Home | Opinion | Collaborating out of clouded disconnection: the effects of social media on learning and a pedagogical way forward

Collaborating out of clouded disconnection: the effects of social media on learning and a pedagogical way forward

The context to any contemporary discussion on student learning and pedagogy is the exponential growth in the influence of the internet over the past 40 years. Subsequently, we must note “the importance of an intentional approach to using the internet in a managed, scheduled and thoughtful manner. Indeed, students appear to flourish when the internet fails to dominate, but is of assistance to the disciplined, independent and creative thinker (John Lewis, ER: June 18, 2018).” In addition, social media, and a general preoccupation with internet content, is also, potentially, a detractor from student wellbeing, which, in itself, is a necessary prerequisite for successful learning.

Teenage isolation – a social media creation

Social isolation among teenagers, by way of a deficit of genuine connectedness, is resulting in a profound lack of learning engagement. In regard to broader society, research has found that the rapid rise of social media has led, ironically, to a growing sense of isolation in society. Indeed, a study carried out by the University of Pittsburgh, led by Brian Primack, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health, found that people who visit social networks over 58 times a week are three times more likely to feel lonely than those who use the sites under nine times. In fact, their study concluded that people who spend two hours a day, or more, on social media, had twice the odds of feeling socially isolated than people who spent less than half an hour a day. Their findings were supported by a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which also found that people who reported higher levels of social media exposure also report feeling more socially isolated. These findings are compounded when one considers the implications for adolescent learning. Indeed, the implications are profound when we add to this research a social isolation study conducted by the University of Michigan, which suggests that “more and more teens are choosing teenage isolation as a way to protect themselves from rejection and pain”. As a consequence, they often choose media to make connections, which risks enhancing their social isolation, since social media cannot meet their expectations and usually compounds their disconnectedness. Indeed, social media can be a robust, critical and demoralising environment for an adolescent. Further, social media can also facilitate an obsession to be liked, tagged and followed; none of which is conducive to balanced mental health, with its hallmarks of enriching face-to-face encounters, self-confidence, a sense of belonging and inter-dependence. The consequences of social isolation, and its accompanying feelings of loneliness among adolescence, is often depression and anxiety.

From isolation to depression, anxiety, and impaired learning

According to Sally Hamami of The Beckman Chronicle, approximately “20 per cent of teens will go through depression before reaching adulthood. Sadness ties into poor concentration at school and the feeling that none of this is worth learning”. Indeed, Charlie Glicksman, a clinician from Johns Hopkins University, believes that “anxiety is also something that plays along with depression and does affect grades greatly”. Indeed, depression can lead students with the feeling that their minds have shut down, as they seek to navigate their way through a mental fog. Recent research conducted by Dr Erminio Costa, director of the UIC Psychiatric Institute, has also discovered that the effects of social isolation, namely anxiety, aggression and memory impairment, comes about as a result of altered levels of an enzyme that controls production of a brain hormone that acts to reduce stress. In fact, when stress occurs rationalisation is turned down, along with learning and memory. Indeed, according to the Australian Spinal Research Foundation, chronic stress effects memory retention. “When we are chronically stressed the electrical signals in the brain associated with memories weaken, whilst the areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.” Stress also leads to lower levels of dopamine in the body, resulting in a lack of enthusiasm and motivation. In fact, “Neuroscientists have measured that stress measurably shrinks your brain”.

As Donato and McCormick found, in their A Sociocultural perspective on language learning strategies: the role of mediation, “social interaction is viewed as a prerequisite for the growth and development of cognition”, resulting in sociocultural factors being seen to be intertwined with mental function. Further, connectedness is shown to improve overall mental health; a precondition for successful learning. Indeed, author and academic, Dr Emma Seppala, from Stanford University, found that people “who feel more connected have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.” Therefore, research is now clear that nurturing connectedness in real time face-to-face encounters promotes positive mental health and improves educational outcomes.

Addressing isolation in the classroom

Apart from restricting access to social media and developing a disciplined and thoughtful approach to media use, a proactive approach to learning is needed to address an apparent cognitive deficit associated with isolation. Many schools have wellness and chaplaincy programs that address the mental health of students. However, there is the potential for a “whole school pedagogical approach” that utilizes the classroom as a space of learning through connectedness. In the common classroom experience many students experience little or no engagement in the learning process, which only serves to exacerbate feelings of isolation and lead to the kind of anxiety and depression that adversely effects learning outcomes. Therefore, it is suggested that collaborative based learning is a pedagogy that effectively responds to student isolation, and its effects, as it validates the importance of connectedness through personal dialogue and the exploration of ideas. Further, through group discussion, an exchange of ideas takes place in which pathways to meaning are constructed through a creative process of dialogue and discovery based on research, which leads to the collaborative sharing of ideas. In addition, with collaborative learning, development takes place among fellow students and is encouraged and validated by peers. Students, therefore, shift their paradigm away from the teacher and student dynamic to a collegial student with student dynamic, with the teacher as guide, coach, group facilitator and encourager. In this learning environment, learning in isolation is replaced by a collaborative learning process of mutual encouragement and shared goals. Therefore, learning ceases to take place among other students, but is facilitated primarily with other students.

Therefore, we can conclude that collaborative learning includes many of the social processes that diminish the effects of isolation and enhance the kind of connectedness that engages students in positive experiences of learning. According to Lin Lin, from the University of North Texas, collaborative learning (CL) “recognizes the importance of teambuilding and contains regular self-evaluation, and the emerging cohesiveness in CL classrooms is also a function of the special dynamics of the CL process. Furthermore, students are able to control and organize their own learning.” In so doing, there is greater learning buy in and, consequently, ownership of learning outcomes.

Collaborative learning and essential questions

Collaborative learning serves to connect students together in a mutual learning relationship that responds to the issues associated with isolation and opens the door to a dialogue that promotes higher order thinking. In fact, through collaborative investigations and dialogue, participants explore ideas and develop understandings as they negotiate their response to the essential questions of the topic. It amounts to a learning environment that assumes that while knowledge is fundamental, understanding is premium. Understanding that demonstrates higher order thinking arises in the process of seeking to answer essential questions. Conversely, a coverage of information, for the purpose of imparting knowledge only, does not engage students in the learning process; nor does it provide them with the necessary tools and skills required for the complexities and depth of higher order thinking. Such an approach skills student to look for information and recall it, but does not enable them to understand its implications, give application to different contexts, facilitate creative thinking, solve complex problems or respond to unforeseen circumstances. Alternatively, understanding, sought in the context of collaborative learning, is hard earned in a process and exchange of dialogue that thoughtfully explores ideas in an environment that disbands isolation, and its accompanying inhibitors to learning, and creates the kind of social learning environment that engages students.

Teachers initiate this process through carefully designing assessments that ask for every student in each group to contribute to the final outcome. They also manage the groups to ensure that all students are buying into the process and following the school’s procedures for compliance and consequences. The robustness of this process has the potential to clear the way for students to respond to essential questions and gain the kind of insight that can be transferred between topics and across the curriculum. Indeed, throughout this process skills are acquired that develop the student’s ability to grasp concepts, create insights, be perceptive within a context, formulate solutions, respond constructively to unforeseen circumstances, and explore ideas and issues while developing constructive and engaging learning relationships.

John Lewis is the academic coordinator at Prescott College in Adelaide and has a PhD from the University of New England.  

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