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‘Safe’ Social Networking Tailored for K-12 Schools

By Michelle R. Davis — June 13, 2011 7 min read
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This school year, the students in Robert A. Miller’s 5th grade class at Port Orange Elementary School in Florida have been chatting with historical figures. They’ve given Thomas Jefferson advice on how to write the Declaration of Independence and touched base with Benjamin Franklin. In early spring, they had conversations with explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as the duo made their way west. The explorers sent back detailed descriptions of prairie dogs and the sights they saw on their travels. Students had to restrain themselves from revealing to the explorers the pivotal role that the recent addition to their team—a pregnant Native American woman named Sacagawea—would play.

Students are having conversations with those celebrated figures (played by Mr. Miller), as well as each other and their teacher, using the social-networking site Edmodo, which is designed specifically for use in schools. “It makes learning more interactive” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a way to extend the classroom after hours, but I’m also using it to present lessons.”

Social networking is playing an increasing role in education, as educators realize it’s a way to engage students who feel at home on such sites. And while many schools, students, and teachers are using mainstream social-networking sites, like Facebook, for such purposes, those sites aren’t designed specifically for educational use and give some school leaders pause. Worries about security, advertising, information-sharing, and social interaction in such an environment have led some educators to instead seek out social networks designed specifically for learning.

“This is a controlled environment,” Mr. Miller said of the San Mateo, Calif.-based Edmodo. “The teacher sets the parameters and can see everything, and there’s no messaging solely between students.”

But even if networking sites are geared specifically to the classroom, they still must be considered carefully, educators say. Some charge a fee for their services; others collect data on their users and could use the data to inform advertisers. And schools need to investigate who owns the material that students post on such sites.

Even so, many educators say they feel more comfortable with a social network designed for education rather than the sometimes-murky environment of a site like Facebook.

“Everything is transparent,” said Andrea Keith, the implementation manager at Gaggle, based in Bloomington, Ill., which provides social-networking and other services to schools. “Teachers can be friends with students the way they never would on Facebook.”

Focus on Academics

Many users of educational social-networking sites say they’re just more comfortable with the security that such sites provide. Most allow for teacher oversight of communication and interaction and limit whom students can “talk” with, sometimes within a class, a school, or a district.

Gaggle, for instance, allows a student to join only at the invitation of a teacher, does not allow students to have private conversations, and has filters (originally developed for school email systems) that block inappropriate language, sense bullying or threatening references, and feature a scanner that detects pornography.

Nancy E. Willard, the executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, says that because of those protections, such sites provide a distinction between socializing and interaction. Ms. Willard prefers to call them"interactive environments” rather than social networks, even though many of them look and operate in a manner reminiscent of Facebook.

“They should be set up in a similar manner, but the emphasis is different,” she said. “You’re not trying to pick someone up for a date. This is where you’re trying to focus on ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”

Education sites also draw out a higher level of discussion from students, some teachers say, than might be elicited on a socially focused site.

Olivia M. Connelly, a high school English teacher at the 1,200-student Hauppague High School in Hauppague, N.Y., who uses ePals with her students, says she didn’t have enough time in her 38 minute face-to-face classes for significant discussion, so she moved some of those discussions to the ePals social-networking site.

When students know that other students, in addition to the teacher, are reading their work, “their writing is so much more improved,” Ms. Connelly said. “When they’re on ePals, they are much more formal. They’re not focused on socializing, they’re focused on their assignment.”

And such sites can often do much more than provide areas for discussion.

Tim DiScipio, the founder of Herndon, Va.-based ePals, says his service provides email, multimedia, and the ability to store documents and use third-party products like videoconferencing software. And many teachers are using such sites for professional development, creating subject-area groups for teachers to find and share content quickly.

Ms. Connelly says that in the online forum, students often bring up ideas she would not have thought of herself, and she’s been surprised that students who rarely speak in class are often very active in online discussions.

Alexander Weinrich, a 5th grader in Mr. Miller’s class, said using Edmodo ‘is really cool.”

Alexander says he uses the site to talk with other students about books they’ve been reading and often uses it at home, thus extending the time he spends on academics. He also knows that everything students post or write on the site is monitored by his teacher. “No one can post stuff that’s bad,” he said.

Alexander particularly likes using the social-networking site when students post their homework, discuss answers and help each other with concepts. “It definitely makes homework more interesting and not so boring,” he said.

Subscription Fees

Many educational social-networking companies, like ePals, charge a subscription fee for their services. Gaggle typically costs schools and districts about $5 a year per user, while officials of New York City-based eChalk say their schools pay about $5,000 a year for services. Though ePals offers some services for free, it also makes money from sponsors, who pay the company to embed digital tools into its platform.

All those educational social-networking companies say they don’t collect student information to pass on to advertisers.

Torrance W. Robinson, the co-founder and chief product officer of eChalk, says educators should be wary of free social-networking services. His company is clear that in addition to no advertising and no collection of student data for advertisers, the information posted to its social-networking site is owned solely by the school.

“Few people realize that when you upload an image onto Facebook, that is the property of Facebook and not yours” Mr. Robinson said."If it’s free, you have to ask what does it really cost?&"

Ms. Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use agrees, citing the student-privacy, copyright, disability, and free-speech issues that educators must keep in mind.

Edmodo is currently free, with no advertising. The service is underwritten by the New York City-based venture-capital fund Union Square Ventures, says Betsy Whalen, the vice president of social media and marketing for Edmodo.

Ms. Whalen said that sometime in the future, there may be"options for monetizing the site,” possibly by providing premium services for a fee, but that right now, the company is focused on building up its user numbers.

Though many educational social-networking sites allow teachers to create groups based on subjects or student interests, entire social-networking sites are also built along those lines. For example, Livemocha, a Seattle-based site devoted to foreign languages, allows a student studying Spanish to link up with a student studying English in Argentina to practice language skills with each other using audio or text capabilities, says Chief Executive Officer Michael Schutzler. Though the site does not limit who students as young as 13 can connect with, teachers can monitor conversations taking place.

Connecting With Students

Maeve L. Gavagan, a 9th grade English teacher at the High School of Art and Design in New York City, tested out the Jamboree for Arts Camp & Music, or JAM, social-networking and game site devoted to the arts this school year. The recently launched game, created by the interactive-gaming company Nuvana, based in San Francisco, provides “missions” for students related to the arts.

Sample missions had students create a fruit sculpture and post pictures to the site as the sculpture rotted; decorate an envelope that contained a letter to be mailed; and become a living public sculpture and make a video of the experience. As students posted evidence of their endeavors on the site, they earned points and received comments from their classmates and teachers.

Ms. Gavagan was surprised at the enthusiasm of students for the site and says it enabled her to improve her connection with them.

“The excitement around it was energizing for me as a teacher,” she said. “I felt comfortable being friends with students here, but I wouldn’t do that on Facebook. This felt more academic.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as ‘Safe’ Social Networking Tailored for K-12 Schools

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