This reading introduces the idea of informal modes of learning, and then discusses the impact of social media on education more generally.
The impact of social media on education has been a particularly contentious topic, attracting significant attention. There are those (including many parents) who clearly believe social media is destroying the educational system, resulting in a dramatic fall in pupils’ grades, a problem which they believe can only be solved by banning access to phones and other ICTs. Others see social media as having the potential to re-energise pupils’ experience of education, guided by a belief that the use of such technologies will inevitably benefit all concerned.
Social media and education: reviewing the research
Fortunately, this one area in which scholars have conducted a good deal of thorough and exemplary research. One example of this was a project on American teens’ use of new media carried out by Ito et al . The authors showed how teenagers use such media to create opportunities for friendship that are driven by peer-to-peer learning, and that these interactions in turn foster their skills in social media. The authors argue that by ‘hanging out’ and ‘messing around’ online, young people learn through exploration, as well as affording them partial access to wider public spheres. Boyd  and Clark  demonstrate how problems, such as the rise of screen interaction as against face to face interaction, associated with social media use are often unfairly attributed to young people’s behaviour and how parental pressures are often contradictory, inconsistent, and unhelpful. In this case screen interaction may compensate for parents who now prevent children playing together outside the home. As we found in our own research in England, it is also surveillance by their parents – rather than by social media companies – that children worry about most.
All of these studies emphasise the importance of challenging preconceived ideas of what learning actually is. Our familiar visions of formal education – schools, classrooms, textbooks, and homework – do not always correspond to how young people direct their own learning. The emphasis on the context in which learning takes place, promoted by the above studies becomes even more evident when we consider the individual situations in our own field sites, where education often takes remarkably different forms.
From formal to informal learning
In the least economically developed fieldsites of our research (Brazil, China and India), which were also marked by notable levels of internal economic inequality, parents often expressed a general sense of frustration at what they perceived to be the failings of local schools to equip students properly with the skills and knowledge they required for success in formal education, work, and life more generally. In response, many young people inventively appropriated social media to provide supplementary means of learning.
For example, in our industrial China site, we saw that migrant factory workers appeared to show little interest in their children continuing into higher education, which was in marked contrast to stereotypes about high-achieving Chinese students. Migrant families often treated their child’s eventual withdrawal from school and joining of manual labour as inevitable. Despite this apparent disinterest in formal education, factory workers and their children often saw social media as a place for reading extensive articles on topics they regarded as useful, including postings and memes regarding self-help, nutrition, health and financial advice. So for them social media was a positive contribution to education.
By contrast, in the rural China field site, parents placed great importance on their children’s formal education, believing that academic achievement would help their offspring obtain secure and comfortable lives. In this context, social media was largely understood (by both parents and students) as having a negative impact on learning, which required almost non-stop study. Because of this, many parents viewed social media as being little more than a distraction.
In our Brazilian field site, it was parents who viewed their children’s interest in computers as positive for their future, believing this would help them to become better informed and connected with the world. Teachers, however, had a slightly different perspective: they spoke of social media as being the ‘bad internet’, distracting children and having mixed effects on study; while Google was regarded as the ‘good internet’ as a reliable source of knowledge.
What emerges from our Indian field site is how much attitudes can vary according to social class and the type of schooling provided. Venkatraman noted massive variance in the environment and teaching quality amongst middle schools in his field site. Children from wealthy families that attend private international schools tended to use social media relatively infrequently due to parental concerns regarding the perceived effect of such use on educational achievement. In contrast, children from parents of poorer families who attended state schools generally held far more positive attitudes towards social media, which largely arose from a belief that these technologies were inherently educative, regardless of how they were used.
What all these examples suggest is that the introduction of social media causes people in each of our sites to re-examine and challenge traditional boundaries between formal and informal learning.
How do you think social media is changing the relationships between students, teachers and parents where you are?
- Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media (FutureLearn)