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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Educational Turn of Social Networking: Teachers and their Students Negotiate Social Media

  • Author(s): Stornaiuolo, Amy
  • Advisor(s): Sterponi, Laura
  • et al.

This two-year ethnographic study of five teachers and their adolescent students in India, South Africa, the U.S., and Norway traced how participants negotiated social media in educational settings, especially the challenges and benefits of incorporating social networking in teaching and learning. We are at a critical juncture in educational research, as texts, ideas, and people rapidly circulate around the world (Appadurai, 1996) and social networks connect audiences, authors, and texts in new relationships with heightened responsibilities and obligations (Silverstone, 2007). This dissertation study represents an effort to map how teachers and students negotiated these new relationships in a globally networked environment, in what is arguably the first empirically documented educational social networking project (Hull, Stornaiuolo, & Sahni, 2010). Using a cultural historical activity theory lens (Cole & Engeström, 1993; Engeström, 1999a), I analyzed the activity system of the networked community, looking particularly at the contradictions that participants faced in incorporating new digital and social technologies into educational spaces. Employing a multi-sited ethnographic approach (Marcus, 1995), I collected interview, observational, artifactual, and informatic data about how teachers and students used the resources of the networked community for learning and literacy development. This ethnographic study was designed to help educators identify how we might productively incorporate social media into classrooms and foster students' development of the compositional facility needed to communicate with diverse audiences across multiple composing contexts.

One of the central findings of the study is that teachers have a crucial role to play in creating opportunities for young people to develop as thoughtful and capable 21st century communicators but that this enterprise is fraught with difficulty, requiring persistence and collaboration between participants in addressing those challenges. Specifically, participants in this study struggled with the contradiction of incorporating seemingly `social' practices into more `academic' contexts, and teachers grappled with what role to take up in their classrooms and in the networked community in relation to these hybrid social/academic practices. While this enterprise was fraught with difficulty, however, teachers persisted across challenges, working together to open spaces for dialogue and to highlight participants' responsibilities to one another as authors and audiences. The study revealed that educationally-turned Web 2.0 tools and practices can play a generative role in expanding participants' transliterate capacities, flexible composing and interpretive strategies for communicating with diverse audiences across complex and varied texts.

This study contributes to a still-nascent empirical research base around how young people's communicative capacities can be supported by an educational framework that integrates digital tools and practices, particularly for adolescents whose experiences and beliefs are not always taken into account. Highlighting the generative role of contradiction and the centrality of mediational artifacts in driving innovation, this study represents an empirically grounded example of expansive learning (Engeström, 1987) in a virtual community. It also offers implications for extending the theory of expansive learning for literacy studies by demonstrating that learning across (horizontal or expansive learning) is a kind of transliterate practice, a form of literate action that plays an important transcontextualizing role in the world in building and sustaining connections across time and space (Brandt & Clinton, 2002). As participants in this study engaged in these transliterate practices, I argue that their artfulness and generosity in doing so illustrates a cosmopolitan stance in the world (Hansen, 2011; Hull, Stornaiuolo, & Sahni, 2010). As one of the central challenges facing educators in the current age, maintaining a stance of both openness to the new and loyalty to the known is a challenging yet ever more imperative prerequisite for learning from, about, and with others across our ever-more connected world (Hansen, 2010). This study offers implications for the ways that teachers can model these cosmopolitan dispositions - by inhabiting shared spaces, listening to others with respect, and accepting the obligation to be hospitable interlocutors, all crucially important capacities as we seek to become ethically alert citizens in and of the world (Silverstone, 2007).

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