Social Networking | Feature

Google+ May Open Social Networking for Some K-12 Schools

Thanks to granular privacy controls and a unique interface for controlled sharing, schools that have previously banned social networks are looking at Google+ as a viable alternative.

K-12 districts have had to tread softly in the social media universe, largely because of the need to safeguard the personal information of their students. In a world where privacy is frequently considered an antiquated concept, students are vulnerable, and that open-to-everyone networking model has led some districts to block student access to the likes of Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter.

But thanks to features that give users control over how their information is shared, Google's new social networking service, Google+, may inspire even the most privacy-conscious districts to open their virtual doors.

Google+ has accumulated more than 25 million users since it was launched at the end of June--an impressive adoption rate when you consider that it was released as an invitation-only beta project. The new social network generated immediate and intense interest, and the Web was, and still is, rife with blogs and tweets about how to secure one of the 150 invitations given to each of the project's initial beta users.

The key to Google+'s early popularity may be a feature called circles, which allows users to divide their contacts into groups and to control what information they share in those groups. Facebook now offers a similar feature, called friend lists, but for more than three years of its life the social network required you to share virtually all information with all contacts. And employing the Facebook feature is much more complicated than adding people to a Google+ circle, which is a built-in, not added-on, capability. In July, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Google claimed Google+ users are two to three times more likely to share privately with one of their circles than to post publicly.

Google+'s drag-and-drop circle interface offers users detailed control over who their posts are shared with. 

"I think it's fantastic," said Esther Wojcicki, who teaches journalism and English at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, CA. "I can put my students in a circle and we don’t have to share everything with everybody, like you have to do on Facebook. That's a huge differentiator, and it's why I can use it in my classes."

Wojcicki, a well-known social media maven (she serves as chair of the board of Creative Commons and blogs on educational topics for The Huffington Post), was an initial beta user. She will be using 82 of her 150 Google+ invitations this fall to get all of her students on the social network, she said.

Mark Lamson, director of IT at Westerly Public Schools in Westerly, RI, said he got his invitation shortly after the beta program was announced from a former summer intern now working at Google. Google+ has some features with the potential to "trump" Facebook in educational environments, he said, but the decision to adopt or reject the nascent social network may hinge on which of two cloud-based educational platforms--Google Apps or Microsoft’s Live@edu--a district or school adopts.

"We chose Microsoft because of its tight integration with our Office 2010 and Microsoft network infrastructure," he said in an email. "However, although as a practical matter I understand the need to use one system or the other for management of calendar, mail, files, and even apps, our goal is to have our cake and eat it too by giving students, and eventually staff, accounts for both. By giving access to, and supporting both [systems], we also allow our students and staff to take advantage of access to the latest and greatest apps, resources, and developments."

The Irving Independent School District in Irving, TX, had been blocking some social networking sites, such as Facebook, because they mixed too much personal information if teachers connected with students or other colleagues, said Alice E. Owen, the district's executive director of technology. "Too many opportunities for problems," she said.

But this year the district began implementing Google Apps for Education, which Owen said may give Irving Independent an opportunity to reconsider its social network policy.

Aley Vaughan, interactive marketing specialist at the Florida Virtual School, said her school is currently exploring the potential of Google+ for its students--which was kind of a no-brainer, because the online school sees social media as an essential part of its educational technology mix.

"As an online school, our teachers interact with students in a completely different way than in traditional schools, "Vaughan said. "We actually encourage teachers to utilize social media tools to stay in contact with students. Each and every FLVS teacher is required to complete a social media training in order to represent FLVS and interact with students via social media channels. In addition, each employee is required to follow a strict social media policy. The reality is, students are using social networks like Facebook and Twitter every day. In order to really get their attention, you have to be where they already are. Social media can be an invaluable tool in the classroom."

James Yap, director of instructional technology at the Ramapo Central School District in New York City, said his school has yet to decide about Google+, mainly because it’s still early days for the beta program. But the district sees it as promising technology, and Yap says he thinks it's likely to be adopted at Ramapo in some way.

"I think Google is still trying to decide where it will take it," he said in an email. "Is it going to be more like Facebook or more like LinkedIn? Because of the power of their search engine, [Google] could run into problems with privacy due to search results. I believe it to be a double edge sword . . . They want to harness the power of the data that they do have on a user without overstepping their bounds. For K-12 this will also be a huge layer of complexity."

Everyone interested in Google+ should keep in mind that these are early days, said Google spokesperson Iska Hain. "We're still in a limited field trial, and this is just the beginning," she said in an email. "But obviously Google+ has some really interesting features for educational purposes, including Circles and Hangouts."

"As educators and technologists we want to and should provide access to any app or service that may inform and improve instruction," Lamson added. "It's all about teaching and learning for students, not this or that company. And certainly this includes social media apps, albeit in a controlled and educationally appropriate environment."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.