachers and faculty meeting young students where they are? Parents complain of their kids spending “too much time” online, chatting, watching online videos and sharing content. They should be engaging in extracurricular activities or burying their heads in their textbooks, right? Especially when it comes to science, students are often expected to spend hours reading biology textbooks, studying, solving problems by hand and filling in the blanks on printed sketches of cellular structures. How BORING!

I’d much rather watch (and share) a video of Dr. Carin Bondar singing a song about the biology of bedbug sex!


The point is this: teens make sense of the world around them through their friends and extended social networks. Increasingly, these social networks are taking the form of Twitter, blogging communities, SnapChat, Instagram, YouTube and Vine, among others. So if these online environments are shaping young people’s views and perceptions of the world, but discussions about science – or any class material for that matter – aren't richly embedded in these online environments, then how is science supposed to shape young people’s world views?

Boyd also writes about the four affordances of social media today: persistence, or durability, of content online; visibility of content; spreadability of content; searchability of content. It seems to me than in these four affordances we have a strong foundation for educational material and discussions that could live and breathe beyond the classroom. Classroom discussions are often isolated events forgotten as soon as the student steps out of class – that is, if the student shows up at all. But by having students engage with in-class discussions both through speaking up in class and tweeting key points, comments or questions, students become active creators of educational content that is persistent, visible, spreadable and searchable online.

“Many of today’s teens are indeed deeply engage with social media and are active participants in networked publics, but this does not mean that they inherently have the knowledge or skills to make the most of their online experiences.” – It’s Complicated

Which brings us to another key point in considering social media as an educational tool. Even in a science classroom, using social media for in-class note-taking, class discussions, information gathering and Q&A’s with scientists wouldn’t only help students engage more deeply with science, but would help students develop greater social media literacy. What criteria can we use in determining the credibility of information spread on social media? How do we use online search functions to find what we need on social media? How can we use social media for research purposes? How can we maintain our privacy online? What standards do news, corporate and government organizations adhere to in their Tweets about science and scientific issues? How and why do future potential employers look at our social media activity? These are just some of the questions we could help students address by having them engage with class content through social media.

Boyd discusses this topic only briefly, but educators’ arguments that social media in the classroom is a distraction or that social media use in general has the undesirable effect of reducing student attention span may be unfounded. Sure, multitasking (watching TV, browsing Facebook and listening to music while trying to read a textbook chapter) has been shown to have negative impacts on student capacity for concentrated studying or task-switching. But according to a 2013 article in The Guardian, "there appears to be no conclusive evidence that pupil attention spans are declining" with increased social media use outside, or inside, the classroom.

On the other hand, some research indicates that social media use in the classroom improves student engagement with the material and allows students to develop their own personal learning environments. By using social media in educational settings, students may also feel more relaxed and willing to ask questions and engage with fellow students and teachers. In this 2013 study, students also referred to the “public forum and sense of community” that Twitter affords as a benefit to using the platform in learning environments.

Could it be that just as teens today are flocking to social media platforms to connect with their peers, students would be more willing to approach science learning if they could do so while having a social experience online?

As social media continue to blur the boundaries between personal spaces, social spaces and formal learning environments, teachers that engage students through social media might be able to tap into greater student engagement, motivation and real-world application of classroom knowledge.