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Social Networking in Schools: Incentives for Participation

In July 2007, the National School Board Association published results of three surveys regarding social networking, which included 9- to 17-year-olds, parents, and school district leaders in charge of Internet policy. While it came as no surprise that 52 percent of all districts interviewed prohibited any use of social networking sites in school, an interesting result with implications for schools was that "almost 60 percent of students who use social networking talk about education topics online and, surprisingly, more than 50 percent talk specifically about schoolwork" (NSBA, 2007, p. 1). The NSBA also found that schools and especially parents have strong expectations about the positive roles that social networking could play in students' lives, and both are interested in social networking as a tool.

With this in mind, one has to wonder why social networking has not been leveraged more in schools to enhance the education of youth. A quick answer would have to do with ensuring their online safety, which has posed a challenge to schools, as well as the typical issues surrounding introduction of any innovation. Such issues include factors that teachers can not easily influence or alter: research and policy factors and factors inherent to technology itself, and those factors that they can influence: district/school factors such as culture, factors associated with teachers' and students' beliefs, attitudes, experience, technology skills, and so on, and the technology-enhanced project itself (Groff & Mouza, 2008, cited in Klopfer, Osterweil, Groff, & Haas, 2009, p. 16).

However, there are at least two more issues to consider. District leaders want some evidence that social networking would fulfill their expectation of adding strong educational value and purpose. According to NSBA, before district leaders would buy into social networking for school use, there would need to be a strong emphasis on collaborative and planned activities, strong tools for students to express themselves, and an emphasis on bringing different kinds of students together, all with adult monitoring. I would add that social networking activities have not been promoted in schools, in part, owing to how student achievement has been measured as mandated by the No Child Left Behind accountability system, which has strongly influenced daily life in classrooms.

So where is the evidence that district leaders need, and what are the incentives for participation in social networking activities? Such evidence is tied to providing a 21st century global education, including project-based learning, which connects the social and the networking to curriculum and standards. An additional incentive considers the value and renewed focus on the development of the whole child, if changes in school accountability noted within School Accountability: A Broader Bolder Approach (BBA, 2009) become a reality.

Going Global
Interest in social networking in education is global, as evidenced by the wiki Social Networks in Education, which contains a "must-see" extensive list of social networks used in a variety of educational environments or for educational purposes. While open-access sites like Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, Del.icio.us, and Facebook might easily come to mind and contain relevant curricular content or groups with dedicated purpose (e.g. YouTube's education channel or Flickr's Visual Story Telling), schools often ban their use. They might be considered just too global and too scary. You'll find some alternatives among the Global Projects listed by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in Victoria, Australia. Childnet International, a London (UK) based company, provides additional information, advice, ideas and examples, and resources for using social networking services with young people at its Digizen.org.

As Tim DiScipio (2008), co-founder of ePals, noted, we need a dialog to determine "what kind of curriculum-based activities can be enhanced through use of social networking tools. There are many tools available. The key is to incorporate a holistic approach--weaving a combination of tools throughout the curriculum and across the pedagogy" (p. 10). The learning theory is Social Constructivism. Further, "[w]hat needs to be incorporated across the curriculum is a social learning network--if we focus only on the "social" and "network," we are missing the mark. A true social learning network incorporates innovative pedagogy through internet-connected communities, digital resources, and a series of Web 2.0 tools that empower students to master the curriculum and to learn issues beyond the classroom" (p. 10). It is evident that projects linked to specific subject areas will also ensure that many state academic content standards can be met, as illustrated by ePals and CultureQuest.

ePals provides collaborative projects linking classrooms from over 200 countries. Among focus areas are biodiversity, black history, geography, and human rights. You'll find projects on global warming, habitats, maps, natural disasters, the way we are, water, and weather. Educators will value the essential questions, objectives, the culminating activities to demonstrate learning, and links to standards. Students have opportunities to develop many of the skills identified within the 21st century framework by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as well as National Education Technology Standards for Students from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), such as computer literacy, critical-thinking abilities, global awareness, collaborative skills, and multicultural friendships. Writing skills are improved owing to the e-mail and blogging tools provided. Best of all, e-mail can be automatically translated into eight other languages to support collaboration.

CultureQuest, co-directed by Sheila Gersh (2009), has a partnership with ePals. Learners explore other peoples and cultures via inquiry-based classroom projects that "involve the focused, intensive study of one or more aspects of the art, music, literature, religion, values, daily life customs and traditions of other cultures. Students supplement traditional resources with extensive use of the Internet, both for information and for communication with knowledgeable adults and peers in the country they are studying" (sec: Welcome to CultureQuest). They might even communicate using Skype, which is free online videoconferencing software. Their work becomes part of a class web site, which may be accessed at the CultureQuest site.

Thus, these web resources provide evidence that district leaders would need for using social learning networks in their schools. But there are so many others to explore that add strong educational value and purpose. For example, consider Voices of Youth, Global SchoolNet, and Oracle Education Foundation's ThinkQuest.

Demonstrating Legitimacy
If we want social networking to make a difference in instruction and learning, the medium should also be used for its publishing and production aspects, reaching higher levels of collaboration and creativity, and for enabling learners to network with experts and peers in a manner where their work gains legitimacy within the larger community of experts in various fields.  It also makes learning more interesting (Reynard, 2008). The tangibles developed by learners participating in the social learning activities within the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) and the Globaloria networks illustrate such value.

There are more than 150 projects at iEARN designed and facilitated by teachers and students to fit their curriculum, classroom needs, and schedules. Online forums enable collaboration with learners in other classrooms around the world that are working on the same project. Projects help learners become global citizens because all projects must demonstrate a contribution to improving the quality of life on the planet in keeping with iEARN's mission. Strong educational value is evident in the final products or exhibitions of the learning required of all projects. "These have included magazines, creative writing anthologies, websites, reports to government officials, arts exhibits, performances, and many more examples of youth taking action as part of what they are learning in the classroom" (sec: Projects).

Youth 13 and older develop creative self-expression, communication, collaboration, and research skills by participating in Globaloria from the World Wide Workshop Foundation. Globaloria is a social learning network of educational, programmable web sites and related wikis and blogs that has been touted as a pathway for digital literacy of young people. Working alone or in collaboration with other learners worldwide and local or global mentors, they are using Internet social media tools to make interactive games and simulations for their personal and professional development and for the social and economic benefit of their communities (sec: About Globaloria). At present there are three active theme-oriented global networks of young people. Within MyGLife, students collaborate to develop educational games on global and social issues, such as climate change, ecology, water, community services, technology skills, and peace; participants in MySLife develop games and simulations on global warming with other topics in science to follow; and MyHLife is for those who are interested in creating games and animations about living a healthy life. MyALife, MyMLife, and MyRLife are still to come, which will be networked communities about art, mathematics, and human rights, respectively (sec: Globaloria FAQ). The value to 21st century learning and to curriculum in this country is clear, as evidenced by the many West Virginia schools participating in the program.

Broader, Bolder Approach to Education
Even with evidence of safe social networking possibilities to help students acquire skills needed for the 21st century and to meet standards within curriculum frameworks of major national education organizations, there remains one challenge to an expanded use of social networks in schools. Namely, this is the current NCLB accountability system with its singular quantitative measure of achievement based on test scores.

The good news is that details of a new accountability system were released on June 25, 2009 in the report School Accountability: A Broader Bolder Approach (BBA). The BBA (2009) proposes new accountability systems that combine appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods. Such methods at the federal level would include an expanded role of the National Assessment of Education Progress and would "[r]equire states to develop accountability systems that rely upon scores on states' own academic tests and other key educational, health, and behavioral indicators, along with approved inspection systems to evaluate school quality" (p. 1). It is those inspection systems that will make the difference. Obviously, as the BBA drafters recognized, developing such a rigorous and comprehensive accountability system will take time.

What does this mean for educators should these recommendations for new accountability systems become a reality? Everything that teachers do in their classrooms, beyond preparing youth for state standardized tests, would matter greatly and be taken into consideration in accountability, including their innovative teaching practices. The BBA (2009) "urges that national and state policy abandon its disproportionate focus on basic academic skills narrowly defined, and pay attention instead to the development of the whole person including, along with academic skills, physical health, character, civic and social development, from birth through the end of formal schooling. BBA assigns value to the new knowledge and skills that young people need to become effective participants in a global environment, including citizenship, creativity, and the ability to respect and work with persons in a pluralist society" (p. 3). This latter is the ultimate additional incentive to use social networks in schools as one contributor to developing youth to take an appropriate role in a global society. Only time will tell.

So much evidence can be provided--one just needs to know where to look for quality resources. I've only tweaked your appetite by those I've provided here. As Henry Jenkins and his colleagues (2006) pointed out, "Our goals should be to encourage youth to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture" (p. 8). Many of our youth are already doing that informally through their various affiliations in popular open social networking sites, their creative forms of expression using social media tools, their collaborative problem solving (e.g., via alternate reality games) and in what they circulate in their podcasts, blogs, and so on. Our challenge is to harness that informal learning bringing it to school settings as "each of those activities contains opportunities for learning, creative expression, civic engagement, political empowerment, and economic advancement" (p. 8). There are many ways to be social; there's more than one way to learn, and definitely a nearly infinite number of ways to form a network. But, you have a winner if you can put all three together in a social learning network in schools.

References

DiScipio, T. (2008). Adapting social networking to address 21st-century skills. MultiMedia & Internet@Schools, 15(5), 10-11. Also available here.

Gersh, S. O. (2009). Global projects and digital tools. MultiMedia & Internet@Schools,16(1),10-13.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago, IL: The MacArthur Foundation. Available here.

Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., Groff, J., & Haas, J. (2009). Using the technology of today in the classroom today: The instructional power of digital games, social networking and simulations and how teachers can leverage them. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The Education Arcade. Available here.

National School Board Association (2007, July). Creating & connecting: Research and guidelines on online social--and educational--networking. Alexandria, VA. Available here.

Reynard, R. (2008, May 28). Social networking: Learning theory in action. Campus Technology. Available here.

School Accountability: A Broader Bolder Approach (2009, June 25). Washington, D.C.: A report from the Accountability Committee of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education Campaign. Available here.

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