At New Milford High School in New Jersey, the school’s official Facebook page keeps its 1,100 fans updated on sports events and academic achievements. Students who traveled to Europe this spring for a tour of Holocaust sites blogged daily about their experiences, and received comments from all over the world. Other students have used the video voice service Skype to talk to their peers in states like Iowa for school projects.
For Principal Eric C. Sheninger, the micro-blogging tool Twitter has become his mainstay for professional development as well as school promotion. Through Twitter contacts, he formed a partnership with a company that donated technology equipment and training to the school, and he linked up with CBS News, which brought national exposure to the high school’s programs.
“I used to be the administrator that blocked every social-media site, and now I’m the biggest champion,” Sheninger says. “I’m just someone who is passionate about engaging students and growing professionally, and I’m using these free tools to do it.”
Just a few years ago, social networking meant little more to educators than the headache of determining whether to penalize students for inappropriate activities captured on Facebook or MySpace. Now, teachers and students have a vast array of social-networking sites and tools—from Ning to VoiceThread and Second Life—to draw on for such serious uses as professional development and project collaboration. Educators who support using social networking for education say it has become so ubiquitous for students—who start using sites like Webkinz and Club Penguin when they are in elementary school—that it just makes sense to engage them this way.
Though teachers and students are now pushing learning beyond the borders of the classroom through social networking, that move also comes with hurdles, including the fact that many schools still block access to such sites within their walls. School officials must also confront the uncertainties and questions surrounding privacy issues, proper management, and cyber security when they open their doors to social-networking sites.
But it’s a world that some educators are realizing students feel at home in and is unlikely to disappear. A study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released early this year found that 73 percent of Americans ages 12 to 17 now use social-networking websites, up from 55 percent in 2006.
“Social networking is not going to go away,” says Steve Hargadon, the creator of the 42,000-member Classroom 2.0 network on Ning, a popular site among educators. (“Educators Eye Ning’s Move to Pay Model,” this issue.) He’s also a social-learning consultant for the ed-tech company Elluminate, based in Pleasanton, Calif.
“These are so powerful in terms of learning,” Hargadon says of such tools.
In some schools, social networking has changed the way educators teach and students learn, says Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, the 21st-century-learning specialist at the private, K-8 Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Fla.
In January 2009, Tolisano launched her “Around the World With 80 Schools” project. The goal was to introduce her school’s students to peers in countries around the globe. She built a social-networking site using Ning for teachers from all countries who wanted to participate, eventually attracting 300 members.
Tolisano says she sets up a meeting between classes using Skype. Students prepare a list of questions (What’s the weather like there? How big is your town or city? What continent are you on?) and chat with students in Canada, Finland, New Zealand, and Spain, among a long list of others.
With social networking allowing teachers to connect one-to-one and one-to-many, they have the professional development that they really desire.”
The Florida students also have different jobs to do during the call. One might be a photographer, documenting the meet-and-greet. Others place the location of the class they’re talking with on a Google map. Still other students might serve as Twitter “backchannelers,” who send out tweets—the short messages Twitter is designed to convey—as the live event is happening. Classes even added “fact checkers,” who go back to make sure the information provided is accurate.
One group of Gottlieb students had just read a book about Orca whales, Tolisano says, and wanted to know more, so they contacted a class in British Columbia, where whale watching is a common pastime. Within a week, the British Columbia students hopped on a boat and shot video of a pod of Orcas, which they sent to the students in Florida, Tolisano says.
“It creates a global awareness that there is a wider world out there and that we are not alone,” Tolisano says. “They find it’s just as easy to collaborate with a class in England as with the class next door.”
In addition, Skype is so simple to use that just about any teacher can typically handle it with a few minutes of training and minimal equipment. It’s nearly as simple as dialing the phone, but on the computer.
Social networking can mean using ready-made platforms like Ning or Facebook, but it can also be about networks that schools create specifically for their students. Project K-Nect, a grant-funded program that uses smartphones as teaching tools in a handful of North Carolina school districts, allows students to instant-message their peers and teachers with questions on math homework at any time of the day or night. Students can also post questions and answers to school math blogs, where a student struggling with algebra could find several classmates willing to walk him or her through a problem or even post video of the best way to solve it.
“The idea that kids would post blog items on solving linear equations was treated as a laughable concept” by the adults before the project launched, says Shawn Gross, the managing director for Digital Millennial Consulting, an educational technology firm based in Arlington, Va., that oversees Project K-Nect. “The first week we had 75 students post videos on solving linear equations.”
Social networking among students has become one of Project K-Nect’s most popular features, he says.
At New Milford High School, it was the idea of keeping in touch with parents that first prompted Principal Sheninger to look into Twitter during the last school year. That first foray changed his professional life. After tweeting to parents for a few months, he began to reach out to other educators and collaborate. “At that point, the way I used social media” metamorphosed, he says. “I used it to look for new ideas and new resources, to forge new relationships, and as a means of public relations.”
But Sheninger found his students weren’t as entranced by Twitter as he was. In fact, the Pew study bears that out: It found that only 8 percent of teenagers online say they ever use Twitter. The Pew study found that 37 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were using Twitter, the largest percentage of any age group. Members of New Milford’s student government suggested Sheninger create a Facebook page for the high school instead. In April, the school site was born.
While students haven’t become enamored with Twitter yet, it has become a hot spot for educators to find professional development and resources. One of the most popular types of educator events on Twitter are “EdChats”—one-hour conversations that take place every Tuesday around a particular topic. The chats are the brainchild of several educators, including Thomas Whitby, a co-creator of a 3,700-member Ning site called The Educator’s PLN, for “professional-learning network.”
Social networking is allowing teachers, who often feel isolated in their classrooms, to revolutionize the way they connect with others, says Whitby, a former English teacher who is now an adjunct professor of education for secondary English at St. Joseph’s College in New York City.
Teachers are “finding out about a whole wide range of options beyond what is done in their own building,” he says. “People are trying more things based on recommendations from teachers around the world.”
They can get those recommendations every Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern time during EdChat. Moderators choose a topic, and for an hour educators everywhere can ask questions and chime in. All chat contributors “hashtag” or label their comments with “#edchat,” to make sure they appear on a Twitterstream. The event was so popular that creators had to set up an EdChat for earlier in the day (starting at noon Eastern time) to accommodate international teachers in differing time zones.
A recent EdChat tackled alternatives to traditional grading. Some of the comments, limited to Twitter’s 140 characters per tweet, included a suggestion for rating creativity and innovation. One tweet mentioned a pilot program evaluating students on individual learning goals. Someone else asked, if a student is “working at 100% of his ability and is failing, do we grade on achievement or ability?”
Whitby says that after the chats, which sometimes receive more than 2,000 tweets in an hour, many educators discuss the topics in greater depth on their blogs.
Steven W. Anderson, an instructional technologist at Clemmons Middle School in the 52,000-student Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system in North Carolina, says social networking is revolutionizing the way teachers improve their skills.
“In the past, professional development has been so formal and rigid. You go to these events scheduled by the district because this is what they think you need,” says Anderson, an EdChat moderator. “With social networking allowing teachers to connect one-to-one and one-to-many, they have the professional development that they really desire.”
In fact, Ning, a social-networking platform, is full of sites dedicated to different specialties—everything from geography to teaching English as a second language or first-year teachers.
On Twitter, Anderson says, he’s constantly being pointed to different Web sites and applications that can aid teachers. And if a teacher has a question or needs a recommendation for a site, Twitter can help with instant suggestions.
“Twitter is like a giant conference that’s on all the time,” Anderson says. “I always know I can find something I can use. That’s huge.”
Teacher Shelly Terrell, who writes the blog Teacher Reboot Camp, says she’s found value in different types of social-networking sites when it comes to professional development. Terrell, who is currently teaching in Germany at the German-American Institute, also holds weekly field trips into the virtual world of Second Life for teachers new to the site.
“I take the teachers to a safe ground,” she says. “If you’re on your own in Second Life, you might end up where you don’t want to be as an educator.”
In Second Life, a virtual world where users interact as avatars, or electronic representations of themselves, the North Carolina Community College System has developed an island for teachers to show them how to work with audio and video. Though Terrell can’t visit that world with her students, since users are required to be at least 18 years old, she says the virtual field trips can be beneficial for teachers, particularly in “experiencing” other countries.
If she takes teachers to Second Life’s virtual Venice, for example, they can ride a gondola, meet people speaking Italian, and observe the way people dress and the culture.
But many educators who see the value in social networking face significant obstacles to incorporating it into their school days.
Both Twitter and Facebook are blocked by many school computer networks. Even Sheninger, who has had great success withhis school’s official Facebook page, says the site still isn’t accessible from inside the school’s walls.
“One thing I ran into a lot in the U.S. was filtering or blocking,” says Terrell. To use some social-networking sites or tools, “I had to get the technology director and let him know specifically what I was using it for, and it was a long process getting sites unblocked.”
In addition, some district officials remain skeptical that such social-networking tools really benefit education, worried that they just open the door to Internet-security problems and the possibility of cyberbullying.
In April, the principal of Ridgewood, N.J.’s Benjamin Franklin Middle School, Anthony Orsini, sent out an e-mail to his students’ parents asking them to bar their children from using social-networking sites to prevent online bullying. “There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social-networking site,” Orsini wrote in the e-mail.
Also in April, Utah’s 68,300-student Granite school district barred teachers and students from “friending” each other on Facebook. And Louisiana state law requires all school districts to document every electronic interaction between teachers and students through a “nonschool-issued device, such as a cellphone or e-mail account.”
But it remains unclear what all of that means for social-networking tools and sites being used for purely educational purposes.
Montana Miller, an assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and a Facebook expert, says not only have educators put their careers at risk with inappropriate exchanges with students on sites like Facebook, but shealso believes it’s not the sort of place for any educational exchange.
“Facebook is too much of an intrusion into students’ personal and social lives for educators to be using it as an educational method,” she says. “I’m not against collaborative, online education with students, but I am against merging their personal home, private family world with something that is required for a class activity. Millions of things can go wrong.”
Schools also need to pay close attention to federal laws like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, or COPPA, which seeks to protect children’s privacy and bars most children under 13 from participating in many websites. Education officials should also consider other federal laws like the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, which requires schools to provide Internet filtering to prevent access by students to offensive content over the Internet, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which protects the privacy of student information.
In fact, most social-networking sites like Facebook and Ning require users to be at least 13 to participate. That’s why private wikis or blogs or other social-networking tools designed for school use can often be more beneficial in such situations, says Terrell, the teacher and blogger. For example, she often uses a tool called VoiceThread with even her youngest students. That free service allows users to leave voice comments about pictures, video, or drawings, and it enables users to doodle or draw on the screen as they comment.
In Terrell’s case, she had her kindergartners create a book in VoiceThread with a kindergarten class in Turkey. The youngsters drew “pages” and then spoke into a microphone to record parts of the story.
“Parents are very big on privacy, and this can be private,” Terrell says of VoiceThread. “It gives the teacher control in terms of filtering.”
But Terrell says fears about how to proceed with social-networking sites and tools should not prevent educators from using them.
“If you don’t take that golden opportunity to teach students about the responsibility of using these things, you lose a teachable moment,” she says. “If schools block them, they’re preventing students from learning the skills they need to know.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as Social Networking Goes to School