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social media in school

Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, NJ is an unabashed ed-tech evangelist who has wrought some significant transformations in his “traditional blue-collar,” yet highly diverse public school through the use of technology, B.Y.O.D. programs, and particularly social media. He says the lightbulb moment came when he joined Twitter just three years ago, in March 2009. “I was the principal that was the problem. I made sure policies were in place to block and ban every type of social media device. I thought social media and student devices were an impediment to the teaching and learning process.” When he started connecting online with colleagues from other schools, however, everything changed. Here’s some of the lessons he’s drawn on how social media can help schools; you can pull much more from his website.

1) Expanded opportunities for professional development.

Students at Merit Prep, a charter school in Newark, work on computer programs tailored to their individual levels. (Photo by Jackie Mader)
Credit: Photo by Jackie Mader

Sheninger’s own experience connecting on Twitter with a small group of colleagues at schools nationwide was the seed of all his experiments.

“I started following a few educators–Steve Anderson, Shelly Terrell, and Tom Whitby–and the four of us went on a journey together. Here’s what Twitter did for me: it was accessible anytime, anywhere, I was able to acquire knowledge, elicit feedback, reflect on my own work, and present what we were doing at NMHS to the world.”

Sheninger instituted a Google-inspired “20 percent time,” allowing his teachers to use half of their noninstructional time–two or three 48 minute periods per week–as “professional growth periods,” which they can use any way they please to follow their passions as they impact the “bottom line” of student progress–for example, by finding and familiarizing themselves with new web-based tools. He also used contacts he made on Twitter to found Edscape, a conference for his teachers and others on the future of learning that is in its fourth year.

2) Improved digital citizenship and reduced cyberbullying.

Sheninger says that cyberbullying has gone way down as a natural byproduct of teachers and administration being on the same platforms as the kids and modeling how to behave productively online. He holds an assembly with each grade level at the outset of the school year to talk about privacy. “By allowing students to use these tools for learning they are building a greater capacity to create positive digital footprints.”

3) New resources and forms of expression for every discipline.

“In our journalism class students have created Twitter accounts to tweet out realtime news. In AP Biology students had to tweet the different stages of meiosis in 140 characters. In chemistry students are submiting their lab reports via YouTube and Facebook. An English teacher this year used Instagram to assist with illustrating a concept. Teachers are using Edmodo to flip their classroom. Others have created QR codes and are doing scavenger hunts. They’re using Glogster to create interactive posters, Voicethread for presentations…it goes on and on.” Sheninger has a book for teachers on communicating and connecting with social media. Also see this recent post for more resources: “50 EdTech Tools Every Teacher Should Know About.”

4) Connect your students to the world–virtually and face to face.

“Because of our social media presence, we’ve had unparalleled educational opportunities that you could never replicate outside a classroom. We had Dan Pink Skype in with our students for an hour answering questions. We’ve had companies give us document cameras and student response pens to try. We have visitors on campus weekly. We sent students to Google in NYC to try out the Chromebook and give feedback to Google directly.” It’s also led New Milford High School to significant corporate sponsorships and media attention, which may not be the goal of all educators, but Sheninger argues that this has been helpful in exposing his kids to new opportunities and building student and teacher enthusiasm.

5) Expand your course offerings infinitely.

New Milford offers students the chance to take credit courses online through VHS, a collaborative online platform. Students in the STEM academy program recently completed a one-credit independent study using free online resources through Open CourseWare, choosing courses from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. Two of the students learned to code a video game in Python using an MIT computer programming course. “This is something that we could never do here at New Milford. We don’t have any programming courses,” says Sheninger. He is expanding the open courseware independent study opportunity to a full three credits, and MIT is currently doing a case study on the use of open courseware in his high school.

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