How New Orleans schools are using social media as a teaching tool



Across platforms, social media is designed to be as intuitive as possible. How do you tweet? Simple. Click the box that says, "compose tweet" and type your 140 characters.

  Posting and sharing in the digital world is easiest for what Loyola University New Orleans' Andrew Nelson calls "digital natives," like the students he instructs at Loyola's School of Mass Communication. There are no questions about how to manipulate a smartphone, or how to take advantage of what Facebook has to offer. For most of Nelson's students, Facebook has been a reality since they were in middle school.

  But in Loyola's social media classes, and within the university's newly minted social media minor, it's not about teaching students how to use the technology with which they are intimately familiar. Instead, it's focused on teaching them how to use social media strategically and get the most out of what the various platforms offer. "It's a question of what is good content — when do you post and thinking about how you post strategically," Nelson says. "How do you work together across platforms?"

  In Nelson's social media class, the School of Mass Communication is the students' client. Students represent the school by operating its social media presence. Content is produced with a purpose and students get a real life connection between the classroom and the world beyond its walls. Nelson says one of the major challenges students face is how to find a dynamic voice that appeals to a variety of audiences.

  "Trying to reach high school students, who are increasingly straying from Facebook because their parents are on it, that could be Instagram and Tumblr," he says. "Alumni like Facebook. Everybody loves Twitter, so the thrust of the semester is being able to direct [students'] messaging."

  When Nelson's students are finished with the class, each will have a portfolio of the entire social media campaign for the school, complete with what worked and what didn't. That's key to learning the most crucial elements of social media, from engaging followers to growing a public base, Nelson says.

  "It's important because we have students who have taken the class and have come back and said, 'I'm working or I got a job or I got an internship,' and they just love the fact that this is what we're able to do," Nelson says. "We've gone through this experience of not saying, 'Oh, I'll tweet or I'll post,' but 'Who is my audience?' Or, 'What should I be saying to them, how do I reach them best and how do I measure those results?'"

  When smartphones became common, many schools, including St. Martin's Episcopal School in Metairie, initially banned the distracting devices in classrooms and school hallways. Garrett Mason, director of innovation and design at St. Martin's, says students and faculty got together over the summer to revise those rules as teachers in a variety of classes last year increasingly asked students to use their smartphones during class.

  For example, Mason says, an upper-school Spanish teacher will post a photo on Instagram, and students must respond to the photo using Spanish vocabulary and grammar. Smartphones are still banned at certain times of the day and in certain places, but St. Martin's goal is to stop resisting technology and instead encourage its use as a tool for exploration and learning.

Students get a real life connection between the classroom and the world beyond its walls.

  Mason's job at St. Martin's is to work with students and faculty to develop projects that tackle real problems in the community. Last year, a first-grade class studied the so-called colony collapse of the honeybee population. "They went through a process called design thinking," Mason says. "It's a prob-lem-solving model to help students develop problem-solving skills and creativity." The first-graders had their own Twitter account, @stmhoneybees. First-graders at St. Martin's also have their own blogs.

  Last year, St. Martin's ninth-graders were connecting with ninth-graders in Nigeria via Twitter to learn about issues surrounding water access and corruption.

  "We obviously have to structure it so that a kindergartener is not tweeting on behalf of the school, but we expose them," Mason says. "So first-graders have their own blogs. There's this incredible app where it's so basic, you just click and you can add a picture or a video, and then you can write a caption for it and just send it up to their blog. It goes to the teacher first, and the teacher approves it."

  Because students are connecting to a global network used by millions, Mason says the school is cognizant of privacy issues and does not use students' full names.

Technology has changed the roles of teachers in the classroom; students can get information from anywhere, but it takes a good teacher to help curate that information and teach students what to trust and how best to use information to achieve goals. The upper school's creative writing project last year is a good example. The class had a unit on marketing, and the school reached out to the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce to ask if any businesses wanted the students to develop a marketing campaign for them.

  "[The Chamber of Commerce] sent an email out to all their members, and they heard back from 20 businesses that said, 'We would love for St. Martin's students to design a marketing campaign for us,'" Mason says. The students invited three of the 20 respondents to pitch their businesses. The class selected FitGourmet, the Metairie-based healthy foods company, and built a marketing campaign.

  Other schools are embracing technology in similar ways. At the Academy of the Sacred Heart and Louise S. McGehee School, middle- and upper-school students are required to have laptops. At McGehee, a media literacy class teaches students how to navigate a world run by news and status updates.

  For many educators, it's about embracing social media and the way it is changing how we communicate, not fearing it. That's why students no longer have to leave their phones at home.

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