IT Infrastructure

Social Networking Can Have Educational Benefits, Survey Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — August 14, 2007 5 min read
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At least half the adolescents who exchange messages for hours with their friends online or by cellphone spend part of the time discussing their schoolwork, a new study shows.

An online survey of 1,277 9- to 17-year-olds found that 50 percent said they talk specifically about their schoolwork when they text-message by cellphone, or use their computers to instant-message, blog, or visit social-connection sites such as Facebook. Nearly six in 10 said they discuss education-related topics, including college or college planning, careers, and jobs.

The survey, commissioned by the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association and released today, showed that 96 percent of adolescents with access to cellphones and Internet-capable computers use them to build and maintain social networks.

NSBA leaders believe those numbers must point the way for educators. Social-networking technologies are so popular and offer such promise for education that district and school officials would be remiss not to adapt them for the classroom, they said.

“When it’s another generation’s technology, it’s easy to be uncomfortable with it and say we don’t need it,” said Ann Flynn, the NSBA’s director of educational technology. “We want to say to people, explore these things. Figure out what kinds of tools they are. By no means are we saying people shouldn’t be safe. But we also don’t want to see policies that are so restrictive that the unintended consequence is to keep the technology out of the hands of educators.”

The NSBA’s report urges school board members to “find ways to harness the educational value” of social networking, such as setting up chat rooms or online journals that allow students to talk about and collaborate on their classwork. Boards should also do everything possible to ensure that all students have access to the Internet, the group says.

The report also tells school boards to re-evaluate policies that ban or tightly restrict the use of the Internet or social-networking sites. Findings from the survey, NSBA officials said, suggest that parents’ and educators’ perceptions of the dangers of online stalking and bullying—fears that fuel such restrictions—could be overblown.

Seven percent of adolescents responding to the survey said they had been bullied on social-networking sites, and fewer than 3 percent said unwelcome strangers had tried repeatedly to connect with them online. Two percent said that someone they met online had tried to meet them in person, and only .08 percent said they had gotten together with someone they met online without their parents’ permission. An online parent survey on those issues, part of the same study, backs up the adolescents’ accounts.

“The vast majority of students, then, seem to be living by the online-safety behaviors they learn at home and at school,” the report says. “School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more common than students and parents report.”

Exploring a New World

By conducting telephone interviews with 250 district leaders, the study also offers a snapshot of how districts use technology. Ninety-six percent said some of their teachers assigned homework requiring Internet use; the proportion was almost the same—94 percent—among districts serving predominantly low-income populations. At least some teachers in nearly all districts use Web pages to communicate assignments, curriculum content, or other classroom information. Nearly half the districts said schools participate in online collaborative projects with other schools.

There was no shortage of restrictive policies. Ninety-eight percent of the districts said they use software to block Web sites they deem inappropriate. More than eight in 10 bar online chatting or instant-messaging. More than half prohibit the use of social-networking sites.

While most parents believe social-networking technology holds great potential to help children improve their reading, writing, or social skills, district leaders are skeptical about its educational value, the study found. By adopting “thoughtful policies” to protect students appropriately, school boards can address adults’ concerns and still explore the potential of the new technology, the NSBA says.

David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said schools will do their students far more good by embracing the Internet and “social” modes of learning, and educating their students to evaluate and use the Internet wisely, than by seeing it as a “dangerous land where access to knowledge must be restricted.”

“The old model of learning is that knowledge is in books, and individuals learn by reading those books, and teachers help them extract that knowledge,” Mr. Weinberger said. “But the fundamental model of how we learn and what it is to know is shifting. People are out there exploring and doing work together online. They’re learning socially. We can’t teach students to question authority, examine the roots of credibility, if we keep picking safe places for them to go so they don’t have to do that work.

“It’s better to examine the very resources they bring back,” he said, “and help them understand the ways in which they are credible or not.”

Similarly, teachers need not fear that the jargon and abbreviations students use when texting and messaging each other will undermine their skills in standard English, said Larry D. Rosen, who studies technology use as a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills. Students will write enthusiastically about many things when given the chance to do so in ways they enjoy, he said, without harming their ability to develop standard English skills. He likened it to “code switching,” in which people change the way they talk or behave to suit different settings.

“Educators have a golden opportunity to use technology to allow the kids to continue writing, concrete thinking, logical reasoning, albeit in their own code,” he said.

Marc Prensky, a former teacher who now writes and speaks about the evolving world of today’s “digital natives,” said the data highlight the need for a more collaborative, respectful way of educating young people.

“One reason why many educators do not find the technologies ‘useful educational tools’ comes from the fact that the teaching paradigm that most teachers use—kids ‘being taught’ (mostly by lecture)—conflicts with these technologies,” he said in an e-mail. “If you are lecturing, they are mainly an interruption. The technologies become much more useful (and in fact necessary) once the paradigm shifts to ‘students teaching themselves’ (with guidance).”

Likewise, he said, teachers who are open to the new technology and interested enough to ask students for their input about the best ways to use it could see more mutual respect and engagement in their classrooms.

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