Assessing 3 Approaches to Social Media Education for Students

Recent media coverage of the significance of students’ social media presence in college admissions and career opportunities have helped to turn educator and parent attention to the market for possible solutions. There are 3 main approaches, representing different views of social media:

1. Algorithmic bots

This approach is the most prolific, but arguably the least valuable. Algorithmic bots are pre-programmed software programs that will scan a student’s social media accounts and flag predefined “negative” posts. The bots are typically programmed to identify curse words, drug and sexual references, racist and violent language, and other not ready for prime time activities.

Believing social media is nothing more than a peer to peer medium, this approach views social media at its simplest level and focuses solely on “cleaning up” past activities. It emphasizes fear. “Don’t let an unthoughtful social media moment ruin your student’s chances of getting into a great college” They see social media as a negative that can only hurt a student’s chance for college acceptance.  Algorithmic bots neither teach nor change behavior, and does not help a student in the long term.

Let’s try looking at this in a different way. Let’s say you will be attending your high school reunion later this spring. You naturally want to look your best, but you know you’ve put on a few extra pounds since high school. Seeking ways to shed some weight, you find a service that promises it can identify all the food you ate over the years that contributed to your weight gain. What is the inherent value of paying someone to tell you something you already know? Not very helpful, right? This is the algorithmic approach.

Attempting to cleanse the negatives of uninformed peer to peer teen social media communications misses an important point. Assuming that cleansing one’s social media presence via an algorithmic bot is fully possible, the resulting online presence will be less than inspiring and will miss an opportunity to enhance positives.  Colleges and employers are not looking at social media to find reasons to reject otherwise qualified students. They are seeking to learn more about students in support of their admissions decisions.

Teaching high school students how to use social media to expand their social network beyond their peer groups, while showing them how to create reflective and compelling social media presence for a future audience is the critical issue that needs to be addressed.

2. Proprietary Digital Portfolios

Several companies teach students how to build a digital portfolio, but tie that portfolio to a closed, protective, and proprietary online platform.

Learning how to create a digital portfolio that can only be seen by designated viewers is limiting and misses an important opportunity to teach students social networking skills. So we ask, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

These products are built on the fear of privacy and online safety. However, the true power of social media lies in the word social. A private digital portfolio bypasses the power of this medium, which students use every day, whether we like it or not. Social media is a powerful tool: a billion people now engage on Facebook every single day with hundreds of millions also actively engaging on LinkedIn and Twitter. Students need to learn how to cast as wide a net as possible to maximize their digital presence and grow their networks to increase the visibility of their profiles and activities, whether it’s for college, employment, or countless other opportunities. In the context of college admissions, a digital portfolio seen only by a college admissions officer is unnecessarily restrictive. Social media creates connected communities so that same portfolio built on LinkedIn, packaged with useful community networking performed on Twitter, opens up countless other interesting opportunities for the student.

While the hybrid approach of proprietary digital portfolios may teach proper content generating techniques, it limits the student’s potential audience within a small private platform. It also ignores teaching essential networking skills for 21st-century success.  Leveraging Google and the indexing capabilities of the major social networks create additional opportunities via search and discovery. We live in an interconnected world and sitting on the sidelines without the ability to engage is a limiting solution. Instead of catering to fears of privacy and safety, we need to empower students with fundamental knowledge about the rules of safe and proactive use of social media by providing them with effective education.

3. Pragmatic social media education

When we teach teens to drive, we make sure they know how to properly operate vehicles on well-traveled roads and highways, so they are prepared for real-world experiences. We also teach them the essential skills, rules, and responsibilities that inherently come with the privilege of driving a car. What we do not do is hand teens the keys to a car to let them figure out the driving thing on their own. The same values apply to a free, open and embracing view of social media. There is no substitute for teaching students the essential skills they need to comport themselves appropriately, safely and productively on the very public stage of social media. Pragmatic social media education sees social media in a positive light: as an important communications tool that provides unparalleled networking, academic and professional opportunities for students. This approach is a sound, real-world approach towards teaching students the fundamentals of empowering social media use.  

Beginning with the middle school years, pragmatic social media education teaches the fundamentals of integrity, character and digital citizenship and then, as students reach high school, the focus shifts to integrating social media into college and career readiness programs. When used correctly, social media can help a student shine a powerful light on his or her character, skills, interests, service and accomplishments. It helps a student learn how to communicate these important attributes in powerful and compelling ways to a significant future audience of college admissions officers, employers, and partners.

Programs like these help students create content, expand professional networks, and build communities through thoughtful engagement. Cyber Civics is a leading example of a pragmatic social media education solution for middle school students. Our company, Social Assurity, has worked diligently to build eCourses and workshops that deliver pragmatic social media education essentials to high school students.

Alan KatzmanComment