Here's What Happened When Students Solved Social Media Problems With...

Voices | Practice and Implementation Strategies

Here's What Happened When Students Solved Social Media Problems With Design Thinking

By Jacquelyn Whiting     Jan 16, 2019

Here's What Happened When Students Solved Social Media Problems With Design Thinking

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

A few weeks ago, Aaron, a student in my high school elective class, mentioned he didn’t use social media very often. I’ll admit I was a little skeptical at first. When I followed up, he told the class he found the ads distracting—and said he ended up buying things he didn’t need.

“But how do you hang out with people?” asked another student, Holly, somewhat incredulously.

“Well, I Snapchat,” Aaron clarified. “I just don’t use Instagram or Facebook.”

From behind his computer screen, Hugh, a junior, interjected. “Facebook is just a waste of time. Everyone’s posing like their life is perfect.”

Meet some of the members of my Digital Literacy class, an elective course for students in grades nine through twelve. I’m usually a library media specialist, but with only a few days notice, I had inherited this course from another instructor and was given the added challenge of updating the curriculum.

As daunting as that initially felt, I was liberated to explore topics that would resonate with the students who enrolled. One of the units I envisioned was called “Social: The New Media.” So I got to work, curating a playlist of videos on topics I wanted them to explore—such as the well-publicised problems with social media platforms and false news—and figured I’d let students explore sub-topics that interested them.

I consulted the lessons and ideas published by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), Google's Applied Digital Skills and the archives of The Sift from the News Literacy Project. Clearly, I had lots of stuff I could ask the students to do. But on the eve of introducing the unit I began to acknowledge that I, a digital immigrant, was owning it, as opposed to my digital native students. And something about that didn't feel right.

The goal of the unit—informed by the work of educators like Jennifer Casa-Todd and Kristen Mattson—was to consider responsible online conduct, and then learn to harness the media they were already using for good. I decided I needed a different approach that honored that goal, and realized that I didn’t have to be the one identifying the problems.

Enter Design Thinking

As it turns out, the unit was actually a great opportunity for the class to engage in a full design thinking process in order to own and develop solutions to the social media problems they experience. Having recently completed a design thinking certification with Future Design School, and equipped with their curriculum app, I was ready to go. When I presented the idea to the class, I had no clue which problems the students would identify. In fact, I expected to experience a bit of “say-what-the-teacher-wants-to-hear syndrome.” Yet I maintained hope that we could push past that and into their authentic concerns. What I did know was the students were going to own this unit entirely: the content focus, the resource curation and the product creation.

Design thinking begins with falling in love with a problem. To that end, the students crowdsourced lists of the pros and cons of social media using markers and huge sheets of paper. The only rule: Do not cross out or cover anything you find; only add. When students were stumped for words, I encouraged them to draw what social media would be like if their problem didn’t exist.

Students brainstormed their lists of problems and came up with solutions. (image: Jacquelyn Whiting)

Each student chose the con that most bothered them and pro they most enjoyed and combined them into a question beginning with the prompt, “How might we….” Without being prompted, students chose to tackle ubiquitous issues that impact much wider audiences and users than just teenagers. They took on hate speech, time wasting, money wasting (courtesy of Aaron), digital permanence and inauthenticity. Here are some of their questions:

  • HMW preserve a way to connect and share ideas while avoiding impulse shopping in response to targeted ads?
  • HMW preserve the connections between people while fixing the distribution of hate?
  • HMW preserve the freedom of being able to share what we want and being able to connect with others while fixing the consumption of time it takes?
  • HMW preserve social media's ability to connect us with varied communities while fixing the way it encourages dangerous comparisons?

Empowered Learning

Once their problems were defined students were ready to continue with the design thinking process, which uses a series of steps to encourage rapid prototyping of solutions. Steps include: empathizing with those who experience the problem, researching and ideating possible solutions, prototyping, stakeholder testing and iteration.

To grow empathy with social media users other than themselves, the students interviewed people in their lives and communities and built online profiles highlighting interesting things their subjects said. They included enlightening or new information they had discovered, and wrote about how those people experienced a given problem, such as feelings of isolation or inadequacy when scrolling through social media feeds.

This is where all of the resources that I collected in preparation for teaching this unit were valuable as the students examined the insights from their interviews and then conducted research in order to develop solutions. As the owners and designers of this unit, the students engaged passionately with their chosen topic, supported by guidance and encouragement from me.

(image: Jacquelyn Whiting)

This process was much more meaningful and empowering than any teacher-directed instruction I could have created, and resulted in deep conversations about our digital connectedness and incredible potential solutions to problems we share.

When building the prototypes of their solutions, some students made paper versions of redesigned apps. Others developed storyboards of what their solution would look like in action by drawing the sequences on Post-Its and then creating a short video. In some cases their solutions leveraged emerging technology in designing their solutions; other times they designed new hashtag campaigns and even entirely new platforms to replace sites like Facebook. Sometimes they became frustrated and said things like, “I can’t actually build this.” Then they would wonder, “What if someone does build it…” and recommit to their research and planning.

For the user testing phase, students left the classroom to engage members of our school community. They watched how those people interacted with their prototypes and interview them about their reactions to the proposed solution both in terms of the viability of the concept and its appeal. Then they solicited opinions using online tools, such as Google Forms and Padlet boards. From there, they incorporated that feedback into their final designs.

During this three-week unit these students brainstormed, planned, researched, problem-solved, reflected, collaborated and revised. They did this independently, and with more investment than they had demonstrated at any other point in the year. In the process they prompted me—and, by extension, you—to ponder some important issues and join forces as part of the possible solution. Consider:

  • Do all of your social media posts show only your best, brightest, happiest moments? Considering joining the #badday and #authenticself campaigns, and celebrate authenticity by posting about frustrations or setbacks you experience.
  • Have you ever totaled the amount you spend shopping in response to ads targeted at you on social media? Would you consider paying a fraction of that amount to join a social media platform that protects your private information and is ad-free?
  • Have you stopped to think about the language you use on social media? Stay on the lookout for machine learning that will prompt people to reconsider the vocabulary in their posts if they use offensive language, and warn you if you are about to friend someone who does.

All of these innovations are brought to you by the creative, collaborative, design thinking work of teenagers who own their learning.

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