This is the first of several posts by Voices writers responding to a recent op-ed article in Education Week, written by teacher Paul Barnwell, that raised questions about the wisdom of teaching with social media tools.

Paul Barnwell’s article “Why Twitter and Facebook aren’t Good Instructional Tools” is a ruse…in a good sense. I think it’s a brilliant way to get a whole load of readers coming to the defense of social media tools in the classroom.  But take a minute to read what he’s written and you’ll see it’s not an attack, it’s a call to action.

Done well, social media and technology integrated into the classroom feels like a familiar old softball glove. It becomes an extension of your hand and you almost forget that it’s there. Done badly, it’s a waste of time and the return on your investment is nil.

Barnwell wants teachers to stop and think about the usefulness of the instructional tool…not just use something because it’s slick, or cool, or techie. I remember that I first heard Alan November make this appeal more than a decade ago….he felt any tech needed to amp up the learning in order to justify the time it would take to teach the tool and have students use it proficiently.

Just last week, in a Geometer’s Sketchpad workshop, we talked about why students were engaging with the math learning tool. Through our brainstorming and discussion, the workshop attendees realized that if this magnificent software doesn’t become a routine part of the classroom inquiry into mathematics, students (and teachers) will never gain enough proficiency in the tool to really be able to use it well. It becomes a novelty, not  something that fits comfortably and naturally into our everyday learning experience. That made sense to lots of the teachers in the workshop, because the classroom management issues are HUGE when you only pull out this kind of tool once in a while. Kids want to play and explore. And who can blame them? Novelty trumps utility.

But what if it was an ongoing, routine piece of technology — transparent, familiar, powerful?

How often do we seize upon some web tool or technology we believe has great potential and then let that potential drain away? Remember when SmartBoards were first introduced? Many teachers rushed to use them, ran up against the challenge and extra work of using them powerfully, and then retreated — reducing them to fancy projector screens. Without persistent engagement, any new learning tool will fail to leverage student learning the way you hoped it would.

Want to watch a masterful teacher integrate a new piece of technology?  iPads certainly have the same potential pitfalls as Barnwell encountered in using PollEverywhere. Yet somehow Mr. Reisler manages to avoid this with his eighth grade Algebra class!  His tweets and blogs are revealing about how hard it is to develop new ways of providing instruction — but also how exciting it can be.

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Marsha Ratzel

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