Opening up Facebook to Education

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I wasn’t surprised at the negative comments that appeared in the story write-up about the Waterloo Region Public school board planning to open its firewall to Facebook this September. Any time anything “new” is explored in education, wide-spread skepticism and reservation become rampant. I do find it hard to believe that not one student The Record spoke with felt that Facebook should be openly welcome in the schools. Or, maybe students weren’t asked about the potential benefits at all. Certainly, the experts in social media were not consulted.

I just returned this week from Scotland where I interviewed Dr. Tracey Alloway of Stirling University about using Facebook as a learning tool. Alloway has completed extensive research in the area and is currently meeting with her research team to write up and publish the results of her findings. What she told me was that social media, particularly Facebook, builds and exercises working memory –an important part of processing and managing incoming information. She likens working memory to a series of post-it notes that are sorted and pieced together to develop comprehension of a greater concept. Her studies also showed that using Facebook can actually increase the IQs of teens, improve multi-tasking skills, and raise Oxytocin levels –a chemical in the brain that helps us feel pleasure and fight depression.

While it is likely that students will continue to use Facebook to socialize, the novelty will wear off and with some guidance, they will find academically productive uses for the social media tool as well. Cyberbullying will become much less of a concern as teachers and parents become a guiding presence. Study groups, peer tutoring, and career networks will continue to develop as learning continues during and after school hours. With some lessons in digital literacy and digital citizenship, students will have a safe and empowering forum in which to communicate in the anytime, anyplace world they have created for themselves.