Facebook Training Wheels
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."
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.
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
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
"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.
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
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."
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."
HOAL 'N' FIVE Mary Kay with her children
The result of her ambition is
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
Jennifer Demski is a Los
Angeles-based freelance writer.
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.