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Digital learning is one of those trendy education buzz phrases that means a lot of different things to different people. To some, it refers to instructional software, such as animated lectures and computerized worksheets. To others, it’s about personalized instruction, where computer algorithms determine what a student should learn next. Still others think of how students can use high-tech gadgets to make their own video, music and publishing projects.

social media in education
Lisa Nielsen

And then there’s social media — how students and teachers use social networks, Twitter, blogs and wikis to communicate with each other, parents and the outside world. We talked with Lisa Nielsen, a social media advocate, who is the first person to hold this newly created job title: director of digital literacy and citizenship at the New York City Department of Education. The 44-year-old has worked in the city’s education department since the 1990s, serving in a wide variety of posts, from librarian and reading coach to teacher trainer and professional development administrator.

Q: What does Digital Literacy and Citizenship mean?

Digital literacy means understanding the world that our kids are now living in. So much of what we do and how we access information is online. We need to be smart about reading, understanding, deciphering online texts and interacting in an online world.

The citizenship part is, just like we want to help students become great citizens face-to-face, we want to ensure best practices for being a good digital citizen as well.

Q: What exactly do you do?

I just started this position in September. This year we are focused on helping teachers develop their own digital literacy. Next year, we’ll be focusing more on students interacting with each other online.

So far, I’ve developed teacher training materials. I’ve trained a few dozen teachers and hope to train many more this winter and spring. We show teachers how to use social media, like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis. We give teachers a “digital makeover” so that they can control how they want to be seen online. And finally, they get practice creating their own social media page or group. We explain when it’s a good idea to have a closed group that others can’t see and when you want to celebrate your students’ work with the world.

Right now, all of our schools have at least a website, but now we’re showing them how to join the Web 2.0 world and make it interactive.

Q: Do you do the training on line?

Right now, it’s face to face. I’m creating an online course at the moment.

Q: Does your job exist anywhere else in the world outside of New York City?

I’m heavily involved in the use of social media and I’m not aware of other school districts who have a position like this.

Q: Why does it exist in New York City?

This job came about because teachers weren’t sure if they were supposed to be interacting with their students online and, if so, how. So, in April of 2012 the Department of Education issued guidelines to help teachers navigate these waters. I was the DOE’s technology and innovation manager in Manhattan and I gave feedback on the guidelines.

They realized that it made a lot of sense to have a pedagogue bring the guidelines to life with the schools so that the teachers could use social networks effectively.

social media in education

Q: How are teachers expected to use social networks effectively when student-owned cellphones, laptops and devices are banned from New York City schools?

There are school-owned computers at schools that students can use. And they can use their own devices after school.

Q: You wrote a book, Teaching Generation Next, about overturning cell phone bans in schools. Are you lobbying to overturn the ban in New York City?

I’m not saying I disagree with the policy (of banning cell phones). School districts need to do what they think is best for their actual population.

I’m just working to help educators use innovative practices. My view is that any digital tool has a lot of possibilities.

Q: Is your goal for all teachers to use social networks in their classrooms?

No. We want to let educators know the possibilities and then empower them to decide what would work best for their students and themselves. Even student to student, it varies. Social media might be great for certain students and it might not be great for others.

Q: What do you say to critics who would call your job an example of the bureaucratic bloat at “Tweed,” the headquarters of the NYC Department of Education?

Teachers are often crying out for more and more support. The articles that I’ve read and things that I’ve heard is that when districts enact new policies, they’re sometimes not supported with professional development. I’ve never heard that there’s a bloat in providing professional development for teachers.

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