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Is Social Media the New Pedagogy? Unpacking the COVID-19 Legacy in Education

The latest The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) report highlights the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the education sector. Social media is vital in engaging students inside and outside the classroom.

As we progress through the post-COVID-19 era, now three years in, it is evident that education has undergone a significant transformation. It is estimated that more than one in four secondary school pupils (28.3%) have been persistently absent in 2022-23, which means they have missed 10% or more of school sessions. This has been attributed to several factors, including a change in attitude following the pandemic. 

Ofsted’s report reflects the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID in the education sector, including the rapid transition to online learning platforms, including social media. This change aims to manage the crisis effectively and embrace a new era of digital education. With social media becoming increasingly integrated into educational contexts, we are on the brink of a pedagogical revolution.

Ofsted Report: Insights into a Brewing Pedagogical Revolution

The 2023 Ofsted annual report highlights the significant impact of COVID-19 on education in the UK. While the pandemic has led to innovation in teaching, with remote learning becoming the new norm, it has also resulted in concerning shifts in behaviour, attendance, and attitudes towards education. This urgent need to address and improve the situation is emphasised in the report. 

The report also highlights that the invisible social contract between parents and schools, where they ensure the well-being of their children in preparation for school, has been fractured, leading to increased absenteeism of students. Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic, as there have been general curriculum improvements and teacher training. This shift has opened up possibilities for further innovations, and the future of learning looks promising.

The Trigger of the Pedagogical Revolution

The pandemic triggered a pedagogical revolution in education, accelerating the shift towards digital learning. Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom and Zoom turned classrooms into digital spaces, while e-learning platforms like Moodle and Blackboard facilitated better coordination and organisation. The rapid move to online platforms slowly facilitated social media integration into educational contexts.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and, notably, TikTok have become instrumental in supporting and enriching the learning process. The EElearnsmart initiative provides access to a network of experienced and inspiring mentors well-known and respected by children (typically 11-17 years old), enabling them to learn and grow under their guidance.  In bitesize video lessons, students learn new skills and earn rewards. For instance, educators on TikTok, like Holly McLoughlin and Emanuel Wallace, use the platform to create engaging and relatable content for young audiences. They cover various subjects, from languages to science, making education more accessible and personalised. 

Wallace said, “I could see first-hand that students were struggling in science because of the lockdown… he also added his influence on students, “I have given them inspiration to take up science and pursue it as a career.”

Initially famed for its bitesize video content, TikTok has expanded its offerings to include longer videos, up to 10 minutes. This expansion is crucial for education, providing more in-depth and comprehensive instructional content. Educators now have the opportunity to craft detailed and nuanced lessons through TikTok, bridging the gap between entertainment and education.

Aside from that, the trust and credibility that TikTok commands among Gen Z users are noteworthy. According to TikTok’s insights in the UK, seven in 10 Gen Z users of social and video platforms consider the content created by TikTok influencers to be believable. This level of trust underscores the potential of TikTok not just as an engaging platform but as a credible source of educational content. 

Moreover, recent findings from Ofcom highlight the evolving role of social media in education, demonstrating a significant shift in the sources of information for younger audiences. Among those aged 12-15, TikTok has remarkably emerged as the most popular source for news, surpassing traditional favourites like YouTube and Instagram. This trend is particularly significant in the educational context, reflecting a broader change in how younger generations consume and trust information.

The Bad and the Ugly of Social Media in Education

The integration of social media into education poses specific challenges that are unique to this domain. One of the major concerns is the reliability of educational content available on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. About 37% of Gen Z social/video platform users consider TikTok creators reliable sources of information. This is because the monetisation strategies of these platforms incentivise content creators to prioritise viewer engagement over accuracy, which can result in compromised content quality.

The absence of rigorous scrutiny for accuracy, common in traditional educational materials, makes it crucial for users to vet sources carefully. Additionally, the digital divide remains a significant barrier, as not all students have equal access to digital devices and reliable internet connections, potentially exacerbating educational inequalities.

The impact of social media on students’ mental health is becoming a significant concern. The continuous use of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat is associated with increased anxiety and depression among students, outweighing any potential benefits. This is particularly concerning as many teenagers own smartphones and report being online almost constantly.

Cyberbullying, exposure to toxic comparisons, and the pressure to maintain a perfect online image can lead to severe mental health issues, including increased risk of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and loneliness. Furthermore, studies have found a strong correlation between having multiple social media accounts and an increased risk of depression, highlighting the need for mindful engagement with these platforms.

Despite these challenges, social media offers unique opportunities for engaging students in education. Platforms like TikTok can create interactive and collaborative learning experiences, enhancing communication between teachers and students. The variety of resources available on social media can cater to different learning styles and interests, making education more accessible and personalised. Additionally, by bridging the gap between classroom learning and real-world applications, social media can make education more relevant and engaging for students. This approach can foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of subjects, potentially igniting a lifelong passion for learning.

In conclusion, the advent of COVID-19 has undeniably accelerated the transformation of social media into a crucial educational tool. This unprecedented shift, propelled by the necessity of remote learning, has spotlighted platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram as innovative venues for pedagogy. As a result of these platforms, continuing education opportunities have been made available during the pandemic and transformed how the younger generation, or Generation Z, interacts with and perceives education. In contrast, older generations traditionally viewed these platforms as distractions during the period.

Social media has the potential to be an educational tool, but educators and policymakers must remain mindful of its challenges, such as content reliability and digital divides. In a sense, the pandemic has triggered an educational revolution that has sparked a new era where learning transcends traditional classroom boundaries to become more accessible, engaging, and aligned with the digital trends of today’s generation.

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