Facebook Training Wheels

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A secured social networking site allows schools to incorporate the technology into academics while preparing students for the perils of online communities.

"We're not reading and writing across and down the page anymore. We're reading and writing in three dimensions: across, down, and out, the 'out' being hyperlinks. It's a whole different kind of literacy; it's a whole different kind of writing; it's a whole different kind of reading. It's a type of literacy that can't be done anywhere else but on the web."

Facebook Training Wheels

PERMISSION GRANTED Only
those listed on a roster provided by
the school can enter Saywire.

AND SO, JAMES YAP GOES ON TO SAY, Web 2.0 applications like online communities, blogs, and wikis should not be thought of as just a passing fad or idle socializing, but as an activity that has embedded itself into the way work gets done. "Almost every business I can think of is using some sort of social networking tool, whether it be a chat tool within their business or using wikis to develop their manuals and their support, to do something comparable to an internal Facebook," says Yap, the director of instructional technology and data management for the Ramapo Central School District in Hillburn, NY.

For schools to keep pace with the trends being established in the world at large, Yap believes it's imperative they recognize the central role that social networking tools have grown to occupy in how employers do business, and make room for them in students' education.

"[Even] the government right now is creating an internal Facebook," he says. "It's pervasive, it's across the board." An internal Facebook for the K-12 set is just what Yap found at the 2008 National School Board Association's Technology and Learning Conference, where he got a glimpse of Saywire, an online social networking and learning site designed specifically for in-house use by schools and students. Saywire wants to create a safe environment where constructive Web 2.0 skills can be developed while students are young, so they grow up to be smart, civil online citizens. Since its launch last October, the site has registered more than 160,000 students and teachers across the country.

"Our goal is to catch kids when they're young so they'll have a really strong grasp of the etiquette surrounding online social networking...before they go into the Wild Wild West of Facebook, or MySpace, or any other sites that are out there right now."

Yap knew the product would appeal to the Ramapo superintendent, Robert MacNaughton, whom he describes as "a visionary who really understands technology" and who wishes to provide 21stcentury learning, Yap says, "not as an initiative but as a culture." As an example of that commitment, the district is in its third year of incorporating the virtual world Second Life into its middle school curriculum, and, according to Yap, has been told that its online databases rival those of Ivy League universities.

In January, after MacNaughton viewed a demo presentation and signed off on piloting Saywire in the district, Yap began rolling the tool out to 500 Ramapo teachers and students in grades 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9. By focusing on younger students, the district can use the system's controlled environment to teach proper use and behavior in web-based communities. "Our goal now is to catch students when they're young, so that by Year 2 or Year 3, as they're entering high school, they'll have a really strong grasp of the etiquette surrounding online social networking," Yap says.

Social networking is just one piece of technology integration, Yap says, but it's a piece that the district felt it needed to introduce to its students "before they go into the Wild Wild West of Facebook, or MySpace, or any other sites that are out there right now."

On the surface, the Saywire tool appears strikingly similar to Facebook or MySpace, starting with the log-on screen, where each user inputs a unique numerical password, which Yap considers part of the learning.

"So much of the information we access online today is password-protected," he says. "Students need to learn how valuable a password is, and that they can't share that password with anyone, not even their friends." Yap says that it's crucial to their understanding of the threats present on social networking sites that students learn the sanctity of private information. "Once that password gets out, they lose control of their online presence."

Once logged in, students then create their own home page and profile, where they can post photos and videos, keep a blog, and list their interests, with control over which aspects are public or private. Students can create and manage community pages that express their interests-- for example, a fan page dedicated to their favorite TV show-- to which students with the same interest can subscribe and contribute. Also, as in Facebook, a news feed displays activity updates of friends in a student's network.

bytesize

To maintain the separation between teachers and students, Saywire withholds teachers' first names from the network. Mrs. Johnson's profile page refers to her as Mrs. Johnson.

"These update wires are great ways to mirror good learning practices," says June Herold, senior vice president of product marketing and business development for Saywire. "If I log in and see that one of my friends posted a comment to a homework help wall, or updated a paper on our class wiki, chances are that if I click on what he did I'm going to find it interesting, it may spark my creativity, or it may help me with my homework.

"It's about learning by watching what other students are doing and how they're doing it."

Herold says using Saywire gets students acclimated to operating within a web-based community, picking up on the idea that the site acts as a set of Web 2.0 training wheels for students before they enter the world of potentially hazardous mainstream online networks.

"If older users who have life experience-- college students and professionals-- are just finally figuring out how to be able to blend their public and personal lives online," Herold says, "there's no way that middle school students have got the judgment, or can even begin to understand the ramifications [of social networking], because they aren't out there in the working world where their behavior is really going to have a consequence."

What sets Saywire apart from open social networking sites, besides the stringent set of safety standards built into it, such as restricting communication to users within the school's chosen boundaries (see "Safety Features," left), is that it allows teachers to be a part of the students' network without honoring the lines that exist in the traditional student/ teacher relationship. All teacher pages feature a green color palette, while students' pages are blue. These color distinctions appear not only on profile pages, but also in search results for network members.

"If Saywire is an extension of school life, then it's important to make the distinction that students and teachers are not friends," says Herold. "You're never going to see a relationship in Saywire between an educator and a student that has the appearance, familiarity, or tone of a friendship. They are here to function as a student and as a teacher."

Saywire allows teachers to establish virtual classrooms by creating a "community" page for each of their classes, where their students can, for example, contribute to a homework help board, view embedded online content related to their coursework, or add a paragraph to a collaborative paper being written on the class wiki. Teachers can communicate with their class once they have created a roster of student names.

"Any time they [create] an assignment, any time they broadcast something, teachers just need to choose the group and hit send," Herold says. Students within that group will receive a notification on their news feeds, and assignments will appear in a calendar on each student's page.

Safety Features

SAYWIRE'S ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKING TOOL PROVIDES SEVERAL PROTECTIONS FOR USERS.

  • Membership restricted to students and faculty listed on the roster exported by the school into the system.
  • No anonymity; user name must be same as member's real name.
  • Communication limited to users within school, district, or Saywire global network, depending upon the school's preference.
  • Parental consent mandatory for students under 13 years old.
  • Parental monitoring of student's profile.
  • Industry standards for data encryption.

The district is frank with students that the use of Saywire is a privilege. "It doesn't take much more than a stern warning: "If you mess up once, you're out," Yap says. "You don't have to be on here. We'll do it [without] you." Saywire encourages self-monitoring, shifting some of the responsibility for recognizing and reporting bad behavior onto the students. Each student's page has a link that reads, "Report Bad Behavior." Any bullying or inappropriate comments that a student comes across can be relayed directly to administrators.

Yap and his fellow administrators make a point of browsing the network periodically to ensure students are behaving, and logs of personal chats and "e-notes"-- Saywire's version of e-mail-- between students within a teacher's various class communities are sent to the teacher for review, with the students' knowledge that their chats and messages will be monitored.

Yap praises Saywire for providing educators with the tools necessary to monitor the online environment, and for responding to the district's request for additional features, such as e-note monitoring. He says that in the short time since the pilot was implemented, the company has made the district feel more like a partner than a client.

Even with the strict controls in place, Ramapo students have taken eagerly to the use of their very own private online community. "They are absolutely eating it up," Yap says. "It's great because they're writing on the web. They're writing."

Their Space

A CONCERNED PARENT CREATES A SAFE SOCIAL NETWORK FOR TEENS ONLY.

A MOTHER OF FIVE, Mary Kay Hoal had observed her eldest daughter's activities in the unruly world of online social communities and was not pleased. "I thought this whole social networking thing was bad," she says.

She had a change of heart after recognizing that social networking simply wasn't being used in the best way. "I realized you need to embrace it to change it and make it positive," she says. "There are so many studies coming out that are touting the positive and educational benefits of social networking. My ambition is to take the benefits we know exist, put them in a safe and age-appropriate environment, and make it engaging for kids while giving parents peace of mind."

Facebook Training Wheels

HOAL 'N' FIVE Mary Kay with her children

The result of her ambition is Yoursphere, a social network for students ages 9 to 18 that Hoal launched last September. One catch for teens: Parental approval is a must.

"We're the only community that actually requires and verifies consent from a parent or guardian," Hoal says. Yoursphere collects the parent's name, date of birth, and Social Security number and screens the information over a database of 4 billion records until a match is found that confirms the identity. Once the parent's identity is established and clears a sex offender registry, the child is accepted.

For users between the ages of 13 and 18, parental involvement with Yoursphere ends after the sign-up process is complete. Parents of members ages 9 through 12, however, have access to a dashboard where they can see what their child has contributed to the community. "We allow parents of the younger members to see what their kids are posting in case they've posted something like their telephone number or personal information," says Hoal, who notes that Yoursphere guidelines exceed the mandates set forth in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. "They can talk to their child and they can delete that information."

On Yoursphere, students can join "spheres" based on different areas of interest and create subcommunities within those spheres. Some of those spheres are geared toward academics; the site already has communities set up around geography and US history. In addition, Yoursphere takes 3 percent of its membership fees-- $4.95 a month, or $39.95 for an annual membership-- and sets it aside for a members-only scholarship program. "The scholarships are not only academic, but also once-in-a-lifetime experiences, internships, and mentorships," explains Hoal. "Not everyone is going to go to college; some might go to trade school.We want to provide tools within our community for those kids as well."

Hoal's educational aims for the site are seen in the contest for young writers it recently ran. "We gave away three $500 savings bonds as our top prizes. We've invited the top 20 writers from the contest to become paid contributing editors, providing editorial content to our spheres. These are the sorts of opportunities we want to provide."

He emphasizes that the district's use of Saywire is still in its early stages, so it's too soon to know the full measure of the effect that the tool will have on teaching and learning. "However, in saying that," Yap adds, "it has already started to open up possibilities that we never had before. It provides the necessary skills for a 21stcentury student." His next line arrives with added force: "It's academic networking!"

Yap tells about one student who started a blog on her Saywire page, independent of her classwork, almost immediately upon signing up. "Would she have been motivated to create a blog otherwise? Probably not. This provided the opportunity for her to start writing and begin finding her own voice."

Jennifer Demski is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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