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Who's Talking Online?

The Education World Tech Team discusses social networking and blogging sites -- should schools ban them or teach kids to use them?

This month, we asked members of the Education World Tech Team: Are social networking sites like Facebook appropriate for school use? Should schools ban the use of such sites at school -- or incorporate them into the curriculum and teach students to use them safely? Should schools influence and/or restrict whether students use such sites at home? Should teachers be allowed to have a personal presence on such sites? How does your school deal with the issue?

This is what they told us.

"Sites such as Facebook offer users a great deal of room to express themselves creatively online," Nicholas Langlie told Education World, "but it might not be right to use such sites with elementary to high school students as an educational tool.

"For one thing, such sites are not secure; anyone can view member information or contact members. (Some sites have 'invitation' features that provide a very minimal form of security). Do we, as educators, really want to cast such a wide net? I don't think so. I think we want our students to express themselves, to learn about -- and participate in -- healthy social interactions, but a free-for-all is not the way to go if we have an interest in leveraging the social aspects of online communication to further educational goals.

"A possibly better alternative," Langlie suggests, "is to utilize the learning/course management systems your district might already have in place. For example, within a Blackboard course, a teacher can establish individualized pages for students and allow students to interact privately, in small or in large groups, in ways that are social and educational.

"The problem with online social networks is that anyone can pretend to be anyone or anything. There's no metal detector at the front gate.

"There's also an issue of privacy," Langlie noted. "Anything a teacher or student puts on Facebook basically is available for anyone to see. Locally, we had a case where a State University student who was interviewed on television talked about how he didn't care if schools or future employers saw all the drunken pictures he posted of himself on Facebook (which could be found by doing a simple search for his name in any search engine). Another case involved a local middle school teacher who was suspended for making inappropriate comments on his student's online profile. Obviously, the teacher acted inappropriately and with very poor judgment, but that brings up the issue of things students might do now without appreciating the negative consequences until much later.

"Is it not part of our responsibility as educators to ensure that our students do not harm their futures in such a way?," Langlie asked. "This is the first time in history that little mistakes, which once could have been kept in isolation and dealt with privately, are instantly broadcast across our newly flattened and completely accessible world. With the click of a button, students can permanently tattoo, or at least fairly permanently scar, their online persona. That creates a need for educators to be cautious. It doesn't mean ruling out social networking sites, but it does mean that if we are going to use such sites for educative purposes, we need to use or create sites that have a certain degree of privacy and security, where both educators and students are well versed in the benefits and risks."

"College admissions, future employment, and the regard of one's peers all can be affected if social networking sites are used in an anti-social or negative way."

"My experience with the social networking sites has been less than positive," said Katy Wonnacott. "I taught language arts in the past and -- great optimist that I am -- I tried to use online blogging instead of traditional journal writing. Rather quickly, we had to stop and go the non-technological route, as some of the material written by students outside our school district contained words my seventh graders did not need to read. I have blocked those sites from our network here at school. The concept of using social networking sites to teach online safety is a great idea -- if we could selectively use those sites.

"I am not comfortable with schools controlling student activity at home, although I am always happy to talk to parents about the dangers of unsupervised Internet use. But I wish more parents would not use the old line, 'My child knows so much more about computers than I do.' My response is, 'Perhaps you need to learn.'"

"Keeping students away from things that potentially have some undesirable aspects does not teach kids how to behave appropriately online," noted Lucy Gray. "Students need to be aware of the pitfalls of such sites as Facebook, and they need to know how to cultivate their own online presence. The same goes for teachers. There's nothing wrong per se with using such sites, but users need to know that the content they publish can potentially have consequences. College admissions, future employment, and the regard of one's peers all can be affected if social networking sites are used in an anti-social or negative way.

"Teachers, parents, and students must be aware that although blogs can enhance a learning experience, there are also dangers in using them."

"Online communities can be wonderful things, and I do not think we should dismiss their potential for good," Gray continued. "But schools need to do a better job of educating parents, students, and faculty about the social networking site phenomenon. Teachers and parents constantly have to be aware of what their kids are doing, and must reinforce the message regularly."

"Blogs are great if the teacher keeps constant vigilance on what's posted to the site and keeps it strictly for classroom use," Fred Holmes told Education World. "The problem recently is that students, especially middle school age students, are posting too much information about themselves on their blogs. They need to realize that their pages -- even though private -- still can be accessed by online predators.

"At our school," Holmes noted, "we tried to make students aware of the dangers of putting pictures, addresses, phone numbers -- even daily schedules -- on their profiles. It seemed to work. Our students, along with their parents, did remove the personal information. The problem is that now students are posting the same revealing information on their blogs. Even though they have private access to their blogs, it's easy for a predator to pose as a friend and be invited in.

"Teachers, parents, and students must be aware," Holmes added, "that although blogs can enhance a learning experience, there are also dangers in using them -- just as there are dangers on the rest of the Internet. Safety requires responsible training and responsible use by all."

"I only know of these sites from what I hear in the news and -- just recently -- from some problems associated with students in my district posting opinions about teachers and administrators and school policies that weren't too flattering," John Tiffany said. "We don't have a specific policy regarding the sites yet, but I'm sure one will be in place soon.

"It's important that schools make students aware of safety issues in their lives --especially regarding Internet use. I believe that many people don't see the risks involved with Internet use, and students should be made aware of them as soon as computer classes are being taught in a school district, and even before that in a regular class setting.

"I don't believe these sites should be allowed to be used at school," Tiffany added. "There are enough important activities students can be doing on the computer at school. Also, I don't believe teachers should have a presence on the sites. Teachers need to distance themselves from students as much as possible when it comes to their personal lives. Enough can -- and does -- go wrong when students and teachers become involved personally. Whenever activities such as these can be avoided, they should be."

"I'm pretty much a rookie when it comes to social networking sites," Michael Hutchison told Education World. "I've not looked at FaceBook much, although I don't think it's appropriate to introduce sites like that in the classroom.

"I'm guessing that the main reason a teacher would introduce such sites would be to show students what not to do online. That might be a good idea, but do we want to give them access to such sites if we're trying to suggest that there are more appropriate sites for students to be spending their time on?" Hutchison asked.

"Here's an example. I teach government, and when I do the chapter on the First Amendment, we discuss free speech, including the issue of pornography (specifically Supreme Court decisions). As a government teacher, it obviously is a little difficult to describe what pornography is (Justice Potter Stewart once said, "I can't define obscenity, but I know it when I see it..."), but I think the last way I would try to describe it would be to buy copies of "Playboy" and "Hustler" and display them in the classroom. I might be a very popular teacher for a while, but chances are that would not be the best way to teach my students.

"I am generally not in favor of filtering," Hutchison concluded, "but that doesn't mean I would want to use every site on the Web in the classroom, either."

"The social networking sites will always be there," said Stew Pruslin, "so there's no reason to pretend you can hide them from kids. Also, such sites have many positive attributes. For those who are concerned, an in-school-only "intranet" version might be a good way to introduce children to them. The teaching of safety and identity-protection is important and should be addressed at some point (early on)."

"At our school, we do not block social networking sites, nor do we have any plans to do so."

"I absolutely believe that we want to get involved in this," Arthur Lader said. "Although it might be a management nightmare, our students love these sites and it might be possible to harness some of that enthusiasm and direct it in a positive direction -- at least at the high school level. I'm guessing that many schools will use elgg for this purpose."

"At our school," Howard Levin told Education World, "we do not block social networking sites, nor do we have any plans to do so. There's no question that a large number of our students -- perhaps the majority -- maintain pages on journaling sites, but our policies are clear within the classroom, and we try to protect our students limited free time. To us it comes down to a few questions:

  • Is the activity disruptive to the classroom (including AIM, games, and so on)? We treat such sites as Facebook like we do any distraction issue that needs to be monitored and controlled by teachers. Attentive students are not surfing the Web, reading comics, or passing notes to one another.
  • Is the activity illegal? We block filesharing services that are used predominantly for illegal copyright sharing.
  • Does the activity violate our acceptable use policy? This is similar to prohibiting access to pornography and other inappropriate types of sites, which we prohibit, but do not physically block access to.

"We can periodically monitor for violations. That is in the realm of building trust, developing a sense of responsibility, and the practicalities of the negative impact of filtering. In terms of journaling sites, we will not judge -- carte blanche -- that student use of such sites is inappropriate, but rather we strive to help students exercise good judgment.

"All that said," Levin concluded, "online journaling is a cultural phenomenon that will not be extinguished by banning its use. We are deeply interested and involved in this and other related issues. We are a small independent school, where deep secrets generally rise to the surface rapidly. If students use journaling sites to attack other students or teachers, we generally find out and are able to deal with those issues. Students, for the most part, self-supervise -- in part, I believe, due to their enormous access to communication tools via their laptops, school online conferences, and an ingrained habit of online communication at our school. In other words, students get a lot of practice under the eyes of adults within the school's electronic systems, and therefore, perhaps, they take that with them a tad bit more outside school when venturing into areas where the school has no direct control."

Who Are They?

The Education World Tech Team includes more than 50 dedicated and knowledgeable educational-technology professionals who have volunteered to contribute to occasional articles that draw on their varied expertise and experience. The following Tech Team members contributed to this article:

* Lucy Gray, MS computer science, The University of Chicago Lab Schools, Chicago, Illinois
* Fred Holmes, high school LanManager/Webmaster, Osceola Public Schools, Osceola, Nebraska
* Michael Hutchison, high school social studies teacher, Lincoln High School, Vincennes, Indiana
* Art Lader, teacher, Aiken High School, Aiken, South Carolina
* Nicholas Langlie, coordinator for BOCES technology, WSWHE BOCES (Washington, Saratoga, Warren, Hamilton, Essex Board of Cooperative Educational Services), Saratoga Springs, New York
* Howard Levin, director of technology, The Urban School, San Francisco, California
* Stew Pruslin, 3rd grade teacher, J. T. Hood School, North Reading, Massachusetts
* John Tiffany, high school science teacher, Wauseon High School, Wauseon, Ohio
* Katy Wonnacott, teacher, Signal Hill School, Belleville, Illinois
 

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08/09/2011



 

 

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