Collaborative Technologies | Feature

From Twitter to Edmodo: Schools Collaborate With Social Media

Schools are using a variety of social media tools to help students connect and work together.

Editor's note: This is the first in a six-part monthly series examining how different technologies can help schools enhance collaboration among students. Here we look at the benefits and challenges of offering access to collaborative learning tools such as blogs, wikis, and discussion boards.

This article, with an exclusive slideshow, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's January 2013 digital edition.

Eric Sheninger, the principal at New Milford High School in Bergen County, NJ, is well-known in ed tech circles as an evangelist for the use of web 2.0 tools in K-12 education. New Milford has made collaboration a pillar of its educational platform, and Sheninger believes that social media helps students learn how to collaborate. In fact, he argues that many students are already collaborating with technology--and schools need to catch up. "In many ways, school has been the opposite of real life," he says. "Kids are collaborating and connecting all the time outside school. It's time to experience a shift in schools and mirror that real world within the walls of our school."

Members of a recent panel of trend-watchers convened by T.H.E. Journal shared Sheninger's enthusiasm for injecting social media into the curriculum. Author and consultant Susan Brooks-Young noted that social media allows schools to model digital citizenship behaviors and gives students the chance to reach an audience that includes peers and experts in fields they are studying. Educational computing expert Gail Lovely asserted that social media is a natural fit for education, since all learning is social.

Yet that doesn't mean that adoption of these tools is a snap. Lovely went on to caution that schools using publicly available platforms must protect students from advertising and unwanted content.

There are also "teachable moments" when students post inappropriate material. To get a fuller picture of the pitfalls and dividends, we asked several innovative instructional technology leaders to describe their early experience helping teachers use social media to boost student collaboration.

A Full Social Media Toolkit
Two years ago, New Milford High started using Google Docs, and it is now a Google Apps school. Students can work on the same documents from various locations and at different times. "That makes it easier for our teachers to assign group activities," Sheninger explains. Teachers use the text-message feedback service Poll Everywhere for informal assessment and group activities. Others use Glogster, a tool for creating interactive posters. "Twenty years ago, we created collages in class," he adds. "Now they create interactive posters. They are like collages with embedded video, and students collaborate to create them."

Sheninger says his first challenge was simply making teachers aware of all the tools at their disposal. "We had to do some professional development with teachers and push them in the right direction," he says. "We had talked a lot about student engagement, but I stressed that if students are collaborating, they are engaged."

Now his teachers, across many subject areas, are taking advantage of social media. An AP biology teacher created a shared hashtag on Twitter for students to use when completing an assignment about the stages of meiosis. The creative challenge was to be succinct enough to describe each stage in 140 characters or fewer. A group of New Milford students who recently went on a 10-day trip to Europe to study the Holocaust blogged about their experience every day.

Sheninger says one key to getting teachers excited about social media is to avoid making anything mandatory. "I am careful not to push or to dictate," he says, "because then you get resentment and resistance. I move toward empowerment and autonomy."

The group of New Milford teachers using social media has grown from a small number to a significant portion of the staff as an increasing number have found that these tools promote collaboration and media literacy, Sheninger says. He also points out that social media provide avenues for teachers to grow professionally by creating personal learning networks accessible 24/7 from anywhere in the world.

New Milford teachers are building learning communities that have helped with resource discovery, knowledge acquisition, feedback on ideas, innovative strategies, connections to experts and practitioners, and the ability to track conferences from afar. "We started using these tools in isolation," he says, "but now faculty are using professional development time to make the most of web 2.0 tools and integrate them into their teaching."

Online Yearbook Meetings
Melissa Zier, a technology instructor and yearbook adviser at the K-8 St. Francis Episcopal Day School in Houston, uses a free, public social media tool called TodaysMeet to hold quick online meetings of her yearbook class. She sets up a topic for them to work on in TodaysMeet, and the students create their own usernames and logins. Then all their online comments on a topic are captured to create a record that she can store for up to a year.

"I had four boys working on an iMovie together," Zier recalls. "They chose not to sit together in class to work on it, but to hold discussions via TodaysMeet. Throughout the day and in the evening at home, they could add comments or refer to their earlier conversation." On a yearbook T-shirt project, she took student suggestions via a TodaysMeet topic meeting. One advantage of this approach? "I didn't have to open and read 20 Word documents from students."

Only one time has a student used inappropriate language in a TodaysMeet session, she says. "I stopped the class right there and put it up on the projector. It was uncomfortable for that student, but it became a learning moment."

On her wish list is having TodaysMeet integrated with her campus portal or as an RSS feed instead of having to log on to a separate website, but otherwise she is very pleased with it.

DIY Social Media
A few years ago, administrators and faculty members at Greenhills School, a private sixth- through 12th-grade school in Ann Arbor, MI, began brainstorming about web 2.0 tools, but for several reasons they were concerned about using publicly available applications. Among the concerns were the new Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) regulations about students younger than 13 setting up accounts. Jan Toth-Chernin, the school's director of technology, also thought it was time-consuming for teachers to be working on the administrative aspect of setting up logins for all the students. She also wanted to connect the social media tools to e-portfolios so all the student work could be saved and shared.

Greenhills decided to work with a local technology vendor, Zengenuity, to build its own social media platform called Greenhouse. "We thought we could do this in a way that existing services didn't approach," Toth-Chernin says. "We wanted to share with parents as well. We did a needs assessment and felt confident we could build it using Drupal [an open-source content management system]."

Here are some of Greenhouse's key features:

  • Class Pages: Each class has a page that includes their assignments (with online quizzes), news, a calendar, and a discussion forum. Each class also has its own blog, photo, and video gallery; podcasts; and a resource bank for submitted links. Class permissions are configurable, so that students in many classes can submit their own blog posts or resources, if the teacher allows it. Teachers can send messages to students, parents, or both through a private messaging system.
  • Group Pages: Student, teacher, and parent groups all have pages with features like those of the class pages. All members of the Greenhills community can create and join groups online to receive announcements and participate in group discussions. Greenhouse currently hosts a group working on forensics, another on the middle school play The Phantom Tollbooth, and another for students working on geometry problems together.
  • Member Profiles: Every user of Greenhouse has his or her own profile page, which includes an electronic portfolio; a personal blog, photo, and video gallery; and a resource bank for links.
  • User Dashboard: This tool provides all users with an overview of upcoming assignments and events as well as recent news, both schoolwide and in their specific classes and groups.

According to Toth-Chernin, "The main advantage of Greenhouse is that you can adapt it to whatever you want it to do, and you have control over when and how it changes. You can build it to match your school, rather than just whatever Edmodo or Schoology decide to provide. You have more flexibility to integrate it with other systems you already have.

"Each teacher can customize the features in their class on one page," she adds, "So if a teacher wants their blog to be able to have comments enabled, hidden, preapproved, or displayed without approval, they have a choice. They can enable kids to be administrators on their pages it they want. They can also "wikify" the class, so that students can create, edit, and collaborate on documents online.

Toth-Chernin says that the closed platform allows students to learn how to behave on social networks in a safe way. "Kids make mistakes and do nutty things," she says. "This provides an opportunity for learning."

The eighth-grade social action segment is a capstone project. A group feature of Greenhouse allows students to work together on projects based on their interests instead of just with students in their own class. "They get together based on interest [in topics] such as energy projects," Toth-Chernin explains, "and develop what-if solutions to real problems. They work out of class and do blog posts, which others read and add comments [to]. They work on how to comment effectively and create multimedia presentations together."

A longer-term plan is to make Greenhouse open source in collaboration with Zengenuity, which would support other schools that adopted the platform. Toth-Chernin's hope is that students at other schools would use Greenhouse not only to communicate with each other, but also with Greenhills students.

Edmodo as an LMS
Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia has a new eight-year strategic plan, and at its heart is embracing social networking. "We were intrigued by a Pew study on the internet in American life," said Adam Seldow, director of technology for the district. "The section on teens and social media confirmed our thinking that most teens are on multiple social platforms. We asked how we could bridge the formal learning we do here with the informal learning that can take place there."

After he had examined some expensive learning portals and student information systems--and actually sent out an RFP for a learning management system--Seldow's attention was caught by a tool that faculty and students were already using: Edmodo. When Seldow realized that 33 percent of the district's students were already using the popular social learning network, he canceled the RFP and Chesterfield County began using Edmodo districtwide. "This is a free tool that had a lot of the neat features we wanted," Seldow says. "It offers a unique social networking experience that is safe and secure. It captures the things they do outside school communicating with each other, yet cordoned off in a monitored environment.

"If a student is out for a nature hike and finds an unusual leaf, he can take a photo of it and upload into Edmodo," Seldow explains, "and that can become part of the science class discussion the next day."

Teachers also use Edmodo during class to create small groups for project-based activities, such as lab groups in a science class. Once students are in small groups, they can collaborate on classroom activities. And because Edmodo is integrated with Google Docs, which students are already using, group members can open shared Google docs from within Edmodo and edit them.

"Teachers are telling us that Edmodo gives students more of an opportunity to have a voice," Seldow says. Students will write in their profiles that they are hands-on or visual learners, and that gives teachers a better idea of how to work with them. In online discussions, teachers see some students really bloom who hadn't spoken up in class before. He adds that Edmodo has been a great tool for teachers to collaborate with each other and share lesson plans and best practices.

Part of Chesterfield's plan is to move toward project-based learning in partnership with the Buck Institute for Education, using a blended learning model. "Edmodo gives those projects a place to live," he says. "And we are working on the mindset and structure for projects to span across classes and grade levels."

Social Media Security
For schools using platforms that are open to the public, protecting students is always a concern. Adam Seldow from Chesterfield County Public Schools (VA) says that the safety issue is a main barrier to using Facebook, where both good and ugly communication can happen--but there is no chance to fix a situation that may have gone wrong. Seldow's district uses Edmodo, which gives teachers the ability to moderate everything. "We actually have three levels of potential moderators: teachers, administrators, and IT folks," he says. "We have to do training with kids about appropriate use, starting with a student code of conduct. They can't send direct messages to each other. Everything they do is visible, so it is an immediate learning experience if they do act inappropriately."

Melissa Zier from St. Francis Episcopal Day School (TX) also has security concerns about the fact that her school's TodaysMeet forums are on a public website. For example, she says, someone outside the school could go on to TodaysMeet, search by topic, read comments, and add their own. To protect students' privacy, Zier has them only use first name and last initial on the site. But she also believes that it's worthwhile to get students thinking about what they make public online.

At New Milford High School (NJ), Eric Sheninger makes sure that students and parents understand and sign a media waiver. Parents must grant permission for New Milford to publish educational content created by their child, which includes blog posts, pictures, and videos. The waiver states: "It is understood that New Milford High School is not responsible for inappropriate content posted by my child or another person on any social media site that may be used in school (i.e. Flickr, YouTube, blogs, etc.)."