In the words of author Dr. Ivan Misner, “Networking is not about hunting. It is about farming. It’s about cultivating relationships. Don’t engage in ‘premature solicitation’. You’ll be a better networker if you remember that” (Infinite, 2011). Social media is about constructing one’s personal learning network, carefully weeding its garden and nurturing connections that, with care, will flourish into new knowledge opportunities. Users can connect with friends across the world: share news, hobbies and interests; share photos and messages; comment on others’ “walls;” add apps, play games and take quizzes; and much more. Every company is struggling to find a way to utilize the power of social media to market products and connect to new consumers. Some HTC smartphones even have a Facebook button! The world has become smaller—it is virtually impossible to stay off of the Internet grid. How can librarians leverage enthusiasm for social media to promote literacy in the school library? This paper will explore the various uses of social media in school libraries and the Connectivism theory behind using social media in library instruction.
Connectivism and the Human Brain
The surge in social media has changed the way people discover information. Human brain plasticity allows us to change and evolve with new stimuli, as is evident throughout our history. Technology is a stimulus and, as educators, we see its impact on the human brain everyday: students and adults alike cannot be parted from smartphones and other devices without feeling disconnected. The more time a person devotes to a specific activity, the stronger those neural responses become (Interlandi, 2008). In a study by neurologist Gary Small at UCLA, he confirms how people more adept at technology have greater short-term memory capacity and perceptual learning. Small states that as the brain becomes more proficient at technological skills, it drifts further away from basic social skills (Interlandi, 2008). Keeping this in mind, educators must account for the rewiring of the human brain during their instruction and curriculum design; older educational theories cannot hope to compete with the information analysis, synthesis, and evaluation that occur in the brain at lightning speed when interacting with technology.
Connectivism theory encompasses chaos, network, complexity, and self-organization theories while realizing that learning is not entirely in the individual’s control (Siemens, 2004). The brain is expected to connect specialized information sets and distinguish between valid and false or misleading information (Siemens, 2004). The slightest interpretation of objectivity skews the truth, and the definition of truth itself is changing because of connective knowledge. Wikipedia attempts to capture the many interactions of private knowledge as public knowledge and is constantly ridiculed for it. A little known fact is that Encyclopedia Brittanica models the same connective knowledge (Dowles, 2007). Unlike the past, knowledge is connective and collective, interdependent upon the group; connective knowledge is shaking the very foundation of truth, as with the credibility of Wikipedia. One person cannot possibly know everything and, consequently, the capacity to learn more is key (Siemens, 2004). The brain understands perspectives and content faster than ever, though still within chaos, especially in the context of information from the Internet.
The process of Connectivism interacts seamlessly with social media and information literacy instruction, especially when sharing information to create new knowledge. The cyclical practice of Connectivism begins with the individual, progresses to the network, flows into organizations and institutions, and feeds back into the network to provide learning to the individual (Siemens, 2004). The individual makes inferences about discovered knowledge, engages in associationism (connecting to prior knowledge), and distribution to the group before making meaning and shared meaning (Dowles, 2007). This is the very definition of social media. The collective intelligence of the network dips into organizations and institutions, filters and synthesizes, and flows the information back into the collective and the individual. Social media connections allow learners to stay current, as librarians know better than many. The modern librarian takes advantage of social media to improve her practice. She must be reflective of her personal Connectivism learning and harness it to teach information literacy skills through social media in the library.
Modeling Lifelong Learning
Librarians model Connectivism and lifelong learning everyday in their use of social media. Librarians in New York City use the NYCLIST email listserv to share ideas and news, advertise professional development events, and receive peers’ answers to questions about the library field. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are leaders among social networking sites for personal and professional use. Social media is a powerful tool in librarians’ repertoire for personal learning networks. Siemens and Dowles would agree that students love social networking almost as much as librarians, offering a unique opportunity for librarians to alter how students use social media technologies, from social use to educational use.
Joyce Valenza (2011), school librarian of Springfield Township High School, conducted interviews with other prominent school librarians to expose their favorite social networking sites and how they are used. Google Reader for news; Symbaloo for bookmarking; and Livebinders and LibGuides for organizing and teaching resources are popular, but Twitter is the most widely used by a considerable measure. Twitter hashtags enable users to browse posts and conversations about that topic. Popular hashtag conversations for librarians are #edchat, #YAlitchat, #tlchat, and #Engchat. Librarians prefer to use Twitter to learn new resources and ideas for the library, in addition to improving their practice (Valenza, 2011). Connectivism through personal learning networks is how professionals maintain connections and learn from each other; the opportunities for connective knowledge on any topic are endless with social media. Librarians must teach their students to think and use social media as they do themselves: constructively and with interest-driven motivation.
Using Social Media in the Library
Social media is seeping into library education and management. Though academic studies on using social media with students in a high school setting are in their infancy, some librarians are diving in and reflecting on its impact upon patrons and library instruction. Christopher Harris (2012) of School Library Journal suggests using Twitter as a marketing tool for the library, using Seth Godin’s “permission marketing” strategy. To promote reading, Harris suggests that school librarians create five different twitter accounts, each for a popular genre. The librarian would update each feed once a week with a book review or recommendation for that genre. The key is only to deliver content that patrons (whether students, faculty, or community members) have agreed to. An RSS feed of a library blog is a similar way to keep readers checking up on the library’s resources, events, and availability (Harris, 2012). Harris’s suggestions are methods that Joyce Valenza and the librarians she interviewed could easily implement, especially since Harris suggests using Twitter, a clear favorite. Such ideas are quick and simple patron-library information connections on social media sites that can truly enrich a library program. The librarian is also afforded a glimpse into the interests of her patrons while promoting literacy.
Book lovers use social networking sites geared toward readers to keep track of books they love, want to read, and wish to share. These social media sites practically scream for librarians to employ their services in reader’s advisory. Well-loved social networks for readers are LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Shelfari. Each interface has its own appeal to users; the librarian should investigate which are used most by patrons and create accounts. LibraryThing is geared more toward librarians because of the “LibraryThing for Libraries” function, enabling libraries to enhance their book catalogs by retrieving readers’ customized metadata such as tags and editions (Stover, 2009). LibraryThing also has a feature called “Authors Who LibraryThing,” a way for librarians to connect to authors and arrange author visits. Goodreads is similar to LibraryThing in look and function, except that Goodreads is free. Both of these sites have simple interfaces and encourage users to add friends, write reviews, join in on forum discussions, and add tags. Shelfari is essentially the same, though the interface’s bright colors and custom bookshelf is more aesthetically pleasing (Stover, 2009). These social media sites function as book clubs, making social and intellectual connections with specific consumers. Siemens and Dowles would appreciate the discussion forums most of all because of their promise of collective knowledge. All three of these sites are enjoyable for librarians to use and helpful in reader’s advisory. Librarians also find it useful to “friend” library patrons, or vice versa, and browse their bookshelves to learn more about patrons’ reading interests and attain collection development suggestions.
Connectivism, Social Media, and Library Instruction
Library lessons using social media are creative ways for librarians to teach Connectivist thinking processes to encourage lifelong learning. Joyce Valenza (2011) mentions Buffy Hamilton’s experimentation with Scoop.it, a free social media site for publishing magazine pages. She uses Scoop.it with students for research projects, but she emphasizes that the site could be used for students’ hobbies and interests, too. Hamilton is also exploring the uses of Pinterest in education (Valenza, 2011). Users label their digital pinboards according to categories. The “repin,” “comment,” and “follow” features of Pinterest are most in accordance with Siemen’s and Dowle’s Connectivism approach, though a more concrete way to make connective knowledge is lacking. Most social networking sites have educational potential; they simply require someone with vision to realize it.
Buffy Hamilton of Creekview High School is one of the most innovative social media-using teacher-librarians in the country. She facilitated a collaborative program between herself and English teacher Susan Lester called Media 21, an initiative that earned Buffy’s library the AL21C’s Cutting-Edge Library Award in 2011. Hamilton’s (2011) program objectives included teaching students about participatory culture using Connectivism theory and inquiry. Students explored various resources and used social media to create personal learning networks. Librarian and English teacher collaborated in every aspect of the program, from planning and teaching lessons to evaluating student learning artifacts. Projects within the Media 21 program included research pathfinders using LibGuides. Hamilton’s LibGuides were models for students’ independent research pathfinders using Netvibes, a free tool for creating an information dashboard (Hamilton, 2011). Netvibes permits users to create a sort of homepage with links to RSS feeds, blogs, videos, photos, databases, etc. Students were required to exercise metacognition by writing reflective research narratives, included on their individualized Netvibes portals. Web 2.0 tools supported their efforts at inquiry-based learning, fostering connective and critical thinking skills in participating students (Hamilton, 2011). The Media 21 project combining elements of collaboration, inquiry, Connectivism, and content creation is a model example of how to alter social media as a tool for education, deepening students’ understanding of a topic and becoming active participants in their education. However, what are the effects of such a project—are students more likely to engage in independent, interest-driven learning pursuits after experiencing Connectivist instruction through social media in school? Buffy’s project was one of the first to attempt such a large-scale integration of Connectivism and social media; more initiatives like this, along with action research, are needed to assess its effects on student learning.
The looming red flags of incorporating social media into curriculum are cyberbullying, cyber security, and FERPA, all of which discourage teachers from venturing into social media for instructional purposes. FERPA, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, prevents teachers from publicizing students’ grades, whether on the Internet, on a bulletin board outside the classroom, etc. Though frequently misinterpreted, FERPA does not inhibit instructors from using social media in the classroom (Orlando, 2011). Instead, educators should follow general Internet safety measures when using social media with their students, such as informing students that their work, posted on a social networking site for class, will be visible to others outside of the school environment. If necessary and available, students can enable privacy features on the site, though this would hamper community involvement goals in social networking. Furthermore, teachers should not require students to post personal information to any social networking sites for class. To be safe, teachers should get parental consent for posting student work on the Internet and fully inform parents of the project (Orlando, 2011). As Connectivism thrives on the freedom of the collective, restraints dampen its impact on learning. As minors, high school students must be introduced to Connectivism on a smaller, safer scale according to law and school policy.
Some schools are banning social networking because of the cyber bullying and security threats. While understandable that the school wishes to prevent Internet safety issues, anti-social media hinders librarians and educators from teaching students how to think in the 21st Century using Web 2.0 tools. Many schools simply block social networking sites using Internet safety features. This is frustrating to teachers trying to use multimedia for presentations or experiment with social media projects. Teachers can assign social media projects for homework and sometimes acquire Internet override codes for presentations, but in accordance with Dowles’ and Siemens’ views, these are obstacles rather than solutions in teaching Connectivism learning strategies through social media. Have teachers or librarians who facilitated social media instruction projects witnessed cyber bullying or Internet safety issues in the classroom? There is not enough research to suggest either case. Perhaps students would learn more about ethical digital citizenship if it were practiced in a safe learning environment instead of having to learn it on their own.
The 21st Century human brain requires Connectivism to learn and social media is a valuable vehicle for connective knowledge. Presently, librarians are finding creative methods of using social networking to improve library management and connections with readers, but there is a great deal of potential in library instruction. Librarians have the opportunity to alter how social media technologies are used by teens; many teens are unaware of the power of their Twitter accounts, blogs, and more. The literature on social media in school libraries is mostly suggestive cheerleading with a few real-world examples of implementation, as with Buffy Hamilton. Roadblocks of the Connectivism approach further complicate the progression of education, though as more bold librarians obtain funding to experiment with social media, others will follow. Because social media integration is in its early states in education, more action research is necessary on how Connectivism impacts students’ critical thinking abilities, problem solving skills, and—through long-term assessment—lifelong learning.
Dowles, S. (2007). An introduction to connectivism. Retrieved from http://downes.ca/post/33034.
Hamilton, B. J. (2011). The school librarian as teacher: What kind of teacher are you? Knowledge Quest, 39(5), 34-40.
Harris, C. (2012). Messages that stick: A hip marketing concept can work for libraries. School Library Journal, 58(2), 14.
Infinite, A. (2011). Best Business and Marketing Quotes. Retrieved from http://saucysocialmedia.com/2011/08/business-marketing-quotes/.
Interlandi, J. (2008). Reading this will change your brain. Newsweek Magazine: The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/10/13/reading-this-will-change-your-brain.html.
Orlando, J. (2011). FERPA and social media. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.sharethiscontent.net/Actions/social_share_version.cfm?message_id=1221820&user_id=MAGNA_FF&recipient_id=638310814&isRecip=1.
Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Elearnspace. Retrieved from http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm.
Stover, K. (2009). Stalking the wild appeal factor: Reader’s advisory and social networking. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 48(3), 243-269.
Valenza, J. (2011). In my network confession… Teacher Librarian, 39(2), 27-33.
- Do I Really Have to Leave the Role of School Librarian? (literateowl.com)
- Connectivism: why I’m a skeptic (downes.ca)
- Do I Really Have to Leave the Role of School Librarian To Do the Work of a School Librarian? (theunquietlibrarian.wordpress.com)
- Effective School Library Programs Positively Impact Student Achievement (prweb.com)