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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Social Networks: Are They a Valuable Educational Tool?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger

We've all been hearing the hoopla over social networks -- MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, and so on. Students are online sharing some great things: poetry, original artwork, blogs, stories, journals, and more. Some of them are sharing things that aren't so great, such as personal information, and are toying around with the semi-anonymity of the Internet and not making the best judgments about social conduct online.

The social networks are hugely popular for ages 16-35 (and those below and above as well). MySpace claims sixty-one million registered users; that's a lot of socializing going on. So, what's all the fuss about?

I've been spending some time in high schools lately, chatting with kids about what they do online, what they're finding, what draws them online, and so on. (One ninth-grade girl said, "There's not really an avenue at school for me to publish and share work, and I really love writing." That struck a chord with me -- no place at school to share one's love of writing?) In most cases, being the digitally wired people they are, the social-network sites are just a twenty-first-century place for them to hang out. Many students I spoke with are well aware of the potentially seedier side of socializing online, and most appear to be savvy in navigating those waters.

There's a push now, however, to use federal policy to step in and help protect students from social-networking sites by banning access to them in schools and libraries that receive federal funding. New legislation, the Defeating Online Predators Act, would do just that if passed. (Download a PDF version of the proposed legislation.)

I'd be curious to hear from readers:

  • Do you see these online social sites as having educational value?
  • Do you allow/use them with students?
  • What are your thoughts on the proposed federal legislation banning access to them in schools?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
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Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Wesley Fryer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Thanks for raising this issue, Chris, and soliciting input. I feel very strongly that teachers, parents, and other adult community members should be learning alongside young people about appropriate and safe use of digital social networking (DSN) sites. I agree Susan, that adults should not put their heads in the sand and pretend that DSN is going to go away or is a passing fad: it is not. Use of these types of sites is only going to increase. We read every week about another statistic and technocratic organization banning use of another site, or kids making poor decisions with DSN, and most recently a university (Kent State) banning all its athletes from having profiles on facebook. I think this is a lot like driving: Would we as responsible adults want to send kids out into the world without any type of instruction on driving? Without any period of supervised apprenticeship? Without multiple opportunities for students to try, experiment, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes? I hope not. The same should be true for DSN. I have had very positive experiences using DSN with elementary students at Wells Elementary School in Maine on Think.com. I actually did a podcast interview with the computer teacher there, Cheryl Oakes, and am convinced that DSN sites like this which permit a level of moderation and control on the part of adults need to be used at every school in the nation. Imbee.com is another site that has recently launched, that parents can use with their students to learn about safe DSN. Ultimately, conversations and face to face interactions are the only viable solution to the problems highlighted by DSN. Technology is really more a window into problems we've had for a long time as a society, rather than the problem itself. If this window can serve as a catalyst for positive change, I think that would be great. Unfortunately, many schools and adults prefer to put their heads in the sand-- paint the window black so fewer people can look inside it at the problems we have, rather than fix those problems. Wesley Fryer Moving at the Speed of Creativity blog and podcast
alicebarr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I like Chad's idea of the student centered writing space. I believe students will take advantage of this kind of opportunity if introduced in an appropriate fashion by a teacher or mentor. Students are very good about monitoring themselves. This may be the new era of the literary magazine!
Shuchi Grover's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Hi Chris, Incidentally, this has been a hot topic for discussion among my school community as well, especially in the context of child safety on the Internet. I have blogged about Web 2.0 in education, as well as issues of safety related to social networking. While I agree with most of the sentiments posted here by Sheila, Chad and Susan, I do also think that the way social networking spaces are being used by teens (fun, 'hang-out' spaces) is very different from the way it is used by people in the 20s-30s (for organizing their personal/professional communication). Since it is teens we're talking about when we consider 'social networking' in k-12 education, we're looking at appropriating the kids' fun, 'hang-out' spaces for these kids, and using it for more serious endeavors such creative writing and collaborative work. That, in my opinion, is a tall task, to say the very least. Blogging, on the other hand, has met with a fair amount of success in the school here in Bangalore where I am the resident educational technologist. Language arts (and other subject) teachers in middle and high school have successfully set up group blogs where their students find an audience for their creative writing among their peers as well as other teachers in the school (when the teacher setting up the blog has pro-actively got the word out). Web 2.0, undoubtedly has tremendous possibilities in teaching and learning, but the devil, as they say, is in the detail. ‘Which' tools we educators appropriate and ‘How', is the key.
Kim Peck's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
My experience with social sites is similar to Sheila's, and I have been saddened to see some of my students' MySpace pages. I believe the hours it would take to weed through MySpace to find the posting about Ralph Waldo Emerson could be better used elsewhere. Why not start a website or blog dedicated to creative writing as Chad Reiling suggested. It is my belief the the dangers of social networking sites and the time wasted outweigh any benefits, and I doubt we will realistically see any increase in school performance on a broad scale. In fact, as an English teacher I see a significant decrease in spelling and grammar skills that can be directly attributed to the student internet use. I regularly see "u" and "b/c" instead of "you" and "because" in student writing, and the worst part is that it is so automatic that most students don't even realize they are writing this way.
Tia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
The key word here is "social" networking. The kids want to communicate with others their age, they're experimenting with different versions of themselves, and maybe even taking some chances. I teach middle school and most of these kids have schedules crazier than mine; school, sports, music/drama, etc. They're whisked around left and right and don't really have the chance to hang out (brief nostalgic pause flashes images of the "90s mallrats). The majority of them use MySpace and other sites just to chit chat and play. In college, I had to use the interactive classroom tools of Blackboard and the like to post responses to classmates, etc. I had to complete a certain number of posts per day and week to get my A. It was a chore, not fun, not exploratory. In the end, I went through the motions, posted my feeble replies tossing in some choice buzz words from the class and went about my business- online chatting elsewhere and not about school. Can we really expect middle/high school students to use this medium differently?
Donna Peduto's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Chris, thank you for bringing this topic to discussion. I am very aware of all the backlash of social networking in schools, and am in favor of schools blocking such sites. However, I think educators need to look at the reasons why these sites are so popular and try to use this insight to plan more motivating and meaningful lessons. Students are bombarded with media - they are constantly watching and hearing reports about the "stars"! On social networking sites, such as Face Book and My Space, suddenly THEY are the stars - everyone wants to read about them, watch them, and correspond with them! It gives us the opportunity to capture what is positive about social networking and incorporate these factors into our classrooms. How can we make students feel special, wanted and connected within our school? At the same time, we need to enable students to discern between appropriate and inappropriate. Just a thought....
Pat Harder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I think we need to look deeply at what needs are being met by socializing in web sites that can be dangerous for our students. One guess is that students, especially in middle-high school level of education, are often lonely and don't feel like part of any meaningful social environment. I believe that one of our most important jobs as educators is to create a feeling of community within our classes/schools where kids feel safe and where they belong and feel important. Unless they feel that way, it is almost impossible for any real learning to take place.
Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Wow - such great thoughts. I was just at NECC and there were lots of conversations about social networking sites, social software, etc. but I was actually surprised at how little was actually being discussed about these issues in any formal way. I'm going to keep an eye on this issue, and see if it's NECC-worthy next year, and possibly set up a forum, with children, to discuss the pros, cons, etc. of these kinds of sites. What I did hear was a few informal conversations about trying to make classroom-friendly tools such as Wikis, Blogs, etc. more available for direct student use, perhaps in an effort to tap into this "new" medium and interest. Keep your ears and eyes open, and ask your own children and grandchildren about these sites - I bet you'll learn lots.
John G. Hendron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Chris, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at NECC in San Diego. One of the things that came up on our panel was that social networking sites provide a transparent lens to see what kids are thinking, what's on their minds. I have mixed views... I think social/shared/writable web space is an incredible tool. I also am disappointed with what I see on places like Xanga and MySpace. At the college level, I am far more comfortable with it. In our K-12 schools, the content students are publishing is concerning. This is not to say all students publish objectionable content. But for those that do--we must remember that this is first, "their space," and what they write many times is either (1) for affect, or (2) honest. And neither of these two reasons are unique to the Internet or Web. This is the same content these students will produce on their own, in writing, in pictures, and in attitudes. If we don't particularly like what we see, the solution is elsewhere. The best thing we can do as educators, I think, is set good examples, and use these technologies in educationally significant ways. I'd personally leave MySpace alone, and create my own school-spaces for online writing, collaboration, and sharing.
Ann Flynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
It's great to hear all the comments from the classroom perspective. The National School Boards Association' s education technology program has been contibuting to the dialouge around social networking this summer. As with most issues, we feel it's one best made at the local level and clearly a matter better addressed with education than just simply blocking sites. With the "Web 2.0" world, students are creators of content and it's up to educators to help them understand the benefits and risks that go with participation in such public forums like MySpace. While electing to block sites like MySpace may make for a more efficient school day, not helping students develop a better grasp of social networking and all its consequences is a disservice to them. We're planning to look at the many issues surrounding social networking at an interactive townhall meeting in Dallas at NSBA's T+L Conference in November which will include students, administrators, MySpace representatives, state ed dept folks, and a lawyer!

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