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Social media in Saudi schools … sort of

In the US, social media is banned in most schools but ubiquitous in the rest of students’ lives. In Saudi Arabia, social media is banned but will be taught in school. Maybe we could learn something from each other.

“The textbook for [Saudi Arabia's] first year secondary students, entitled Computers and Information Technology, would contain information on using, designing and managing websites and social networks,” Arab News reports, citing “local media” reports.

Today’s tech textbook, tomorrow’s history book

Books about technology quickly become history books, so it may be challenging to keep those textbooks current, unless they’re somehow updated and reissued about every other month!

But kudos to the Saudis for bringing social media lessons into school. We need to get digital media (not so much textbooks about it) into school, that important community of guided practice. But it can’t be done half way, as in all theory no practice, which is what’ happening in many US schools: teaching social media or digital citizenship in the abstract, with lesson plans rather than learning subjects together, with plenty of opportunities to practice citizenship in real time, in digital media environments.

Aspiring chefs need kitchens to practice

It’s hard to teach cooking without a kitchen. It’s harder on kids to give them no guidance at all. You can’t just send a kid into a kitchen where there are hot surfaces and sharp objects and say, “Ok, I’ll leave you to it now; here’s your kitchen, learn how to cook.” Social media scholars have been saying for at least five years, that that’s what we’ve been doing with social media, basically: leaving our kids largely on their own in social media, without guidance, by banning the media rather than fostering competency with it (e.g., see this). A lucky minority of young people have parents who understand the media and have the will to make their households communities of guided practice.

The Saudi Ministry of Education is so right to be tackling digital literacy, but what about the other two key literacies in today’s very social and digital media environment? Media literacy instruction must look very different in the context of controlled media. And social literacy – the most human of literacies – is needed just as much as the technical kind in social media. What so many governments, schools and adults in general all over the world still don’t seem to understand is that “social networks” are not Web sites or even technology; they’re networks of relationships in life, wherever it shows up (at school, home, work, on mobile phones, on the Web, in online games, etc.). I hope that it will increasingly become clear to educators worldwide that digital literacy alone is not enough. [See the just-released report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet for more.]

Does this up interest in social media?

Another question this development in Saudi Arabia raises is whether learning about social media in school won’t tempt students to find workarounds to social media bans outside of school. Like social media users everywhere, it could turn out that they’ll want to use social media wherever and whenever they want. In other words, is the Ministry creating a monster? After all, even without having learned about social media in school, some Saudi professionals are reportedly finding workarounds (and seeing tough consequences). ArabianBusiness.com reports that a “Saudi judge is on trial for using Twitter.”

In its article, Arab News adds that “classes on using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook” will be taught “starting with the new academic year.” It will be interesting to see how this goes. Maybe Arab News will run a followup this time next year.

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