Defining terms: critical thinking and social media

First, two key terms must be defined, critical thinking and social media, both of which have proven difficult to describe simply. Definitions of critical thinking are arguably the most useful when they are various and complex, that is, when one does not merely focus on the products of critical thinking, but acknowledges that it is a process. This chapter uses a new, threefold definition of critical thinking that encompasses (1) attitudes, such as openness to multiple ideas, flexibility/readiness to travel laterally with those ideas, and a desire to share knowledge; (2) actions, such as travelling with ideas, collaborating to obtain multiple viewpoints, making a judgment based on evidence, synthesizing complex data, stepping back to reflect; and (3) outcomes, such as obtaining distance, shifting paradigms, and having new insights.

This broad, process-oriented definition has several implications for educators. First, mindful of process, educators need to think about how to promote the mindsets in which broader and higher-level critical states can occur, and encourage a long-term propensity to these kinds of critical thought (Perkins, Jay, and Tishman 1993). This idea of establishing mindsets will be kept in the foreground when looking at how social media can help with critical thinking.

Then, one should also consider the objectives of critical thinking: what are the new insights or paradigm shifts about? From where is distance obtained? In promoting well-rounded critical thinking in students, educators need to think in terms of a suitably broad definition of these objectives of critical thought. They need not necessarily be confined to the knowledge of a particular subject area (e.g., critical thinking about the style of Beethoven's music). Students' critical thinking can encompass "their experiences in relation to knowledge, themselves and the world" (Barnett 1997, 109). Achieving such capacious criticality might seem daunting: it implies that teachers need to think of ways of promoting critical thought within, without, and about the discipline. However, one can start by ensuring that students are progressively developing an awareness of the discipline's discursive frameworks and constraints; the domains of application of its models; and its myths, tropes, and truisms (e.g., the popular myth of Beethoven as Western Classical music's "hero").

In achieving this well-rounded criticality, the educator's own approach is crucial: the messages that instructors send to students through traditional modes of teaching and research within the disciplines can inhibit students' development of desired critical perspectives. For instance, one can more easily convince students that multiple perspectives are vital for a well-rounded view of music history if well-structured opportunities for collaborative research are provided as an important component of courses, rather than primarily teaching in a (still typical) lecture-heavy fashion that promotes the view of lecturers as "oracles" and students as solitary "receptacles" of knowledge. Enabling social media to play a role encourages a more collaborative model of knowledge exchange and production, so that students are more aware of the contestable nature of knowledge.

We need a working definition of social media before considering in more detail how they can be used to promote critical thinking. Social media are means by which people create, share, exchange, synthesize, analyze, and critique information and ideas online, in virtual communities. These media are based on the developments in information and communication technologies known as Web 2.0, the so-called read-write web, meaning that they allow for— and indeed promote—multiple forms of interaction, rather than simply permitting passive viewing.

Six different types of social media have been identified (Kaplan and Haenlein 2010): collaborative projects (e.g., Wikipedia), blogs and microblogs (e.g.,Twitter, Blogger), content communities (e.g., YouTube,, Pinterest, Delicious), social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Bebo, Google+), virtual game worlds (e.g., World of Warcraft), and virtual social worlds (e.g., Second Life). However, the boundaries between the different types have been increasingly blurred, and social media technologies (blogs, wall postings, music sharing, voice communications, image sharing, etc.) are increasingly being integrated through social network aggregation platforms.

In higher education, the most significant line that has been blurred, given the new affordances of Web. 2.0, is that between the social and educational spheres. Specific online tools, environments, and platforms have been designed with online learning (or e-learning) in mind, such as Moodle (an e-learning platform), Google Docs (for sharing and editing documents online), and Sloodle (a combination of Second Life and Moodle). Like the mainstream social networking tools and platforms, these virtual learning environments emphasize interaction, but they can be less accessible, or inaccessible, to those outside the class or institution, depending on settings and servers. In practice, and despite a good deal of debate and equivocation (see Roblyer, McDaniel, Webb, Herman, and Witty 2010, and below), increasingly many educators are integrating mainstream social networking sites like Facebook, and open-source software like Elgg (a social networking engine), into their courses.

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