Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with My HomeworkBy Michael Blanding
A new study by alum Christine Greenhow finds social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have more educational potential than you might think.
What is more important to a high school student than being popular? Anyone who’s ever attended high school or at least seen a John Hughes movie knows the answer to that one. When Theresa Sommers first discovered MySpace three years ago, the teen from Minneapolis/St. Paul thought she’d found the ultimate high school popularity contest. She could spend hours a day creating an online profile, finding cool backgrounds and music to decorate her page, and signing up interesting looking people to be her online “friends.” And along the way, she could compete with her friends (and enemies) for all to see who had the most friends or most-visited page.
The more she used the online social networking site (SNS), however, the more bored she became with merely being popular; she started using her time for more heartfelt conversations with friends and delved more deeply into her personal interests. A budding photographer, she posted her best shots to the site and searched forums of professional photographers for encouragement and advice. She began, as well, to seek out students at colleges she was interested in attending, even opening up a new account on Facebook, a site more heavily used by college students, to network. And she even began to post some of her creative writing and would solicit advice on homework essays from her circle of friends, asking them “How long did you take on your essay?” or “How’d you write it?” Often she’d post her homework online. “Everybody does it,” she says.
That’s news to most teachers and parents who have never used social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook — and even to some of us who have. If we hear about them at all in the press, it’s usually to illustrate their dangers, with stories of online sexual predators, cyber bullying, or a job application faux pas when a potential employer rescinds a job offer based on embarrassing online photos or comments. At best, these sites seem like a frivolous distraction — the telephone on steroids — tolerated along with text messaging and Wii as the latest technologies to help kids procrastinate from their schoolwork.
“We read a lot in the media about how young people are using social networking sites with harmful results,” agrees Christine Greenhow, Ed.D.’06, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota who has done a new study looking into how students really use them. “The question is, can we harness this interest and passion in their online lives for educational purposes?” In research stemming from her doctoral thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Greenhow not only found an increasing awareness by Sommers and other students of the potential of these sites to express their creativity and explore their interests, but also the potential to complement lessons in more formal educational settings — if teachers can just figure out how to use them.