If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em


Educators whorecognize how muchsocial networkingengages and informskids are creating theirown sites as learningtools that fostercollaboration amongstudents, teachers,and parents.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'EmKNOCK ON THE BEDROOM DOOR of anyteenager in America, and inside, chances are you'll findthe teen sitting in front of a computer, logged on to asocial networking website and chatting away with friends,both real and virtual, about anything from the new "Spider-Man" movie to the legal troubles of Lindsay Lohan, all the whileuploading content to a personal page.

Now imagine knocking on the bedroom door, but entering to find that same teen online discussing geometry or the fatal flaws of Prince Hamlet. Or perhaps producing a podcast on the political climate of Sudan.

Seem too good to be true? Well, it's becoming more of a reality. Recognizing the value that social networks offer in disseminating information and encouraging communication in a format that students crave, school districts nationwide are taking an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em attitude and launching their own school-oriented social networks.

"We found in science that thoseclasses taking advantage of the siteare showing an average of nine-pointscore increases. And there is similardata coming in for writing andfluency. Kids are taking their timebecause they know their work isgoing to be published."
—Jim Klein, Saugus Union School District

According to a January 2007 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55 percent of teens (ages 12 to 17) report having created a personal profile online, and an equal number regularly use social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook. Of those, 91 percent use the sites to stay in touch with friends they see frequently.

With all that screen time, students are acutely attuned to—and sometimes more comfortable with—living in the digital world. Thus, it follows that their learning should become more digital, say proponents of social networking in education.

"Social networking has gotten a bad rap, and I think that's wrong," says Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita Valley, CA. "It offers lots of options and opportunities that school districts should be taking advantage of."

"Sometimes it's hard to convince teachers to use technology as a mechanism for learning," says Kirsten Jordan, online community partnerships coordinator for TakingITGlobal, an online community that features an education-themed social networking site called TIGed. Jordan says that just showing educators how they can use social networking for educational purposes can be productive. "Once you do that, they can see."



Name: Imbee
Content: A web-based site developed for the tweener set. Features a spot for teachers to have their own class pages and even includes lesson plans. The animated look draws kids in, and the site has all the social networking gadgets of the larger sites, but the teacher areas are open only to whomever the teacher allows in—other teachers, students, and parents. This site gets contributed content from its corporate sponsors, which include PBS and Disney.
Cost: Free

Name: TIGed
Content: An offshoot of the global-awareness social networking site TakingITGlobal, where teachers can get their students involved in issues that affect the environment, and other contemporary topics. The site features an activities database, discussion boards, thematic classrooms, and other tools, and teachers control the environment. It's currently being used in more than 700 classrooms in 39 countries. Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard Canada are corporate sponsors, and more than 10 educational foundations also support the site.
Cost: Free

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'EmName: Think.com
Content: A web-based online learning communitysponsored by the Oracle EducationFoundation as asafe space for students to collaborate andshare knowledge. It features tools to enablestudents to publish their own websites and tocollaborate on projects with other participating students anywhere in theworld. Think.com is also used by students participating in the yearlyThinkQuest competition, in which students worktogether to create an innovative website on any topic within a broad rangeof educational categories.
Cost: Free

Name: Haiku Learning Management System
Content: More than just a social networking site, Haiku LMS is a learning management system that features numerous tools for teachers, including calendars, assignments, and class rosters. Teachers can build their own secure websites and offer collaboration tools such as blogs, forums, and wikis. The site recognizes when a user has multiple accounts for different teachers and can link all the user's class pages. Haiku LMS has been in startup mode, so most of the features are available now; those that have not yet been released are listed on the Haiku website.
Cost: Free up to 1MB of storage space. Beyond that, from $4.95 per month for 50MB of storage space up to $50 per month for 1GB.

Issues and Options

Departing from the more commonly known sites such as MySpace, a number of school districts are opting for closed-network or secure web-based sites that are accessible only to teachers, students, administrators, and parents through a password- protected login. Such sites have the look and feel of the public social networking sites, but without the associated dangers of online predators, the posting of personal information, or writings that could come back to haunt users in later years.

"One of the roles of education is to help students learn to socialize," says Karen Greenwood Henke, chair of the Emerging Technologies Committee at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which recently published a study on collaboration tools in education. "With collaboration tools, part of the role of the school would be to help the students understand how to use these tools effectively, with security in mind, to advance themselves instead of using them in negative ways." The secure sites enable students to make mistakes and learn what's acceptable online behavior before they venture out into the open internet.

Susanna Messier, third-grade teacher at Meridian Elementary School in El Cajon, CA, says that initially her students were accepting online "friends" without knowing who they were. "I had to tell them they could only accept people they knew and refuse anyone they didn't know," she says. "That was a huge lesson. I'm able to teach etiquette—I'm teaching 8- and 9-year-olds how to be safer internet users. It's easier to do now than when they're 13."

Messier and colleague Richard Coleman, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at Meridian, are testing a new social networking site by Imbee (see "Site Seeing") that is web-based but offers high security via login passwords and parental controls. Both have nothing but praise for social networking tools, which enable them to serve up their lessons via blogs and chats, in addition to offering students a secure place to meet online.

"It has given me a whole different relationship with my students," Messier says. "They can message me and it's private, or they'll e-mail me. It's like we are more of a community and I'm not just a teacher—I can be a friend at the same time."

Coleman agrees: "When I first started using the site, I was worried about inappropriateness among the students—it's just like on the playground, kids say inappropriate things to one another. But they were really struck by the power of my giving them the responsibility.

"I told them, ‘The internet makes everyone an author. You hold the same responsibility as someone who writes something in a bookstore.' They really understood that."

Teachers are also the gatekeepers of these sites, reading over everything their students wish to publish, including profile information and blog entries, both for school and personal use. They use this leverage as a tool for learning, erasing students' blog entries if they do an assignment incorrectly, and allowing them to redo it before it posts and their classmates have a chance to see it— which actually benefits the students because the nature of blogging enables and encourages peer reviews and corrections.

"The kids are monitoring the blogs, and even with my editing the entries, they can be picky," Coleman says. "It's super cool that they do this and they don't seem to take offense at each other's comments."

However, Coleman adds, he did have to discuss with the class the tone of messages and how comments can be misinterpreted online. "That's something they are learning."

Secure sites enable studentsto make mistakes and learnwhat's acceptable onlinebehavior before they ventureout into the open internet.

On the Saugus Union site, which is a homegrown open-source site that runs on the school district's servers, teachers review everything students want to post before it goes on the site, Klein says, so the blogs remain constructive, or as he says, don't deteriorate into a "‘ready, fire, aim' situation."

And Klein says that although the site is not accessible to the outside world, students' identities are still very much kept private. "We have really strict guidelines," he notes. "The teachers will post the student's first name or student ID number, but we don't allow posting of student pictures."

The school doesn't have a rule against posting pictures of the backs of students' heads, which one enterprising teacher did on his classroom page. And students have the option of building avatars to post with their profiles.

Such security measures are scoring big points with parents, who are able to sign up for their own accounts and have access to the same classroom pages and social networking tools that their children use. Plus, the site becomes another way parents can communicate with their children's teachers, through the chat or e-mail functions. By all accounts, the parents have become very accepting of the social networking sites.

"I'm hearing comments from parents like, ‘This is cool. I love to see my kid's stuff,'" Klein says. "This gives them a nice window into the classroom—they don't really get a feel for that as parents."

True Learning

Responsibility is an important lesson in social networking, but it's not the only thing being taught. Teachers and students alike are using the tools on district sites to create whole multimedia lessons, projects, and more.



A social networking site is only effective as an instructional tool if a school district has a plan for using it, cautions Karen Greenwood Henke, chair of the Emerging Technologies Committee at the Consortium for School Networking. "Any successful social networking site has a reason to exist," she says. "[That reason shouldn't be] because kids are going to use it. A school district needs to look at a social networking site as part of a full technology plan."

At the very least, she says, IT personnel need to make teachers aware of district policies and bandwidth limitations, which may affect how well the sites perform. "It makes sense for a school district to have an overall strategy for this," she says. "It's also important to have dialogue between IT and the teachers regarding district policies, bandwidth, and potential problems with blocked sites. I don't think IT should be making the decisions, but an IT person can provide the expertise."

Saugus' social networking site is being used for everything from daily newscasts on the district's web page to oral reports about colonial life. One class, for example, is producing the New Colony News, a podcasted news show written as if it were being created during the country's dawning days. Klein says, "The students research what was happening at that time, and then they put together the information in a podcast, which is available over the social networking site."

Coleman and Messier both are using the site's blogging feature to engage their students in various academic topics ranging from science to literature. In Coleman's class, students are writing persuasive essays from prompts he posts on a blog. This arrangement enables him to be accessible to all the kids in the classroom at one time. "It's a real good forum for collaboration," he says. "They post a response, and I can give them an immediate edit and feedback. Then they can change or revise their entry and send it back."

Messier says that writing blog entries is extremely motivating for her students. "It gives them a forum, a podium, an audience," she says, adding that the kids listen more closely to her now that they know every entry they write will be subjected to peer editing. So the rules of grammar and punctuation now need their attention. "[That] totally changed what I do, because everything I teach is important now. They are so much more comfortable with writing—when I did my final district test on writing, they cranked it out. They are a lot more comfortable because they write more."

Saugus, which launched student access to its site in January, is also seeing results, Klein says. "We have taken a look at scores and other information, and we found in science that those classes taking advantage of the site are showing an average of nine-point score increases. And there is similar data coming in for writing and fluency. Kids are taking their time because they know their work is going to be published."

Part of the success of the Saugus site, Klein says, is that it fills a need as a repository for non-paper-based assignments. "The problem with the educational system is there is no place for students to put their stuff that is relevant [but not paper-based]," he explains. "Students build content, produce podcasts, post stories, etc., but where else would they be able to put them? With our site, they have all the social networking tools at their disposal."

The instant feedback that social networking sites offer through online chats is also helping students work smarter, according to CoSN's Greenwood Henke. "The benefit of instant messaging is getting a quick answer to a question," she says. "Also, students know whether someone is available to answer their question and whether that person got the message.

"In a learning environment, if I'm stuck while doing my homework and can IM someone I can trust, I can get that assignment done quicker and correctly."

Plus, educators say, students love interacting with each other online and look forward to using the social network for both work and play.

"Students think, ‘Hey, this is a thing I get to do,' not ‘I have to do,'" Klein says. "Because their content gets to be public and it's a new way of working, they really latch on to it and enjoy it."

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Charlene O'Hanlon is a freelance writer based in New York.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.