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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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Sheila Greene's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I'm a middle school Language Arts teacher with four teenage children of my own. Because the majority of my students have unorthodox learning styles (i.e. students with autism, ADD, ADHD, learning disabilities), and many have not experienced success with writing, I use a variety of unorthodox strategies, many with a tech spin. While I've heard the argument about MySpace providing a forum for creative writing, I've yet to see examples of thoughtful, intentional writing pieces in this setting. I've explored MySpace sites looking for examples of written expression, and defensively, as a mother attempting to insure that my own kids are maintaining some level of integrity in such a public forum. In both attempts, I've found that MySpace pages are dominated by photos--many provocative and sexual, and few with captions, and those WITH captions misspelled and un-punctuated. Examples of multi-paragraph writing that I've seen are lyrics or passages of other writers' poetry--I've yet to see volumes of original work in this venue. Of greatest concern to me as a parent is the consumption of my kids' down time with this type of outlet, at the expense of more creative endeavors, with or without technology; there appears to be an addictive quality to this, that has resulted in my need to set limits, then spend time that could be better spent, insuring that the limits are met. This reads helplessly prudishly--I don't believe that I'm unusually resistant to change, and I'm a fan of the high interest value re. using technology in the classroom, but My Space doesn't fit the bill.
Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Great thoughts, Sheila. I'd be curious to see what you think about ways to harness that huge interest that teens obviously have, and turn it into a productive outlet in the school environment. Certainly there are loads of new teacher skills involved in dealing with the "MySpace Generation." But, looking at it from the "what potential does this have for us as 21st Century Educators" viewpoint, I'd love to be able to capitalize on the massive appeal this "new realm" of socializing holds for our students.
Mary Burns's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
The beauty of the social network sites is that kids have an immediate and more intimate audience for their ouput (as the young student mentioned), in contrast to the vast, undifferentiated space of the web at large, where in theory, yes you can publish something but will anyone actually see it? Though I have not used social network sites in my own teaching, I did several years ago set up an online mentoring program with my students in Mexico and US and UK professionals. The transformation in my students' writing was astounding. They had an immediate audience who offered encouragement, feedback there was a high degree of discourse between students and mentors. It was one of the few instances in which technology made all the difference. I've thought since, how sad it is that most students in US schools could never partake of such an activity because of interdictions against email use.
Chad Reiling's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I think it's a shame that the above-mentioned student does not have a readily available venue in which to share her love of writing with others in her school with a similar interest. Is it nonexistent, or is it not "marketed" well so all students can participate? In either case, the Internet offers a very easy, and economic solution to this problem. I would agree with Mrs. Greene's comment that perhaps Myspace is not the best forum, but would be willing to bet there are a multitude of appropriate online venues - websites, blogs, etc. And if not, start one. Think of it: A student-generated, student-operated, student-oriented space about writing, for example. You could go and to network with other students, with other instructors, with national experts, etc.; to share your work; to get constructive feedback; to ask critical questions; etc. Clearly, the students are already interested in, and more importantly ENGAGED IN the particular curriculum, so why not strip off the barriers preventing them from fully exploring it? Would a kid's education be enhanced by this? I'd say "yes, most definitely."
Susan Brooks-Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Hi Chris, I think that one reason we see kids making inappropriate posts on sites such as MySpace is that we adults have refused to accept that social networking is an important part of kids' lives and have stuck our heads in the sand rather than addressing appropriate use. This is a chance for us to mend our ways! My own kids (both in their early 20s) use MySpace. My son actually does write some very good stuff there (my jaw hit the keyboard when I read his post about why he admires Ralph Waldo Emerson--who knew???). My daughter and her friends use MySpace to keep a small business they own organized and for staff communication. I think there are all kinds of ways we could engage students using social networking--if only we dared to try it!
Ted Sakshaug's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
we will be discussing This at NECC Next week, we will host a forum for SIGTC Regarding "web 2.0" Check blogs from NECC to See what we come up with!
Sheri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
I have heard many of my students discuss their online socializing in places such as myspace and eharmony--and they are only in eighth grade. My sixth grade granddaughter zooms through the internet and chat rooms like she was born to do it. Of course, her parents monitor what she does. I also know that many of my students love to write and keep notebooks of their writing. They would love a place to publish their writing and share with others. I teach 5-8 writing in 50 minute periods (ugh--this is new and, as an elementary teacher, I find it unfair to kids and teachers to limit us this way). I would like to offer the students a venue for sharing their writing since we have so little time. I've been experimenting this summer with www.writely.com and nicenet.com to see how those would work for a school setting. I can create password protected group pages in my .Mac account. Nicenet does not require an email for the students. I've also thought about setting up Moodle courses for the students. It's the 21st Century, and schools and teachers must be part of it--kids need guidance navigating and socializing to protect themselves. I want to embrace email, chats, blogs, podcasts as learning tools. Think of the motivation to write! Last year, several students interviewed the wrestling and cheerleading coaches. They wrote about the wrestling cheerleading events, huddling around each other on the computer, suggesting better word choice and checking the facts. Then two students created a podcast using Garage Band and iWeb. I uploaded (password protected) it and set it up on the computer in the library for all the classes to see and listen to. It was a huge success. The most important part was the collaborative writing--applying the lessons from writing class to their podcast. I'm hoping the nicenet, writely, or .Mac groups will offer a collaborative space for more such writing. By directing students to a password protected area, it allows me to choose who is allowed in. I could invite classrooms from other schools for more interaction and diversity. I don't think restricting the Internet is the answer; parents need to monitor their kids--and companies like MySpace should be more proactive in protecting kids. Thanks for the discussion.

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