In this information age, we can now talk to each other in ways we never imagined. Teachers and administrators face a new challenge, however, as they try to find a way to safely incorporate this technology in the classroom.
“Schools are scared about this stuff,” said Elliot Soloway, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. “Whatever they do, [schools fear that] parents will be upset, money will be inappropriately spent, they will draw the ire of the public. They're scared of all of this, so there is an extra layer of conservatism to protect the kids. But we can’t let it paralyze us from taking steps into the new.”
Experts like Soloway and Cathie Norris, Regents Professor at the University of North Texas agree that the fear is there, but that isn't going to change the fact social media and other communications technology is invading our schools.
“People want to use these mediums for collaboration,” Norris said. “Kids can get together online and work together.”
“Technology is bigger than ever in schools,” added Soloway.
Both recognize the dangers of such technology, however.
“Schools are banning Facebook and all apps that have access to Facebook,” Norris explained. “There was a case of a teacher in Ohio who was using an American Airlines site to teach his math classes about measuring distances. He got in trouble and that American Airlines site was banned because AA has a link to Facebook. Schools are really cracking down.”
An alternative to the mainstream social media sites like Facebook and MySpace, are what Soloway and Norris called “closed systems.” These are social media sites that are operated by the schools which offer the same functions as “open” sites, but don't allow anyone not affiliated with the school to be a member.
“There are closed social media like Edmodo and Saywire, which are perfect for schools,” Soloway said. “These closed sites fulfill an extremely important need, and that is communication. Learning is in the conversations and facilitating the conversation is facilitating learning, so social media facilitates learning. But the context is you have to protect the kids and give the teachers oversight, and that protects everyone.”
Norris believes that the closed systems can also protect teachers from making poor decisions.
“Teachers are not supposed to be communicating with students via text or social media,” Norris said. “That creates a record, and communication between student and teacher can be taken out of context. You cannot be too careful. You are in a pseudo-public job, so you have to conduct yourself as such.”
Apart from instituting online guidelines and offering closed social media outlets for students, both Soloway and Norris think online education should make its way into the current curriculum for both students and teachers.
“The traditional role of educators is to monitor and guide with the new media as they would with old media,” Soloway said. “The question is how. A problem is there is a level of ignorance on the part of the teachers. There must be some professional development to keep teachers up to speed with this type of thing.”
“We want to make responsible users of social media,” Norris added. “If a kid posts something inappropriate on a closed system, you can catch it early and nip it in the bud. They are not anonymous on the closed sites. What kids don't realize is that this is a permanent record. They don't fully comprehend the finality of hitting the send button. That is why I advocate digital literacy and online etiquette classes for students.”