Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Social networking in the classroom: Learning by Stealth

'We cannot have social networking during school hours', stated our CEO today. Oops....but that is what I do....well in a good way. How can we not encourage social networking if it has valid educational outcomes?

I tried to explain that my class does not end when the students work out the door. The collaboration, interaction and socialisation continues. My students interact with each other, they interact with me, their teacher, via online tools of various names and varieties which could all come under the broad term of 'social networking'. They have their own online areas, including digital portfolios, as well as community areas. They post to blogs and respond to each other. They are out there using social bookmarking, folksonomy, class wikis, creating podcasts and vodcasts and putting them online, using social imaging (flickr) and anything else I can think of to encourage motivation and excitement in their ultimate quest for learning. I do not apologise for this. I do not essentially see anything wrong with this in 21st century learning. In fact this approach has changed my whole teaching style and changed the way I interact with the students. The development of PLEs (personal learning environments) and ubiquitous and mobile computing means I now start my classes with '...open your blogs, refer to the class wiki...etc' rather than '..take out your books and copy from the board'.

However, I will add that I agree with my CEO that non-focused, time-wasting activities during school time are to be discouraged. The fact that these may now be taking an online route is not as relevant as the fact that there are hundreds of other 'non-focused and time-wasting' activities that students participate in everyday, it just happens that 'social networking' in its raw, perhaps misunderstood form, is in the limelight and teachers who encourage it are under the microscope for potential anarchic tendencies.

There is a very good article in this months Learning and Leading (ISTE) magazine called 'My Space or Yours', written by Joanne Barrett. If you are quick you can download a free copy this month (otherwise join ISTE for free PDF's all the time). It claims that a social networking site is typically one where users set up an account with a web page and/or blog and can post photos, text and other content. They can create profiles and link to other community members through common interests.

Joanne writes, "Social networking sites have taken us, educators, outside of our comfort zone. Like all other new technologies, we need to explore how we can continue to educate students about how to use these sites wisely. Blocking them from our school networks and encouraging our students not to use them certainly has brought a shift to our thinking.........Teaching safety about sites that aren't accessible on our schoool resources seems counter-intuitive for teachable moments."
I am not going to start a diatribe tonight about network filtering, a lot has already been blogged about this with DOPA recently. Needless to say we will never be able to fully block what we fear will harm us, therefore block or not we must instigate educational approaches and programs and do what we do best as teachers...teach! about inherent dangers to do with online interaction.

My recent adventures with ELGG have led me more into a social networking environment and I need to try and explain this to the school administration that this is a worthwhile and useful learning tool. My new blog In Touch with a Flat World is where I will be talking more about these classroom and day-to-day experiences here in Bangladesh implementing Web 2.0 ideas and tools.

In the words of Steve O'Hear about Social Network Software for Education: ELGG provides each user with their own weblog, file repository (with podcasting capabilities), an online profile and an RSS reader. Additionally, all of a user's content can be tagged with keywords - so they can connect with other users with similar interests and create their own personal learning network. However, where Elgg differs from a regular weblog or a commercial social network (such as MySpace) is the degree of control each user is given over who can access their content. Each profile item, blog post, or uploaded file can be assigned its own access restrictions - from fully public, to only readable by a particular group or individual.

And according to Amy Poftak on Introducing social netwroking for the educational set: Part of a growing class of open-source tools that lets users create their own profiles and connect with others, Elgg offers a special twist. It's designed exclusively for learners.....How personal is it? Users can craft a profile detailing their likes and dislikes, upload their favorite files, create blogs, post podcasts, pipe in RSS feeds, and use key words to connect with like-minded people. Access controls make it possible to keep your profile private or available to selected users if you don't want the whole world to see it.

So, I am using social networking during the school day.....shhhhh, don't tell the CEO....yet.

Finally, in the words of Graham Attwell on Personal Learning Environments: The danger is that the education system will become irrelevant to many peoples learning needs. It will be seen as an imposition. Young people will turn to social spaces for communication and developing ideas. Access to quality learning provision for adults will be dependent on companies and private training providers.The most compelling argument for the PLE is to develop educational technology which can respond to the way people are using technology for learning and which allows them to themselves shape their own learning spaces, to form and join communities and to create, consume, remix, and share material.

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Miguel Guhlin (@mGuhlin) said...

Julie, thanks for such an erudite post. Robert Quinn (Deep Change author) writes that all transformative leaders "break" the rules. Not one of them sticks to the rules...in fact, being a transformative leader involves breaking the rules.

As an ed-tech administrator, I applaud your willingness to set the rules aside, redefine what is good in education, and taking up the question of irrelevancy. What is irrelevant in schools is what we should be doing...and what is relevant (high stakes tests) is what we should NOT be doing. The debate forces everyone--especially teachers--to finally step up to the voting booth and think.

More thoughts here:

Thanks again,
Miguel Guhlin
Student of the Irrelevant

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

I agree that banning kids from social networking sites will only make it more appealing as a "forbidding fruit" of some kind.

The sites are a fascinating social experiment and there is much that can be taught using them from communication to business lessons. I think the key to introducing this sort of thing without backlash from on high is to stress internet safety first so kids will have the tools they need to protect themselves.

There has been so much discussion lately of the dangers of social networking sites - apparently 1 in 7 kids was sexually solicited online in 2005! I hope that teachers and parents are teaching internet safety tools and arming kids with resources - like the Cybertipline to report solicitations - so that they (and their parents!) can feel safe online and allow them to enjoy these sites for what they are - because lord knows they are not going anywhere any time soon!

Chloe Root said...


I really appreciated your post about using social networking sites as educational tools. I have found it helpful to use Facebook as a mode of communication with students (particularly those who are frequently absent!), and am inspired by your use of such tools in the classroom, too! Keep up the good work and doing what works for you and your kids–hopefully eventually the administration will come around!


Chloe said...

P.S. Thanks for the ISTE article as well - some wise words!

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