View from the base of a thick cable, stretching upward to support a tall tower

Creating An Empowering School Environment

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Reviewed by Jessica Knott and Rebecca Halpern
final sights” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

If high school teachers and students are allowed the freedom to make use of social media for teaching and learning, will the school culture benefit?  What would this mean for student-teacher relationships? How can we, as individual teachers at all levels, upset these traditional relationships? In schools, it is obvious who has the power in classrooms. What would happen if some of that control was shifted, if trust was extended to students? This story is about technology and how its use can contribute to building a culture of trust and empowerment. It is a story about allowing students to embrace their hybridity, as described by Jesse Stommel. One starting point is to recognize that students are more than just students; their online lives are a part of who they are, and it cannot be ignored. They live a hybrid life; in school/out of school, online/offline. Can we honour this hybridity and give them the power to engage in all aspects of their world?

Neil Selwyn, in Distrusting Educational Technology, suggests that educational technology researchers should “conduct research that addresses the ‘messy realities’ of educational technology use in situ” rather than “evaluations of best practice and speculative reports of potential applications” that serve the consumption of digital technology. It was with the intention of examining the use of social media in a real school, with everyday teachers, that I did my dissertation research. What worked? What didn’t? What were the unforeseen changes? I was interested in the reality in a typical (if there is such a thing?) rural, public school. To this end, my study used a qualitative multiple case study approach, following nine teachers as they made use of social media in their teaching practice over a six month period in a rural school in a Canadian prairie town. While I was interested in the “what” and “why” of social media pedagogy, my real interest was in the effects on practice. What would be the spin offs? Would it affect school culture?

The popular and academic literature is replete with both utopian and dystopian visions of using technology in schools. It seems that dichotomous views are plentiful. For some, technology will be a “disruptive” force that will transform education, and for others, it will have negative consequences. It seems rare that the shades of gray that surround technology use in education are explored. Much has been written about its “affordances”, but what actually happens in the day-to-day reality of schools? I admit that I am a fan and long time user of technology. I started learning computer science in the early 1970’s when I was in high school. Back then, we programmed on punch cards and sent them off to a mysterious mainframe computer located somewhere else. Later, I was teaching when the first desktop computers arrived in the late 1970’s and I have been exploring their use since then. It is perhaps because of this long experience that I am interested in those shades of gray. Stephen Barnard wrote about technorealism, which suggests that we should look at both the positive and negative aspects of technology, and not just assume either an overly optimistic or pessimistic view. My investigations and experience have lead me to believe that Neil Postman was right when he wrote that using technologies in schools are “Faustian bargains, giving and taking away.” I contend that we need to be open to examining criticisms of educational technology and to looking closely at how it is actually used, and what results when it is. My study was an attempt to look at some of those gray areas and see what happens in a K-12 school and see what the cautions, concerns, and benefits are, if any.   

The first observation that made clear that this school different from some others was that the teachers were trusted to use the tools that they thought would enhance learning for their students. This fact alone would be interesting to follow up on; was it the rural context? An existing culture that extended trust? Whatever it was, I am certain that this freedom contributed to the findings I will explore here. When I asked the teachers participating in my study about the effects they perceived in the school culture after allowing the (almost) free use of social media, the comments, with few  exceptions, were positive. Schools, and education, are complex, human affairs, and it was difficult for my participants to state the exact effect of embracing social media. They did, however, suggest that it, along with a number of other factors, combined to create a change in the school culture. Some of the other factors cited were a focus on formative assessment practices and a move to allow students to use their own devices, including smartphones. I prompted the teachers to reflect specifically on the role of social media in those changes; their responses were interesting and thought provoking.

Several media were being used by the teachers: some used Twitter, some blogging, others used Facebook. One prefered a more closed medium and used Edmodo. Regardless of the medium used, the most common response to the perceived effects on the school culture was centred on increased communication. In particular, the most interesting responses were about how social media use led to increased connections with students. These responses were contrary to much of the prevailing criticism of social media. This criticism often characterizes social media as isolating and that those indulging in its use often ignore those around them. When we as teachers actually stop and explore, rather than condemn, good things can happen. One teacher commented on the gains this way: “What has been gained is that, believe it or not, you connect more with the kids,” and this helped to build a “personal bond with the kid.” Another teacher added, “You get to see the kids in a little bit different light…you get to know them more as people.” These teachers described how using social media opened up new connections to students who they might not connect with had they not used social media. Even those teachers who were new to using social media, and held reservations about it, talked about increased communication and connection. One teacher observed that social media allowed some students, normally hesitant to approach a certain teacher, a more comfortable venue to do so. There are some who might think it is better to keep a “professional” distance, but these teachers pointed out how the increased communication led to better relationships with benefits that spilled over into academic work. Several teachers talked about how students contacted them outside of school hours. While boundaries to this type of contact were necessary and were set, the teachers noted that this type of contact was not an issue for them and that they prefered to help students when they needed it. Admittedly, this access after school hours is not for everyone, but for several teachers it proved beneficial. The mindset and teaching philosophy of the teacher is important to this type of “anytime, anywhere” access. In my experience, teachers do care about their students and their learning. While limits needed to be set, the results in this school were of obvious benefit.

Not everything was enthusiastically positive though. While recognizing benefits, some cautions were noted as well. One teacher pointed out, “I think the kids are a lot more informed with social media. They are all in tune with that, and you see it in our school, in the hallways. As soon as they are dismissed, out flip the phones. So I think the kids are more informed, definitely . . . If I look at it from a student’s perspective, they are more relaxed because they are more connected with each of their subjects, with their peers. [However] there is also that darker side of social media within the school environment and there’s still some of it that goes on.” Most of the participants stated that one of their reasons for using social media was to model and teach about appropriate use, rather than ban it. Similarly, the school Principal also talked about these issues, however, he pointed out that these possibilities were not a reason to ban its use. The attitude here was that while caution was advised, education was more effective than ignoring or banning this aspect of students’ lives.  

When we look at the literature and popular media, one of the biggest concerns surrounding social media use in schools is its distracting nature. Nicholas Carr, for example, warns of the destructive nature of the distractions, while Howard Reingold, who admits these distractions exist, promotes the management of distractions. In the particular school in my study, distractions occurred, but it was, surprisingly, not a major concern. Only a few teachers mentioned it, and only to say it was not a major problem. “It’s not the big deal that we thought it was going to be, in terms of distractions and things like that.” In one case, the teacher discussed the appropriate and expected use of social media and personal devices with students. Involving students in this discussion helped lead to a positive outcome. He expected and modeled responsible use and, with very few exceptions, got it in return. The lesson here was that if we trust students, and involve them in decisions, most will return that trust.  

Another point of concern for some of the teachers was about their own use, knowing that social media was not private, thus they had to be cognizant about how they used it. Reports of teachers getting themselves into trouble — even being fired — were known to them. These teachers realized that boundaries needed to be set, and they recognized that they simply had to be thoughtful about how they modeled the use of social media. It was gratifying to see that they were not ruled by fear, but rather were thoughtful about their use of the media.

Interestingly, several of the teachers talked about “a sense of empowerment”, “more freedom”, autonomy, and “giving kids as much choice and control as you possibly can.” As a result of giving students more responsibility and more control, teachers helped them to be “more accountable” and responsible. In this way a more trusting and caring school environment seemed to grow and develop, engendered by new ways of connecting and communicating. Teachers described a tension in the past, “there was this ‘us versus them’ mentality where the kids were trying to hide and pull one over on the teacher. You don’t see that anymore” as students communicate with teachers “on a different level.” One teacher stated, “Give them some control … You may be surprised at what they do.” These teachers saw that releasing some of their control and giving it to students resulted in learning benefits for their students.

A few years ago, I came across a concept described by John A. Weaver and Karen Grindall, in Unauthorized Methods: Strategies for Critical Teaching. They  wrote about what they called “critical techno-mania”, which they described as being “concerned with technology’s potential to enhance the process of empowerment emerging from dialogues between students and teachers.”  While I was hesitant to be called a “maniac”, this concept certainly caught my attention when Weaver and Grindall suggested that this critical technomania should be used to “promote hybrid identities” through which students and teachers could “challenge forms of domination.” A powerful sentiment and way of looking at technology use in schools that resonated with me, and I believe is what I witnessed in this school. Can we become critical techno-maniacs in this sense? Are we willing to engage in dialogue with our students and challenge hegemonic structures in our schools?

In a recent article, Audrey Watters discusses the role of educational technology criticism, suggesting that educators should be less technocentric and should consider the ideology and power involved with the use of technology. With all of these ideas in mind as I reflected on this particular school’s experience, I concluded that it is was not simply the act of allowing social media use, or personal devices, that led to this trusting school environment. It is more the act of changing “traditional classroom hierarchies” by releasing some traditional authority and power, by trusting students, and enabling them to embrace their hybrid selves, that has led to increased connection, a sense of empowerment, and a positive school culture. More than simply allowing social media use or personal devices, this is about recognizing the hybrid world in which students live and extending trust — and gaining trust in return. How can we, in our own teaching contexts, shift some control to extend trust and empower students?

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2 Responses

  1. Robert

    What works with social media in a close-knit rural community where teacher are integral to the community as a whole, may not translate to larger urban centers with a much more complex social dynamic. What’s your take in that Micheal??

    1. Mike

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. I believe what you suggest is true. Based on my previous experience teaching in a small rural school, as well as recent research projects in other small schools, it would seem that size does matter. The sense of community is usually strong and there is often a more ‘relaxed’ feel to the relationships within the school and community. Saying that, I do know teachers in larger urban schools who talk of similar environments, whether that is on a classroom level or school level, I do not know. This is definitely an avenue for further investigation.

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