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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Use Social-Networking Technology for Learning

Why teachers should embrace networking, and how they can use it to improve education.
By Fran Smith

This how-to article is accompanied by the feature "Social Networking at Science Leadership Academy."

Social-networking tools aren't just for flirting. The evolving world of Internet communication -- blogs, podcasts, tags, file swapping -- offers students radically new ways to research, create, and learn. But, too often, schools use computers as little more than glorified workbooks, and that's criminal, says Chris Lehmann, principal of Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy. He explains why teachers should embrace networking and how they can use it to improve education.

What exactly is social networking?

It's software that allows people to come together around an idea or topic of interest. A school could use blog software to bring together anyone who's writing about politics or computing or Greek literature.

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese

Why should schools encourage all this sharing and meeting?

Schools should reflect the world we live in today. And we live in a social world. We need to teach students how to be effective collaborators in that world, how to interact with people around them, how to be engaged, informed twenty-first-century citizens. We need to teach kids the powerful ways networking can change the way they look at education, not just their social lives. We don't talk enough about the incredible power of social-networking technology to be used for academic benefit. Let's change the terms. Let's not call it social networking. Let's call it academic networking.

What's a good way to get started?

A teacher can set up kids with accounts at the Web site Delicious, which lets you store, organize, and share links -- for example, an annotated resource list you use on a project. You can also see links other people have saved, or browse to see what everyone has bookmarked on a subject. It's simple. You don't need your own server. Any teacher with a computer and an Internet connection can use it.

How do you keep students from wasting time chatting or sneaking to inappropriate sites?

You teach! You have frank discussions. You show them examples and ask them to make ethical decisions. You ask: What does it mean that fifteen-year-old kids are calling themselves nineteen and posting racy pictures online? What does it mean that college kids are posting raunchy spring break pictures that a prospective employer can find? The idea that we are the stories we tell has never been more important. Schools have always taught kids how to present themselves -- that's why we did oral presentations in the classroom. Now we need to teach them to present themselves electronically. That's why it's so scary to lock these technologies out.

The school day is already jam packed. How do you find time for networking?

Administrators have to facilitate change. A lone teacher can do it, but it's hard to sustain. Administrators have to decide this is valued for the whole school community, and they have to give teachers time and freedom to learn, experiment, and play. Lots of teachers are doing it on their own, but it can be exhausting. That's classroom 2.0, not school 2.0.

Fran Smith is a contributing editor for Edutopia.
Kim Girard contributed to this report.

Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Tahmi Keir's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We use our class blog many ways. Students use it for anything from comments about a lesson/activity, to student tips about test success, to suggestions for class projects/lesson and even to ask for help that they many not have otherwise. Blogging ethics MUST be taught, to ignore the ethical and etiquette of a blog is to ask for failure of it's intent. We love our class blog.

New User's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Before I comment, I must submit a disclaimer that I have not blogged a ton, nor have I had students blog for educational reasons.

One of the cons to blogging from my perspective is that it may allow students to share too much information across the internet that may result in a real life trauma. What do you think?

Anonymous, Long Island, NY's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There's a new academic networking site for college students called Student Forum Refined. It takes the social networking model and uses it for students to share notes, store school schedules, and more. Created by a kid who just graduated SUNY Albany. Now that's a good use of networking technology.

Patty Liston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the comment that "schools should reflect the world we live in today". Children are very savvy when it comes to education and technology. We have a site for K-6 graders called Woogi World. (www.woogiworld.com) It uses the tech children love, to teach the skills they need, in the informative and engaging way they use to learn. First lesson - the appropriate use of the internet.

Blogging's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If you have time to monitor 150 high school kids blogging in your class, "You are a better man than I, Gunga din." Let us be clear on responsiblility here--teacher sponsers, the teacher buys any problems. Principals and District Offices and school boards that do NOT have a clue about blogging or Web 2.0 will throw you to the wolves. Parents turn on ya quickly. I prefer to use external party sites that are monitored by adult people with a vested interest in keeping the site controlled ie, 'thespoke.net' by Microsoft for high school and college programming students. There are a number of sites out there like this. Before you start your own site, be sure you have the time to monitor.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sharing too much information online?
This can happen in the f2f classroom too, with traumatic consequences. Many instructors are perhaps better "placed" (or more experienced) to manage it in the classroom than online.

But then again, as an online instructor, it has been my experience that it is quick and easy to hit the DELETE button - with the student's permission to do so. In the case of blogging, the student can do this - and/or they can also place additional comments about what has happened. If you are worried about this happening with blogging, then deal with is as you start and as you go along - discuss appropriacy and the implications of posting certain kinds of stories and material.

Examine your own anxieties about this too. What are you *really* worried about? Probe your thoughts and feelings - what is the worst thing that could happen, and why are you worried about this?

I think another issue here is: if something disastrous or hurtful happens - then who takes responsibility?

(Why) Should our fears hold us back from engaging with these new spaces and tools?
Isn't life meant to be risky? Shouldn't we be helping our students to cope with an uncertain, risky world?

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