Spotlight: Free Social Media Tools for Educators

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While most districts are still tackling Web-based collaboration tools from pedagogical and security perspectives, a large number of teachers are already out there using these tools to supplement instruction, engage learners, and encourage their students to become producers of information, as well as consumers of it. In other words, they're experimenting. And here are some of the free tools they're using to do it.

While the breadth of social media tools for education is fairly staggering, we narrow down the categories to three here, focusing on those in which there are clear leaders in technologies and the value they provide to educators. (All of the tools discussed here are free, so value refers to volume of features, quality of implementation, and relevance to learning.)

1. Digital Media Sharing

There's no shortage of media sharing sites out there that allow individuals to post and view content of all kinds. But for schools, general media sharing sites like YouTube pose some obvious problems. Teachers and administrators certainly don't want to walk in on their students viewing the latest twist on Faces of Death, to catch them watching adult content, or to get tangled up with potential copyright issues.

Two fairly prominent media sharing sites address these issues by ensuring that their content is education-focused.

TeacherTube takes an approach that's fairly similar to YouTube but provides a mechanism for users to flag videos as inappropriate for education, and registered users are supposed to acknowledge that they are educators. It allows teachers to upload videos from their students (or from themselves) and to view those submitted by others. It also includes a range of other social media functionality, including blogs, viewer comments, and a rating system for videos. Media can be viewed by "channel" (i.e., elementary, middle school, high school, academic subject, athletics, etc.) and searched by tags (algebra, chemistry, etc.).

SchoolTube takes a somewhat different approach through a pre-approval process, which it describes as "moderated [I]nternet media content sharing for teachers and students." Only registered teachers can approve videos to be posted, and all content adheres to local school policies and SchoolTube's code of ethics. In addition to student- and teacher-generated videos, it also includes lesson plans, links to resources, and activities.

2. Learning Communities

Online learning communities combine a wide range of content. In some ways, TeacherTube and SchoolTube can be considered online learning communities themselves. But here we're referring to sites that take a broader approach and focus not so much on digital media as on education tools in general--including assessments, learning/course management, textual materials, and other resources. In other words, complete online learning solutions.

Edu2.0 is a spectacular example of a learning community done right in terms of the technological sophistication and depth and breadth of resources available. It offers a complete Web-based learning management system for public and private teaching, more than 10,000 shared online resources, and a range of networking and collaboration features--wikis, blogs, feeds, chat, etc. And it also includes assessments, attendance logs, grading, assignments, and many other features found in traditional learning management systems but without the cost of commercial systems and without the hassle of implementing an LMS from scratch. There is no cost for Edu2.0, and there is no advertising on the site. And, unlike many social sites out there, Edu2.0 is easy on the eyes and on the brain.

Edu2.0 is really the standout in broad-based learning communities. However, there are several others also worth mentioning. (Some fairly well known sites are left off this list, as they cater mostly to tertiary education.)

Ecto is less focused on the learning management aspect and more on providing resources and a mechanism for sharing learning tools. Ecto describes itself as a "hosted, open networked personal learning environment." For teachers, it provides tools for organizing coursework and materials, facilitating exams, assigning work, and promoting collaboration among students. It also includes blogs and various Web 2.0 technologies, as well as hooks into outside resources.

ProProfs provides wikis, blogs, tutorials and a comprehensive suite of tools for generating content, including flash cards and quizzes. Its "Quiz School" feature is designed to let educators create online quizzes and practice tests for their students and provides a library of pre-designed quizzes, which range from K-12 education to technology certification, SAT and GRE prep, and general trivia.

ChitChat's Educational Network provides free online hosting for class Web pages and multimedia content and allows educators to share materials with one another. It also includes free online space, tools for adding course materials and assignments, and grading capabilities, along with the ability to mail grades to students on an assignment by assignment basis. It also includes blogs and tutorial videos.

WeBWorK is an open-source and free Internet-based system designed for math and science homework generation and dissemination. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation and supported by the American Institute of Mathematics, the software was developed originally at the University of Rochester by two mathematics professors. Its original scope covered only mathematics, but it's since been expanded (and continues to be expanded) to cover other subject areas as well, including physics, econ, chemistry, and others. It's now used in more than 100 institutions, ranging universities and high schools, and is also being deployed in some middle schools.

3. Wikis

Wikispaces offers free services for teachers who want to host classroom wikis, including the ability to create private wikis viewable and editable only by members of the teacher's group. (This feature normally costs $5 per month.) Wikispaces is looking to give away 100,000 such education-oriented wikis for K-12 users.

PBwiki is another free wiki space site that takes the needs of K-12 educators into consideration--including privacy settings, but also with case studies and white papers covering the use of collaborative tools in education. As the site says, you use PBwiki when you're "tired of waiting for Brad in IT to help set you up."

Wikibooks is a collection of educational textbooks freely available for use (including printing). Textbooks are available in a wide range of subjects, from arithmetic to calculus, psychology to linguistics, introductory chemistry to astrophysics. It also includes various professional development resources, study aids, and a special Wikijunior section for finding books aimed at younger learners.

And then there's the granddaddy of all wikis: Wikipedia. Yes, I know nobody has ever not heard of WIkipedia. But I'm listing it here because I think it needs some defense in light of well intentioned teachers and university professors banning its use. Let me put it bluntly: Wikipedia is not your enemy. The enemy is laziness--the same laziness that, in the olden days, resulted in students regurgitating passages out of family encyclopedias or dictionaries or school textbooks. Wikipedia, like every other source, does afford students the opportunity to take the lazy approach. But unlike most other sources, Wikipedia facilitates exploration. It's expansive rather than reductionist. A topic doesn't sit there pat; it's the basis for further exploration. You can begin at hypergiants, detour over to strings, and continue on to Bose-Einstein condensates in a few clicks. You can read up on some aspects of Frederick Douglass's life, then go off to read his works or click over to more information on abolitionist movements. It provides pathways for learning really unlike anything else up to the time of its creation.

Afraid some of the articles in Wikipedia aren't rigorously reviewed and edited? Some aren't. Some are far more rigorous than any K-12 textbooks you'll encounter in your lifetime. (It would be quite an eye opener for many educators if they ever had dealings with a book editor or two or took part in an "expert" review process.)

Wikipedia is one of the most useful repositories of human knowledge ever conceived, let alone implemented, and it's expanding all the time. It can be abused, yes, and and viewed with an uncritical eye by trusting students. But those problems are corrected easily enough (maybe, for example, by not assigning homework that begs for lazy answers).

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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