Common Classroom: The Common Sense Education Blog

Expert Article: Making the Case for Teaching with New Media

Audrey Stokes Associate Product Manager, Education Categories: In the Classroom
Associate Product Manager, Education

The Common Sense team hears from a wide range of teachers about issues related to new media and technology — like social networks, blogging, 1:1 laptops, etc. — and your schools. Some can’t get enough of technology and are looking for help convincing their parent or faculty communities that it’s a good idea. Some are skeptical about new media’s place in the lives of young people at home and school, but are trying to find ways to explore the possibilities. Some just wish things could go back to how they used to be.

The common question that these teachers deal with in various ways is, “Why bring new media and technology into the classroom? Why change?” We asked Justin Reich, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and, how he would answer these questions.




Why change?

You can buy all the hardware you want. Give every teacher a laptop. Give every kid a netbook. Put an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. Set up a schoolwide wireless network. Have the IT department run training sessions. Set up teachers with usernames and passwords for Web-based tools and services and get students connected, too. You can make those important investments, and still find that classroom instruction doesn’t change. None of those important investments in hardware and infrastructure will have a profound impact on teaching until all of the stakeholders in the school community can answer one simple question: Why change?

Whether you are a superintendent working from the central office or a teacher trying to bring about change from the trenches, helping your school effectively integrate technology and new media begins by finding answers to the Why change? question.

My job, as both the co-director of and as project manager of the Digital Collaborative Learning Communities project, is to help teachers and schools discover the answers to this question. As I travel the country talking with and listening to teachers and administrators, here are three answers to the Why change? question that are resonating with teachers and motivating them to tackle the challenges of teaching with new media:

1) Social media are transforming our world — education needs to change, too.

New social media tools like blogs, wikis, and online social networks are transforming nearly every facet of society. Businesses solicit customer feedback through blogs. Marketers use social networks to build communities around products or services. Comment features in online newspapers have turned columns into conversations. The political online social networks pioneered by Barack Obama have been adopted by candidates across the political spectrum. Iranian revolutionaries used Twitter to fight the dominant regime. Web of Science and Google Books are transforming how research is conducted across the world. Patients with chronic illnesses connect to each other in social networks that researchers use to evaluate treatments and outcomes. Individuals’ sense of identity and relationships — the very meaning of the word “friend” — is being changed by Facebook and MySpace.

Educators can’t effectively prepare students for navigating these new online worlds without bringing students there. Students who can navigate and contribute to social media can make their voices heard in these new public forums. Students who don’t learn to navigate these spaces will be at a deficit in the labor market and in the civic sphere.

Despite all the rhetoric about “digital natives,” some students aren’t facile with technology and many more struggle with understanding how to communicate effectively in these new spaces. Even if remarkably high percentages of students report using technology, it doesn’t mean they know what they are doing. To prepare students for the world they will inherit, students need adult guides and mentors willing to create online learning environments that allow students to rehearse for future performances in social media environments.

2) Social media are promising platforms for developing 21st century skills.

Computers are taking over much of the routine work in our society. Tax preparers are replaced by tax preparation software. Airline counter staff are replaced by kiosks. Tollbooth collectors are replaced by electronic detection systems. All of these jobs requiring following a set of rules. The rules of the tax code are complex and the rules of the tollbooth are simple, but in both cases computers can execute these rules better than people.

Twenty-first century skills aren’t all new skills, but they all are newly important skills. Computers will continue to replace humans in lots of places in the labor market, but humans still have major advantages over computers in two key domains: communication and critical thinking. All of the tasks in our economy and civic sphere that require listening to people, making arguments, inventing new solutions, applying creativity, or dealing with the unexpected are not going to be taken over by computers. Indeed these tasks are going to be among the only ways to make a living wage in the U.S. economy.

Here’s a quick test: think for a minute about the kind of homework students are asked to do in your school. Are students asked to solve ill-structured problems requiring creativity and thinking about relationships among facts and ideas? Are they asked to solve problems that requiring listening to other, synthesizing ideas, and making new arguments? Or are they asked to solve rules-based problems based on simple information retrieval, factual recall, or mechanistic problem solving? Are you asking them to rehearse for the jobs that humans will do, or that computers will do?

Of course, there are lots of ways to teach critical thinking and communication without technology, but social media provides promising environments for teaching these skills. Opportunities for communication, collaboration, and creative thinking are “baked into” the architecture of blogs and wikis. They are spaces designed to get people interacting, debating, and solving problems together.

3) Students are engaged by the use of technology in the classroom.

In the course of my research, our team has interviewed over 50 teachers, and I’ve conducted over 35 student focus groups and visited classrooms using new media in seven states. One of the constant recurring themes from this research is that teachers and students routinely agree that social media can engage and motivate students and bring out students’ best work.

Students are immersed in social media in their lives outside of school, and they want to learn how to use it as part of their formal learning. As one girl in rural New Hampshire told me, “When we use Facebook and MySpace, that’s when our brains start working. I’m sure for you, it was when you wrote letters. But for us, it’s when we get online.” This generation is not only technologically connected, but also profoundly social — they are far more likely than adults to say that technology connects rather than isolates people — and they expect the opportunity to learn with and from their peers.

These claims from students are echoed by their teachers. Not only are students engaged by technology, but when students are asked to produce work in an online social environment, they are motivated to do more high-quality work. Over and over again, teachers have told me that when they ask kids to publish their work in a public space — an online space shared by classmates, schoolmates, or the whole Web — they do better work. And at the end of the year, students who publish their work to a blog or wiki have a complete portfolio of their learning to share with parents or draw upon in the future.

None of this is to say that what we have been doing in education is all wrong. In my experience, teachers can get (rightfully) defensive if they feel like a push for using technology is a slight to their current practice. We need to change not because what we did before didn’t work, but because the world around us is changing and new social technologies are at the heart of some of the most important changes. Helping our national teacher corps, or the faculty at your school, learn to integrate technology into their lessons is going to be a challenge. But if teachers understand why they need to rethink the role of technology in their teaching, if they can answer the Why change? question, then that makes the learning process a whole lot easier.



References and Additional Resources

Justin Reich is the co-director of, which helps schools and teachers use technology to build student-centered, inquiry based learning environments. runs a series of summer workshops for teachers at Boston University, and they offer professional development programs for schools and districts. Justin is also a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is project manager of the Digital Collaborative Learning Communities project, a Hewlett Foundation-funded initiative that studies the role of social media in K-12 classrooms. A former world history teacher at the Noble & Greenough School in Dedham, MA, Justin developed a variety of new curriculum and lesson plans around chatting, blogging, online research, and other projects involving new and emerging technologies.

On social media and Web 2.0 transforming society, see Reich, J. (2008). Reworking the web, reworking the world: How web 2.0 is changing our society. Beyond Current Horizons Review paper, Challenge #2). Bristol: Futurelab.

On students challenges with digital media, see Livingstone, Sonia (2010). Youthful participation: what have we learned, what shall we ask next? In: First Annual Digital Media and Learning Conference: Diversifying Participation, 18-20 February 2010, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, C.A.. (Unpublished)

On 21st century skills, see Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

For practical strategies for technology integration, see Reich, J., & Daccord, T. (2008). Best ideas for teaching with technology : A practical guide for teachers, by teachers. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

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