Teaching with Social Networks

Whether you find yourself addicted or at a loss when it comes to things like Facebook and twitter, more and more people are using social networks for personal and professional reasons. For example, LinkedIn has active discussions about language teaching and various professional groups of teachers and applied linguists. Many schools and institutions have Facebook pages which they use as an extension of the school’s social programme, and thousands of people stay up-to-date using information from twitter. These sites all have valuable applications for language teaching, not just in the ways described above, but as part of actual lessons as well. In this article I am going to discuss the reasons social networks can provide such rich and authentic language practise for students and explain ways to keep your own private life separate from your professional use of social media in class. I will also discuss some simple practical ideas which you could easily use in your own classroom.

Many teachers who use social networks in their personal lives may not know how they could be used for language teaching. If that is the case, what about those teachers who are not even comfortable using social networks in their personal lives, let alone in a professional context? In my work I have encountered many people who admitted they could see the value of social networks for connecting to other learners and speakers of the English. This is especially true for teachers in an EFL context where the students do not get many opportunities to interact with people outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with social networks for language teaching. Firstly, many teachers may not wish to mix up their own personal lives with their professional lives (such as adding students as friends on Facebook) and secondly, teachers might feel uncomfortable about advocating for their students to make contact with strangers through a social network, especially if you teach younger age groups. A third complication could be that some teachers are unfamiliar with social networks even for personal use, and as such feel that they could not possibly recommend them to students.

Privacy

These are all valid concerns. In order to avoid these problems it is important to start off with security in mind. The way social networks function is by having users enter personal information about themselves, which is then searchable by other users. All this personal information is stored in a database and much of the information provided is available for anyone to see and search. If users are not careful then it is possible to gain phone numbers, addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. It is often possible to get all this data simply by looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. For this reason, I recommend you take one of the many quick privacy reports before even attempting to use social networks with your class. You can also view recommendations about how to improve your privacy settings there and improve your privacy rating. Once you are comfortable about your own online privacy you can turn to your students to ensure they do the same.

If you are planning to add your students as friends it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible because your students and your friends will get mixed together and that could lead to issues. A possible solution is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on Facebook then simply don’t accept their requests. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Here are a few tips for teachers to remember when using social networks with your students.

  • Don’t get caught with your pants down. If you do have deeply personal content in your profile or on a site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general practice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • Test the sites are accessible from the students’ machines. If you plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as Facebook, always check that you can access the pages you intend to visit from the students’ machines, preferably using a student login otherwise your entire lesson could be ruined.
  • Keep the class together. You can create a group or page which is especially for your class, so you can keep members organised and together. If you create a group, you can also connect with students without having to add them as friends, thus ensuring privacy for you and for them. This is also how many institutions manage their students on social networks.

Each of these may require a little bit of work in terms of learning your way around whichever particular site or social network you have chosen to use, but the knowledge will help you maintain your professional image online.

Netiquette

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, netiquette is etiquette for the internet. Your students will hopefully have a good idea of what it means, but it never hurts to go through the list with them for good measure.

Don’t

  • make contact with people you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • accept connections with people who you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in you being banned from the site

Do

  • reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest, even if you don’t know the person this is ok. For example, if you are fans of a celebrity who has a public fan page, or members of a particular group online, it is fine to chat and respond to people’s posts on these public areas because the nature of the discussion is open. This is not the same as sending a friend request to someone you don’t know.
  • check back on the site in your free time and see if someone has responded to your post.

The above rules of netiquette are by no means extensive, but if you go through them as a brainstorming activity with your students before attempting any of the following practical ideas I am sure you will compile a comprehensive list.

Some Practical Ideas

Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use. They use a variety of different sites but hopefully the general ideas could be exploited in other ways for more variations.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

This lesson works well if you have been learning about ’giving advice’ in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with other English speakers. Although you may need to screen the pages you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with problems or ask for advice. First your students could create their own posts asking for advice (make sure they only write about something they are comfortable sharing with the class, such as the feeling that they are not learning fast enough or have no one to practice with. If they can’t think of anything they could write it on behalf of an imaginary friend). After that they should follow the thread and also try to reply to some other people who are having a problem which they think they can help with. Although it may sound risky, I have done this lesson a few times with mature classes and students always get a lot out of it. If you explain that the class will be sharing the posts then people generally do not post up anything too personal or that they are uncomfortable sharing, and my students are always respectful of other people. The real advantage of this lesson is that it goes beyond authenticity and is actual real world use of the target language. This really gives such a class the edge over any contrived language practice lessons. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later. This project can span several classes and provide a great deal of rich authentic language interaction.

Facebook Group

There are lots of groups on Facebook and other social networks which are specifically for language learning. For example, the BBC has a learning English Facebook page which allows wall comments and photos. This is a great place to get your students commenting on things and replying to posts. They could ask questions about something specific on the wall or post a link to something they found useful. Although this might not take a whole lesson, it could be treated as a homework or used as a study suggestion. Alternatively, you could have students go and post something on the wall and search other posts for something interesting to share with the class. The Facebook page is also a great way to run services such as word of the day and to promote school excursions, or to run study-buddy pairing.

Twitter Contest

If your class enjoys a bit of competition, why not ask students to create a new twitter account and to see who has the most followers after a week, who can manage the highest number of tweets in a week, and who can manage to get a famous person to follow them. There could be a running commentary of the scores going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting. Twitter is also a great media for the consequences game, where students contribute blindly to a story and read the final result at the end.

These are just a few ideas but as you can see, there is no need for privacy to be invaded or personal space encroached on just because you are using social networks with students. The key is to try a few of these things out yourself (perhaps in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go.

Despite the precautions needed to ensure privacy for yourself and your class, there really is a lot of scope for using social networks as part of a class. In addition, the benefits for students in terms of meeting other people to practise with and retain contact after the course is finished make using social networks a very powerful tool at the language teacher’s disposal.

 originally published in  Modern English teacher, 20(3), 37-39. 2011.

Second Life

There are some amazing resources emerging regarding the use of Second Life for Language Learning. There are in world virtual schools dedicated to a range of languages, most notably English, Spanish and French. There are also groups which are dedicated to language learning.

  • EDUNATION – This is the island set up by the Consultants-e. It’s a great place and there is a lot going on.
  • CALICO – This is a Ning Social network for the CALICO/EUROCALL groups’ Virtual Worlds Special Interest Group
  • AVALON – A group funded by the Lifelong Learning Program. There are some great events and discussions here.

To name just a few. If you are not already in Second Life then I would recommend that you go in and have a look for yourself. Flying around in the virtual world can be quite demanding on your computer if you don’t have a good graphics card, but I would recommend it nonetheless. It might be some time before the computer labs in schools catch up enough to fully support entire classes using SL, but to be honest that’s not how I see it going. For example, I went in last night and found an island where Japanese people hang out. I went up to a couple of guys and introduced myself, then tried as hard as I could to follow the conversation and join in using VOIP. This is a great way to practice authentic communication with real speakers. The value of this is particularly apparent if you are learning a language in a Foreign Language context (ie. there aren’t many speakers of the target language in your country).

Has anyone else had any experiences in Second Life? How did you feel when you were in there? Can you recommend any good places or groups?

For anyone interested my Avatar’s name is Richard Spiritor.