Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with My HomeworkBy Michael Blanding
Outside interests aren’t the only topics that found their way to student homepages and
Sommers wasn’t the only student to regularly compare notes on school assignments. “If I am stuck on a project, I might send a chat message to a friend, and he might provide an answer or say, ‘Take a deep breath; you can do this,’” says Greenhow, summing up what students often say. “Students are always diving in and out of these social networks.” In fact, the way they mix social interaction and schoolwork mirrors the way that office workers dive in and out of work and personal e-mail on the job — perhaps preparing students for the real world in ways they don’t even realize.
The kind of skills students are developing on social networking sites, says Greenhow, are the very same 21st century skills that educators have identified as important for the next generation of knowledge workers — empathy, appreciation for diversity of viewpoints, and an ability to multitask and collaborate with peers on complex projects. In fact, despite cautionary tales of employers trolling social networking sites to find inappropriate Halloween pictures or drug slang laced in discussion forums, many employers are increasingly using these sites as a way to find talent. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited this spring in The New York Times found that more than half of employers now use SNSs to network with job candidates. The website CareerBuilder.com even added an application to allow employers to search Facebook for candidates. “Savvy users say the sites can be effective tools for promoting one’s job skills and all-around business networking,” says the Times.
Despite the potential of social networking sites in developing marketable skills, however, Greenhow has been frustrated by the lack of attention paid to them — or to the Internet in general — in the classroom. For her doctoral thesis, “From Blackboard to Browser,” Greenhow looked at how teachers’ expectations and assumptions about teaching affected the way they used (or didn’t use) the Internet in the classroom. “She did a very systematic and well-reasoned study about quite a practical matter,” says Lecturer Stone Wiske, Ed.D.’83, Greenhow’s thesis advisor who has studied the use of technology in schools. Greenhow found that the teachers who were most effective in integrating the Internet into the classroom were those who subscribed to constructivism — the theory that effective teaching allows students to construct new ideas from the expertise they already have.
What was more surprising to her, however, is how few teachers were using the Internet at all — and even fewer were aware of, much less using, social networking sites, despite their heavy usage by students. “It is the kids who are leading the way on this,” she says. “They are forming networks with people they meet every day as well as people they have barely met. If we can’t understand what kids are doing and integrate these tools into a classroom, what kind of message are we sending them? I think we’ll see an even bigger disconnect than already exists.”
Greenhow’s interest in the connective power of the technology stems from her childhood growing up outside of Boston, when her father worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and would take her into the city for demonstrations of technologies such as one in which computers were used to simulate the human voice. Studying creative writing and government relations at Dartmouth College, she continued to follow technological developments like Blitzmail, the precursor to e-mail used on campus. Entering the Ed School to pursue her doctorate in 1998, however, she had her most formative experience in the power of the Internet when she met her future husband, a Kennedy School student, through a Harvard-sponsored online matchmaking survey. “We had our first conversation through e-mail, met on Church Street, and were married two years later,” she says. “So the Internet worked for me.”