21st-Century Learning Using Social Media: Advice from Finland

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Petri Ahokas works with students in Finland

Many teachers believe social media doesn’t have a place in the learning environment; it is simply a tool for people to keep their friends up to date with their lives, right? Or is it?

Teacher Petri Ahokas, from Turun Normaalikoulu school, Norssi in Finland, explains how he uses social media ethically and legally to engage his eight and nine year old students in learning.

By Petri Ahokas

When I look at the process of social media it is easy to consider its place in the learning environment. Taking Facebook as an example of a social media site, as a user I’d set up a personal page and profile and start to communicate my news to friends. I want the information I write to be interesting, amusing and informative, but how do I best convey the message I want to get across?

I read messages from other friends and if their communication is worthy I choose to become a ‘fan’. Writing effectively and creatively can therefore decide how many ‘fans’ I attract; an important thing for young people. I then have to decide whether I want to illustrate the message with an associated picture image; this can’t be too large a file size so I may need to use a graphics editor to resize the image. Suddenly I’m stepping into the learning space of computer science.

Safe Social Media for Global Learning

I have a class of multicultural students, who speak seven different languages between them. The one language they all understand and speak is Finnish, so they use it as their shared ‘foreign language’, inside the virtual social media world that we use.

As a teacher, I believe that teaching children to understand how to behave appropriately when they are using the internet is an important part of 21st century learning. In class we spent time discussing what cyberbullying is and how it needs to be handled, which really did change their attitudes and almost gave the students boost.

In terms of geography as a subject, one of our ‘friends’ could be someone from Turkey who we met on holiday last year. She writes about her family’s religion and the celebrations she attends. Suddenly my students have a new interest in this country and want to understand its cultures and economy. One of the next steps for us therefore is to interact with other classes in different countries. It’s ideal because I will be able to speak to the class teacher in advance about what they are currently teaching their students and we can decide on a topic that benefits both classes. When my class starts to study world religion or cultures, the children can contact friends overseas to gather information. It is so much more real coming from them than from a book.

Turning to literacy the blog feature of our social media platform is used to keep a daily journal and eventually they will add images to their text too. Blogging enables them to demonstrate their writing skills in a topic that really appeals to them. On other days the children use the simplified email ‘Pigeon Post’ system to let me know what animals they saw on a recent school trip, which enables them to practice the language element too.

It is clear in my class to see the potential educational benefits of social media. I have noticed a significance difference in the students – improved language skills in particular; their sentences have grown longer and the subject matter itself is clearer.

Keeping safety in mind

Mastering new skills without an adult looming large over their shoulder develops pupils’ self-esteem and competency. Thus, the struggle becomes one of how to keep children safe, without stifling their curiosity, while teaching indispensable twenty-first century Internet and computer skills. My recommendation is that teachers must look for a site that operates in a fully safe setting, where students can learn to blog, write emails and chat online.

Students should be able to select from the list of approved ‘twin schools’ overseas so they can send messages and discuss their world and, reciprocally, discover a foreign land, not from a book, but from peers. They become global citizens, travel halfway around the world, all while being kept within a secure and carefully monitored setting.

All activity on our social media platform happens under the tutelage of the teacher, who has complete control and access to all students’ online activities through a ‘teacher’s dashboard.’ If students engage in unkind or inappropriate behavior, my colleagues and I have the ability to address this behavior as it occurs, leading to immediate learning opportunities.

I strongly believe that while reading, writing and arithmetic will always remain necessities for the classroom, the successful child of tomorrow will be the child who can easily maneuver across all social media platforms. The pupil who effectively understands e-etiquette and e-safety, as well as mastering all the tools the digital world offers, will be leaps and bounds ahead of their peers who have only learned basic computer skills. Social media sites, designed for young students, are ideal for keeping students safe, while allowing them to explore independently.

For educators wishing to leap into twenty-first century education and take advantage of all the e-world offers, while completely mitigating the dangers therein, I encourage teachers not to ignore the power of the Internet and the benefits of social media sites. There are opportunities to promote safety, curiosity, and global citizenry in an exciting, educational platform. Schools that take advantage of such opportunities will be considered the educational leaders and trailblazers in the coming years.

Petri Ahokas is a teacher and teacher trainer at Turun Normaalikoulu, the teacher training school of Turku University, located in Norssi in Finland. Ahokas has been teaching for 20 years, and teaches primary, secondary and upper secondary school students.

 As in ICT expert, Ahokas has participated in and contributed to a number of forums, including Microsoft’s ICT Executive Briefings in London, which was designed for senior technology directors and managers from ministries of education at federal, state and municipal levels to discuss the roadmap for the future. Petri Ahokas uses Petra’s Planet for Schools www.petrasplanetforschools.com. 

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A leading authority on student-centered and digital learning strategies, Mark Barnes is the author of five education books, including Role Reversal, The 5-Minute Teacher and two books in Corwin's Connected Educators Series. He is also an international education presenter and an adjunct professor at two Ohio colleges. Mark's new book, Assessment 3.0, attempts to reform education by influencing teachers worldwide to replace traditional grades with four simple words.

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