Digitally coming of age

December 01, 2011

An article in my local newspaper today discusses whether growing up digital and immersed in social media is helpful or harmful to the current generation of students. As someone who works online to promote STEM education and an editor, I have a few differing views on the topic.

Social media is a terrific way for people to reach, engage, and connect with each other. Just last week, I went to a gathering of people I’ve worked with off and on through many company moves, name changes, and company sales. People showed up who I hadn’t seen in ages and everyone commented on how great it was to see each other after so long. How was the gathering arranged? Through LinkedIn, Facebook, and email.

My son got a new co-op job a few hours from where he currently lived near his college. He announced his luck on Facebook and within an hour had a friend comment that she also worked there, lived near the company, and would be happy to rent a room to him. Housing problem solved. Next my son organized a celebration party…how…Facebook, of course!

Social media is as useful to students as it is to everyone else. Probably more so. Suddenly, friends are reachable where ever they are and whatever they’re doing. Lost your homework assignment? Need help figuring out the physics problems? Can’t find your new classroom? Solutions are a few keystrokes away.

But all this convenience has its price. As Robin Welch, principal of the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Framingham, MA, said in the MetroWest Daily News article, the Internet “can be a wonderful educational resource,” but he bemoans “the lost art of spelling, grammar and writing.”

Lynne Viti, senior lecturer in the writing program at Wellesley College, has a practical take, “There have always been speech codes,” whether in the 1960s or now, and “most students” distinguish between the way they should communicate in the classroom and in the peer group.

And there’s another side to the sloppy writing coin. Students who would probably otherwise not write at all are now doing so, and if not neatly or at great length, at least frequently. I would wager that illiteracy has declined dramatically just as digital engagement has grown.

So does social media help students engage or hinder their concentration? Does it connect friends who would otherwise drift apart or turn students into couch potatoes? And should good grammar be a priority all the time or just in the classroom?

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