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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Social Networking: TheirSpace

Using the power of the Web, tech-savvy teachers bring students closer to home.
By Tamar Snyder

PREDICTION: Increasing access to digital content will lead to exponential growth in school-based online communities on the MySpace/YouTube model.

At Woodland High School, in Woodland, Washington, algebra homework is engaging, interactive, and, dare we say it, actually fun. Patty O'Flynn's math students stand in front of the Hitachi StarBoard, working out problem sets aloud. The screen shows their scribbled notes, while their voices show their level of confidence as they explain each step. This real-time problem solving is then turned into a MathCast: a movie that can be viewed from a YouTube-like application on the school's home page. Students can review problems they had difficulty with, and parents can see what their children are learning.

"My students used to be focused just on getting the work done," O'Flynn says. "Now, they are more focused on understanding. They're engaged. And they ask better questions."

Each class usually begins with an interactive warm-up quiz reviewing material taught the previous day. Using clickers to punch in an answer to a multiple-choice question or type a numeric response, the students say they feel as if they're in the qualifying rounds of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Within seconds, O'Flynn can determine how well the class has integrated the material and then print out individualized study guides.

As educators learn to embrace Web 2.0 technology and foster connections through social-networking models, classes such as O'Flynn's will become the norm. More than half of all American kids ages 12-17 with Internet access use social-networking sites, according to a January 2007 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey. In order to catch their attention, teachers will have to travel on the same tech turf.

"The walls will come down in the classroom of the future," predicts John Calvert, a technology-integration specialist at New York State's Public Schools of the Tarrytowns. According to Calvert, textbooks will be replaced by more up-to-date wikis. Instead of instructing students to memorize facts, educators will assign collaborative projects aimed at instilling problem-solving skills. Forget about borrowing pencils; in the classroom of tomorrow, students will ask their friends for an extra battery charger or power-supply cord.

This September, Calvert will use Pageflakes to introduce customized class Web sites with RSS feeds that allow students to track their grades, comment on classmates' blog entries, set up to-do lists, and view class schedules. A Sesame Street rhyming video and alphabet matching games, tailored to the kindergarten curriculum, will appear on the kindergartners' page. Students in grades six and up will be able to modify their own pages, though certain class-related elements will remain locked in. For the second year, third graders at W.L. Morse School will team up on a wiki, The Morse Guide, a collaborative guidebook aimed at helping incoming students navigate the school.

Although social-networking tools are empowering for students, Calvert admits that, "as an educator, it can make you feel naked. You're used to displaying projects in the hallway that are perfect. Now, you're giving up control as the disseminator of knowledge and standing on the sidelines."

But the rewards are worth it, he says, estimating that online school-based communities will multiply rapidly in the coming year. "You see how motivated the kids are," he adds. "Here you were, banging your head getting students to write. Then you give them a blog, and now you just can't get them to stop."

What's Next > Vocational Programs

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