Web 2.0 | Research

Principals Voice Enthusiasm for Social Networking, Though Concerns Remain

Research has shown that most school principals in the United States use Web 2.0 technologies and belong to at least one social network. And according to a new report released this week, most also indicated they think social networking has value for education--for staff and, potentially, for students alike. So why did most also say their schools ban the use of social networking on campus?

The reasons are many and varied, according to the new report. But not surprisingly (based on past research), privacy and appropriate use of the the tools were among the concerns voiced.

The report, "School Principals and Social Networking in Education: Practices, Policies, and Realities in 2010," is the conclusion of a two-phase research effort begun last year. The first phase involved a nationwide survey of more than 1,200 education professionals, including principals, teachers, and librarians. It was designed to gauge attitudes toward and usage of online collaborative tools, including social networks and other collaborative technologies (often classified as Web 2.0).

Among the findings: 54 percent of principals belong to at least one social networking site, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. And while that figure, with a reported margin of error of ±2.71 percent, lagged behind both teachers (62 percent of whom reported belonging to social networks) and librarians (70 percent of whom reported belonging to social networks), principals were ahead of teachers in their use of other Web 2.0 tools for professional purposes. According to the report, a majority (56 percent) indicated using Webinars professionally (versus 15 percent of teachers); 31 percent used YouTube, again for professional purposes (versus 17 percent of teachers); and 28 percent indicated using podcasts in their work (versus 13 percent of teachers).

Through open questioning, respondents in the first phase were able to express some of their vision and concerns about social networking. For more in depth responses and elaborations on those sentiments, researchers in the second phase of the effort held discussions with a dozen principals hand-picked for their involvement in social networking (and therefore, it should be noted, not a representative sample of the overall population). They discussed professional experiences with social networking, impressions of the capabilities of teachers and students, school policies, barriers to adoption, and other issues.

Phase 2 responses followed themes similar to those expressed by the larger sample size in phase 1. Most said social networking has value for education professionals, and many said there could be benefits for students as well. Among the information provided by the discussion sample (which, again, was not representative of the total population, but meant to elaborate on attitudes expressed by principals who self-identified social networking users in the phase 1 quantitative study):

  • Half of the principals involved in the discussion said social networking was used to some extent in their schools, which ranged from school-sponsored collaboration sites built on Moodle to cloud services like Google Apps for Education;
  • Concerns included the potential misuse of the services, a perceived need for monitoring, the idea that the services would become dumping grounds for negative comments (by parents ad others), general security fears, ethics and professional codes of conduct, and a dearth of information about what works in terms of social networking in education;
  • Social networking per se is mostly blocked for students, even among the smaller sample, but most principals reported that they use some Web 2.0 technologies (such as online chat) with their students; and
  • Some said their district policies were inadequate and needed revision, including preventing social contact between teachers and students and dealing with bullying, among other policies cited.

Participants in the phase 2 qualitative research were also asked about their personal use of social networks; their colleagues', teachers', students', and librarians' expertise in the use of social media; and their views on the future of social networking and its potential impact on education. Detailed responses can be found in the complete report, which is available publicly.

The report's authors concluded with several recommendations, including the need for teachers and principals to acquire more hands-on experience with education social networks; to develop models of practice; and to create better policies with regard to social networking and other collaborative technologies.

The report was sponsored by edWeb.net, Interactive Educational Systems Design, MCH Strategic Data, and MMS Education. Further details about the research, as well as the full report, can be found here. (The report can be downloaded directly in PDF form here.)

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