Digital media get top marks as they bring a new kind of learning into the classroom


Figures just released from Ofcom’s annual communications market report highlighted the fact that last year, for the first time, the amount of time we spent talking on mobile phones fell. However, that doesn’t mean we’re not communicating: the report also suggested that some 96 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds are using digital media to stay in touch with friends and family on a daily basis.

Given that, it's hardly surprising that digital and social media are becoming more and more widely used in schools and universities.

In fact, institutions around the UK are bringing students new learning experiences via digital media. A recent example saw 9,000 students from 140 schools watch a webcast of Tim Crouch's play I, Cinna, based on the misadventures of a lowly character from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, then writing their own poems and prose in response and taking part in a live Q&A with the actor and director.

The project was the result of a collaboration between Cisco, the Royal Shakespeare Company, JANET (a government-funded research and education network) and university sector college Ravensbourne.

The Q&A session was hosted by former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq, and many of the students taking part, aged 11-16, had never been to the theatre or written poetry.

'Our aim is to connect young people with Shakespeare in ways that excite and inspire them,' says Jacqui O'Hanlon, Director of Education at the Royal Shakespeare Company. 'We've had some amazing reactions from students and teachers and we're delighted that so many young people got their first taste of Shakespeare through the webcast.'

According to Cisco's MD, Neil Crockett, the project's benefits are twofold: using technology to inspire and inform students about Shakespeare, but also to show them the possibilities of the digital platforms themselves and encourage students to develop their skills in science, technology, engineering and maths.

'That inspiration will help drive the talent that this innovative sector needs to help lead the UK's economic growth and build a brilliant future for Britain,' he says.

Throughout the education sector, digital and social media projects are being used to inspire young minds and develop skills across a range of subjects. Both Ted-Ed ( and O2 learn ( provide free-to-use videos to users, via YouTube for the former and on a dedicated website for the latter.

The short films are designed to be used as teaching aids and combine live action, animation and voiceovers to cover topics as diverse as the evidence for alien life and how to mic up a rock drum kit. They can also be edited by users to create more personal, inter-active learning tools.

Teacher and careers adviser Mark Woodward of Coventry's Bablake School, which already uses the Ted-Ed videos, says social media allows both staff and students to take a nimble approach to learning. 'Social media platforms make the classroom come alive,' he explains. 'Breaking news can happen in front of pupils. You don't have to wait for a textbook to be printed and suffer out-of-date material.'

Being Twitter-literate can have unexpected advantages. The team on his student magazine approached broadcaster Jonathan Ross via the social media platform, for example, and within minutes had secured an interview for the next issue.

'In my careers role, I stress the massive advantage of a positive digital portfolio for all pupils,' Woodward says. 'Not only can the ICT or art student post his or her best work online, but those in love with physics can blog or network with experts in that field.'

Social media can also help when pupils move up to higher education. With exam results and  the nerve-jangling prospect of clearing fast approaching, Bournemouth University ( 2012) has developed a lighthearted digital media campaign to provide prospective students with all the information they need. Hoping to inject a little humour into the process, its social media team has crafted a series of slyly risqué videos, blogs, Facebook posts and tweets from a Forties-style wing commander character.

'Universities have previously been quite passive about giving out information and waiting for students to come to their websites,' explains digital campaign officer Kris Stevens. 'But we're tapping into conversations students are already having with information that's useful to them. Our wing commander can pop into places where universities might not normally go, which then draws attention to the help and advice we're giving.'

For Mr Stevens and his colleague Nicola Murray-Fagan, the university's senior marketing manager, the power of social media lies in its ability to create dialogue with students, rather than attempting to force-feed them information. 'Pushing things out to people isn't as effective as it once was, it's not the way people engage any more,' says Ms Murray-Fagan.

Instead, the hope is that once the campaign arrives in students' social media spaces, they'll share it with one another and pass the information around.

Beyond clearing, digital and social media is being put to further imaginative use. Students on senior lecturer Rosie Miles's Victorian literature course at the University of Wolverhampton brought the spirit of Twitter to their studies by creating imagined profiles and tweets for literary characters such as Dracula (@likeabatoutofhell) and Dr Jekyll (@Doubleface).

While the process took place inside the university's 'virtual learning environment' rather than being posted live on Twitter, Miles found the 140-character format of the 'virtual tweets' encouraged witty, to-the-point comments from students and was a popular exercise.

However, she urges teachers to be confident with social media skills before turning them loose on students. 'There's a balance between trying something new and the possible tension of it not working too well and not being a great learning experience for students,' she says. 'Teachers and academics need to get to grips enough with the technology in question so they are confident about a class using it too.'

With more time spent online than ever before and more smartphones in students' pockets, social media platforms are inevitably going to find their way into the classroom. But with the right approach from schools, colleges and universities those platforms could become powerful tools and not distractions, inspiring a new generation of connected, innovative thinkers. 'It's about finding what students need,' says Kris Stevens, 'and deciding on the best way to deliver that to them.'


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