The use of social media by students is something schools across Melbourne, and indeed across the globe, have grappled with in recent times.
Bullying via social media, body image issues created through unrealistic images in posts and tweets, bad behaviour being filmed and shared and ending up in the media – they’re all issues that have arisen for schools and students alike.
But it’s not all negative news when it comes to interactions on social platforms. Now there are ways social media is being used as part of the curriculum to help students learn.
Associate Professor Shanton Chang and Dr Suelette Dreyfus from the University of Melbourne have been working on a project using social media as part of Mandarin and English language classes for Year 5 and Year 6 students in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
The project connects these students with similarly aged students in China via an education social media platform called Edmodo.
“It’s like a digital pen pals project that brings together children of primary school age in China with a sister school here in Melbourne,” Suelette says.
Students are matched with a compatible pen pal via the iFish program – a virtual fish tank where fish are given the attributes and interests of each student. Those that match are then chosen as digital pen pals with the help of a teacher.
“What’s innovative is we believe it’s the first time that social media has been used for peer-to-peer learning of language in primary schools across Australia and China,” she says.
Teachers in Melbourne and China assign students with a set of tasks to complete with their digital pen pals.
“As an example, they had to get a description of one of their peer’s parents and draw them and write a description based on what they were told,” Suelette says.
They are also guided by teachers in fun discussions with each other about TV shows, books, clothing and music.
“They’re learning language, grammar and sentence structure but they’re learning a lot more than that, they’re also learning about technology and have a mind-blowing understanding of complex, cultural differences.”
Suelette says this includes the fact that many Chinese students are only children and their parents are also only children, due to the one-child policy in China (the policy is being phased out). It means many of the Chinese students have no brothers and sisters or uncles and aunts to talk about.
“We [also] discovered that the Australian students would say, ‘it doesn’t matter if I don’t get that part of our joint project done today or tomorrow – it’s OK’.
“Then they’d realise their Chinese peers would get stressed out because, for the Chinese child, it’s much more of a high-pressure environment. It’s a complete loss of face if the student hasn’t completed their task to the nth degree by the due date of the task.”
Shanton says communicating through social media gives context to learning the language – because they’re able to converse on almost a daily basis, practising their skills.
It allows students to laugh and joke about mistakes they make in each other’s language and help learn by correcting each other .
Since the program was first piloted three years ago, the number of students studying Mandarin at the primary school in Melbourne’s north has grown from an initial four students to more than 300. “It not just kids, parents want it also,” Suelette says.
Evaluation of the project has shown that when students first started conversing on social media their skill level was low, but as they progressed and learned, their skill level rose substantially.
Suelette says this evaluation was done via student feedback and teachers in these classes.
“We’re able to intertwine the research and the classroom environments because the brilliant primary school teacher we work with, Kevin Yang, also has a research background,” she says.
It has also encouraged the students that undertook the first pilot, and have since graduated from primary school to continue to learn Mandarin.
“Parents chose high schools who offered Mandarin as part of the curriculum, schools like MLC and Ivanhoe Girls Grammar,” Suelette says.
“These students are taking on more advanced classes because they are able to.”
While the project is continuing next year, Shanton and Suelette are hopeful that they will attract funding to make it a permanent part of the curriculum in schools.
Teaching & twitter
At MLC in Kew, staff including teachers are using social media to interact with educators worldwide.
Director of MLC Libraries Sue Moloney says the school, including the libraries, has embraced social media as both a professional learning tool and a means of building community.
“The Twitter handle uses events, trends, research, and technologies to connect teachers with contemporary educational thinking and links them with educators in Australia and around the world,” Sue says.
“The Instagram account has enabled the MLC community to participate in library activities in new and creative ways as images and videos develop a new culture of engagement through visual conversations.
“The benefits of social media’s networking effects are progressively being recognised by MLC’s teachers as they tap the rich pool of educators and ideas for their professional practice,” she says.