When we talk about building relationships in education – among students, teachers, administration, parents, families, and the community – what we are really talking about is social capital. At its essence, social capital is about networks of relationships that provide value, or benefits, such as enhanced social and emotional support, mutual trust, increased knowledge, and greater access to information and resources. These social ties help to create an infrastructure where people can develop their social participation, or engagement, along with the knowledge, experience and skills necessary to successfully navigate our diverse communities, and our world.
Economically disadvantaged and immigrant families often do not have the financial, social or cultural skills and experience to navigate our education system, or to access information about school structures and policies. Families with low social capital are less likely to communicate with their child’s teachers and school. They are also less likely to know how to advocate for their child, make educational decisions on behalf of their child, and to know how they can best support their child’s learning at home that reinforces what their child is learning at school.
Not surprisingly, increasing social capital has frequently been cited in educational research and reform initiatives as a way to help narrow the achievement gap among students and schools. Because as we know, effective home-school communication that facilitates a parent’s involvement, emotional support and reinforcement of their child’s learning at home, strongly influences a child’s academic success and overall wellbeing. For at-risk children, schools that establish strong connections to health, social and community organizations, demonstrate the importance of such partnerships and relationships to a student’s educational success, behaviour and socio-emotional development. Family Resource Centres, embracing a whole-child approach, creating community schools, providing social services to poor kids in school, and establishing parent, family, and community engagement frameworks – to name just a few – are all fundamentally based upon building or increasing social capital. It’s all about relationships, and connecting students and their families with the resources, tools, and supports they need to help students achieve their academic potential.
There is now emerging research and evidence to suggest that social media and online networking may contribute to the building and preservation of social capital; that is, our networks of relationships. Today, more than ever, the use of the internet is strongly related to being connected to social media sites. Over 70% of Canadian internet users are plugged into social media, with facebook and twitter being the most popular sites. In addition, mobile usage is surging, with just over 3 out of 5 social media users using Smartphones to read or post material.
“It allows me to organize people a lot faster, to check people out for things I might want them to do. It allows people to find me, or if I want to get advice from people, the fastest way is to get them through facebook or twitter. There’s a lot of convenience involved in interacting with people over social media.” ~ Aimee Morrison, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature (Digital Culture), University of Waterloo
Without a doubt, social media is revolutionizing our social participation and how we manage our relationships. And there’s a definite link between social media and social capital. Social media is a powerful resource educators can use to help build and preserve not only their students’ social capital, but that of their parents and families as well. Here are just some of the beneficial ways I think social media can increase social capital:
Social media helps overcome time and distance barriers
One of the most distinct features of social media and online interactions – be it a blog, a facebook comment, a twitter post, or an instagram photo – is that it is asynchronous. This means that social media enables people to network on a global basis and manage their relationships anywhere there is internet access, at any time, when they have the time to do so. Social media interactions can help overcome the barriers of time constraints, diverse working hours such as shift-work, geography, distance, and even anxiety for those who may lack the confidence or self-esteem to initiate communication. When opportunities are limited for busy families to participate or attend school events, or as time and distance constraints increase, the ease of using social media can help maintain home-school communications and relationships. Social media plays a key role in meeting parents and families where they are and this, in turn, helps build social capital. Chris Wejr and Chris Casal & Lisa Nielsen have written excellent posts recently on the important role technology plays in meeting parents where there are. It would be amiss for me to not include Joe Mazza here as one of the pioneer educators to promote the use of technology to bridge home and school (eFACE) while creating and maintaining relationships – Joe did his dissertation on this very topic.
Social media builds upon existing ties and relationships
Social media is not a tool to replace or a way to hide from in-real-life relationships. Rather, it’s a beneficial resource that can help build and enhance relationships. (It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it!) Face-to-face interactions are always preferable, but when teachers and families cannot meet regularly, social media can help maintain home-school communications and relationships. It can expand the conversation and provide opportunities for ongoing dialogue about a child’s learning throughout the school year. Essentially, social media can help keep the conversation going until you meet again.
Social media facilitates new connections and collaboration
Social media enables people to participate in a global and virtual collection of connections. It can improve the quality of a relationship by allowing people to solidify a connection that might have otherwise slipped away. Think about someone you have met recently and want to keep in touch with. How much easier is it for you to do so using social media? New contacts, links, and connections represent potential and opportunity. They enhance ones’ capacity for building social capital. And the collaborative and reciprocal nature of social media interactions fosters mutual trust and respect – values inherent to social capital.
Social media provides a platform for advocacy, collective practice and action
Most people know the power of a PLN to stimulate professional learning, growth, development and action. As an infrastructure, I like to think of social media as a virtual network of knowledge and practice. Social media provides a great opportunity for students, parents and families to develop their own PLN, or tap into existing networks of knowledge, with greater access to information, learning, development, and social interaction. PLNs are the ultimate social capital builder!
Social media enhances social participation and engagement
There are many educators using a variety of social media to provide a window into their classroom, or school, for parents and families. Opportunities to connect bolster social capital. From virtual tours of the classroom and school, instagram photos of hands-on learning, interactive teacher and student blogs, to YouTube videos of the latest school event, twitter and facebook pages, social media provides a variety of means for students, parents and families to join the conversation. It enables parents to connect with teachers and schools, and engage in their child’s learning both at home and at school – elements critical to a child’s academic success and wellbeing.
So these are just a few examples of how I see social media contributing to enhanced social capital in education. Together, with a growing body of research and evidence suggesting increased social capital can help bridge achievement gaps and improve academic outcomes for students, perhaps that “Like us on Facebook” link is a really good idea for schools after all
As always, I invite and appreciate your comments and feedback.