School Climate & Safety

Social-Networking Sites for Schools Promote Safety, Education Benefits

By Rhea R. Borja — October 10, 2006 5 min read
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Companies hoping to capitalize on the popularity of social-networking Web sites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com are building similar sites for K-12 schools that they claim will be safer and more educational.

Imbee.com, developed by Industrious Kid Inc., an Emeryville, Calif., start-up, and Digication Spotlight, established by two former Rhode Island School of Design instructors, are two such sites that have rolled out in the past few months.

In addition, the parent company of Whyville.net, a social-networking site that has been around since 1999 and offers games and activities for students to play on their home computers, is trying to get schools to use the site.

The wave of school-based social-networking sites isn’t limited to the United States. Last spring, the Derbyshire, England-based Intuitive Media Ltd. launched SuperClubsPlus.com, a purportedly secure site that’s being used by more than 12,000 teachers and 100,000 students ages 6 to 12 across the United Kingdom.

Such sites, with their emphasis on online safety and development of Internet skills, offer a good middle ground for schools that are concerned about harmful uses of social-networking sites yet want their students to learn how to use the Web in more sophisticated ways, said Douglas A. Levin, the senior director of education policy at Cable in the Classroom. The Washington-based nonprofit group is an advocate for better uses of technology in schools.

The problem, Mr. Levin explained, is that schools typically think of the Internet the way it was three or more years ago, as essentially just a library. Consequently, he said, many schools block new Web tools such as blogging and photo-sharing, as well as social-networking sites such as MySpace, which provide a broad array of publishing and communication tools.

Schools should teach responsible use of those tools, rather than just blocking the use of them by students, he said.

“Products like Imbee are in many respects training wheels for real life on the Internet,” Mr. Levin argued. “The Internet will continue to evolve. We need to step up and make sure [students] have the skills they need to navigate the Internet well.”

Privacy Concerns

Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Piczo.com, a San Francisco-based site popular with high school students in Canada and the United Kingdom, offer students a valuable showcase for writing and other forms of self-expression. But their increasing popularity has also given rise to serious concerns about students’ posting of information that exposes them to invasions of privacy and safety threats, such as online bullying and attention from sexual predators. (“Social-Networking Web Sites Pose Growing Challenge for Educators,” Feb. 15, 2006.)

The companies making the school-based sites are trying to address those worries.

For example, at Imbee.com, which is for students ages 8 to 14, parents must submit their credit card numbers online to vouch for their children’s identity, said Tim Donovan, the vice president of marketing at Industrious Kid. “That’s the first line of defense,” he said. “We authenticate parents, and then by proxy the children who are on our network. Parents also approve the people their kids will contact.”

Students are also prohibited from meeting new people on Imbee.com. They can only contact the online friends they have on a preapproved list, which makes the site a good match for school sports teams, clubs, and other student groups, Mr. Donovan said.

Industrious Kid also announced last month that it had established a partnership with Web Wise Kids, a Santa Ana, Calif.-based nonprofit group that uses computer games to teach Internet safety.

At Whyville.net, users must spend three days on the site to familiarize themselves before they have the opportunity to chat. Then they have to pass a “chat license” test, which has questions about Internet safety, said Jennifer Y. Sun, the president of Numedeon, the parent company of Whyville. Users who abuse the chat privilege get punished by being barred from using the site for several days, or even permanently, Ms. Sun added.

Having users jump through those hoops is necessary, she said, “to weed out people who aren’t truly interested in Whyville, but just want to be troublemakers.”

At Digication Spotlight, which provides an online portfolio for students and allows them to comment on and view other students’ work, teachers control who can go online and whom they contact.

“Our network can be administered by the school itself,” said Jeffrey Yan, a co-founder and the chief executive officer of Providence, R.I.-based Digication Inc.

“The world of MySpace has been very difficult for schools to control. We feel that we can kill two birds with one stone: A, letting the students publish; and B, letting the schools guide them.”

Doubts About Viability

Students at the 900-student Smithfield High School, northwest of Providence, use Digication Spotlight to house their senior art portfolios, and colleges have logged on to Spotlight to look at prospective candidates’ artwork, said Tiffany Doran, an art teacher at Smithfield. She said she would never use social-networking sites such as MySpace to showcase student work because of the sites’ advertising and uncertainties about security.

“I wouldn’t trust that what I put on [MySpace] stays that way,” she said. “The main point behind Digication Spotlight is that you’re looking at work and schools and curriculum, whereas MySpace is just about meeting people.”

The companies behind the new school-based social-networking sites hope to profit not by placing banner ads or other advertising on the sites, but through accepting sponsorships from other companies, charging yearly fees to schools, and other ways. Digication Spotlight, for example, is free for the first 1,000 users at a school, then costs $20 annually for each additional user.

Imbee.com plans to partner with youth-focused and youth-sports organizations, as well as media conglomerates, to sponsor various Web pages. Industrious Kid also hopes to make money from the site by offering students the chance to make their own products and market them online, such as T-shirts and coffee mugs, Mr. Donovan said.

But whether such school-based social-networking sites will actually be educationally and economically viable remains to be seen, said David Card, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research Inc., a New York City-based research firm that analyzes the Internet and emerging technologies.

“It seems like what they’re doing is very difficult,” he said. “One of the things they’ve got going for them is that they’re focused and realize the scope of what they want to change.

“But they’re competing with other types of service. You want to have self-expression and communication and interaction among your friends. And you can get that from a bunch of places.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Social-Networking Sites for Schools Promote Safety, Education Benefits

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