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The impact of social media on educational leadership

Posted on: February 14, 2022
Young people sitting on a floor on their laptop and mobile phone

Since its conception, social media has proven popular. Even before the rise (and potential fall) of Facebook, there were sites such as MySpace and Friendster. Now we use online social networks all the time, switching between Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and TikTok. 

In some ways, the effect of the pandemic has boosted social media usage in the short-term. In 2018, social media companies were actually shrinking in the United States, meaning that they were not adding users from the US population. However, as the world started going into lockdown in early 2020, for many people, the use of social media was the only way to connect with friends and relatives. In a Pew Research Center survey from 2021, 58% of adult respondents said that the internet had been essential to them personally during the panic. This was up from 53% in April 2020.

For children unable to attend school in lockdowns, the internet became indispensable for online learning. But many schools realised that there was, what Jessica Rosenworcel of the Federal Communications Commission in the USA called, the “homework gap”. This refers to school children who may not be able to get online at home to complete their school assignments. 

It can’t be assumed that every child has access to a computer or a tablet or that they have an internet connection. Educational leadership and the information technology departments of schools have a responsibility to support these children and provide access to the equipment they need to study. With school-owned equipment, it may be easier to block social media sites, but there has long been debate about whether students should learn to create their own boundaries around social media use. 

In a study from 2017, out of 5,000 students at independent and state schools, a percentage of 71% said that they had undergone a digital detox, willingly giving up social media, and that they would again. However, teachers have also been consistently trying to integrate a teaching methodology that includes social media in a constructive way because it is so prevalent and seemingly here to stay.

Instructional leadership on using social media

School administrators may have been some of the first stakeholders to embrace social media. This includes blogging to share news about the school, updating the school’s Facebook page to engage with parents, or tweeting important updates for immediacy (for example, when there are school closures due to snow). Social media has also proved to be a great advantage in marketing for schools.

In a paper from 2017 called ‘A Qualitative Study On The Contribution Of Educational Administrators’ Use Of Social Media To Educational Administration’ (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.890967), the author Arslan Bayram concluded that “School management carried out only with classical methods has lost its validity.” She elaborated, saying that “school administrators should exhibit instructional leadership to teachers and students through effective social media use, but school administrators do not have enough knowledge and experience of instructional leadership.” 

The pace of growth in the digital space is hard to keep up with, and it is clear that understanding and teaching safe and effective internet use, especially when using social media, is a role that hasn’t yet been filled sufficiently in schools.

What is digital citizenship?

Digital citizenship is about developing young people’s skills to be able to navigate the internet and digital technologies safely and with confidence. Being a digital citizen involves awareness of what you’re giving away when you share information about yourself, and knowledge on where and how data collection is used. It also involves self-protection and etiquette – if you wouldn’t say something to someone face-to-face why does it feel okay to say it online?

In 2018, Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield released a report called Life in Likes. The content was written to address research which showed that increasingly younger children were using social media platforms which were not designed for them. Most social networking sites have an age limit of 13 years, but research from 2017 suggests that three quarters of 10- to 12-year-olds have a social media account. Of all TikTok’s active users, 32.5% are in the age bracket of 10-29 years old.

The report calls on schools and parents to prepare children from the end of primary school. It also calls for compulsory digital literacy and online resilience lessons for Year 6 and 7 to learn about the impact of social media on their emotions (e.g. cyberbullying, comparing and despairing, body positivity) and not just messages about safety. Google has recently launched a new online safety curriculum for children aged 7 to 11 years old with Parent Zone that addresses many of these issues.

Ironically, social media apps like TikTok can provide a platform for younger people to share their struggles with anxiety and depression, as well as learning about challenges like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) which is becoming a more recognisable and diagnosable condition.

Learning experiences and concentration spans

The effect of social media on concentration span is a major concern for educators. Findings from the Nielsen Norman Group even back in 1997 showed that most people only read up to 28% of the text on a web page and more often, only manage around 20%. 

For student learning that integrates social media tools this poses a unique conundrum: the medium itself is not conducive to focusing concentration, which is key to learning. A study carried out by Microsoft in 2015 confirmed that people generally start to lose concentration after 8 seconds, which is a drop from 12 seconds in the year 2000. One of the reasons that attention spans are falling is due to the volume of information being presented to people everywhere. Using social media for educational purposes in a way that complements brevity is difficult.

In higher education, an interesting case study is that of a professor at Marist College in upstate New York who successfully uses SnapChat to send his psychology students real-life examples of the theories they’re studying when they’re not in class. One of Michael Britt’s college students said. “It takes effort not to be constantly checking your Instagram, Facebook (and) Snapchat. But if you can turn it all into a learnable moment it’s not just distracting, it’s also useful and productive.”

Schools now have mobile phone policies to stop students using them in the learning environment. It may surprise some students to know that even the presence of a smartphone is enough to reduce cognitive capacity and critical thinking. In a study from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers discovered that when study participants were asked to complete a series of tests on a computer, participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those who had their phones on the desk. They also slightly outperformed participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

Learning activities that work with social media

Twitter can be used to create threads so that digestible pieces of information can create fuller storytelling that maintains student engagement. Hashtags can then be used by educators to help stimulate discussion on a subject. Opening a Twitter account can also provide connection and professional development for teachers because many in the education sector choose to share their tips, tricks, and news on the platform.  

Language-learning apps like Duolingo and Babbel seem to have cracked the formula for maintaining attention and getting results with bite-size lessons of 10 or 20 minutes. The gamification of learning means that people enjoy setting goals, seeing their progress by gaining badges, and sharing their achievements within the social networking communities the apps offer. 

Following social media accounts in different languages is also a useful way to learn colloquial words and natural, conversational language. Meanwhile MOOCs like LinkedIn Learning (previously Lynda) have consistently used video to gain higher levels of engagement.

Be part of the future of learning

Educational research may still find further potential for social media in learning. According to a 2021 survey of 10,000 teenagers conducted by Piper Sandler only 27% of adolescents said they were on Facebook. 

This used to be one of the main social network sites that could be used to support collaborative learning. However, learning networks have grown up around WhatsApp groups, for example, and future research will likely continue to look into the role of social media in pedagogy as it evolves.

A master’s in education could help you discover more and influence how social media is used positively in the classroom. Find out how you can become an ambassador for digital citizenship and lead the way with a part-time 100% online MA Education Leadership and Management from Keele University.

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