So, What’s the Catch?
There is no catch. Social networking is a real boon to both students and teachers. However, there are some real risks. These risks can be minimized through proper instruction and implementation, but before any students start using social networks in your class it is wise to be aware of them. By recognizing the risks, you can take steps to minimize them so that students can focus on learning.
First, many social networks are blocked at school. My district blocks Twitter, Facbook, MySpace, YouTube, and only recently unblocked Ning after intense pushback from teachers. Teachers are often erroneously left out of the decision-making process when it comes to which sites to block and which to allow. Recently, I have spoken to administrators and technology directors about why they choose to block social networks; I have also asked teachers what the most common responses are when they want to use social networks with their students. Some of the answers I received are below:
- Social networks are of no educational value.
- Teachers and/or students do not have time to learn social networking skills.
- Social networks promote bad writing skills.
- Social networking sites are filled with viruses and can hurt your computer.
- Students will be too distracted.
- Students will find inappropriate and/or dangerous things online.
Unfortunately, I have fought these same battles repeatedly in several schools. It seems the same excuses are prevalent regardless of country or socioeconomic status. Since these fears are so widespread, I would like to take a minute to look into their validity and whether or not they schools are really fulfilling their obligation to protect students by blocking social networks.
The first issue is that social networks have no educational value. This was addressed in both the introduction to this chapter and the first chapter of the book. The educational value of any social network is determined by how a person chooses to utilize it. A student could get on Facebook to ask a question about a sporting event or about how to do the homework. To dismiss all social networks as being devoid of educational content is simply short-sighted.
The second issue is the idea that teachers and students do not have time to learn social networks. This is a fallacious excuse. While more is crammed into curricula than ever before, everyone makes times for those things that they find important and meaningful. Furthermore, students already have the skills. They just need to be taught how to safely use the skills they already have. Therefore, in most cases where people claim to not have time, they really need to be convinced that it is worth their time. Even in a packed curriculum, spending time up front to train students and/or teachers will pay dividends when students are able to become more invested in the learning process.
The third issue is that social networking sites promote poor writing skills. There may be some truth to this. The reality is that the trend started before social networks and would continue without them. Text messages were popular before social networks and limit messages to 160 characters. This limitation necessitated clever abbreviations to many. Twitter, Facebook, and other sites acclimate students to the idea of writing short posts. Whether or not social networks are allowed in schools, students will still use cell-phones and social networks outside of schools. Allowing the use of social networks in school can actually help remedy this issue depending on how it is implemented. When I have utilized social networking with my students, I explain that proper grammar, punctuation, etc… is expected in all school writing. Most comply easily; some will lapse over time, but you as the teacher just constantly reinforce the expectation and maintain high standards for you students. It is also wise to teach the students about context. It is not wrong to talk to friends using the local colloquia. Having said that, students need to be able to differentiate between contexts and choose which form of language is best in which context. This is a skill that will benefit them in many situations.
Among IT people, it is a common belief that social networks are riddled with viruses and malware that can harm your computer. Twitter and Facebook are often cited as examples. There is a grain of truth to this rumor as there are to many. This presents us with another teachable moment about Internet safety and as we constantly reinforce online safety it should not escalate into a problem. Almost all viruses and malware that are downloaded on social networks come from clicking on links. These links originate with someone. For example, someone online may write a post such as, “If you like watching baseball, click here! http://bit.ly/12323” There are a couple of things worth noting in this common example. First, the post catches the attention of a student interested in baseball. It could easily be about any subject a student might be interested in though. Second, the link was shortened. There are any number of services that shorten URLs (A URL is a web address, such as http://jasontbedell.com). The main reason these services exist is to make long URLs short enough to fit inside a message post. So, if you go to the URL in the example, it should take you to Google. However, it could take you anywhere.
The lesson here is threefold. First, never click on links from strangers. This is especially true if it is not about what you are working on for class. Second, never click on a shortened URL (This could look like http://bit.ly, http://tinyurl.com, http://ow.ly, http://goo.gl, and many others.) unless you are absolutely sure of the source. Many of the social networks that will be discussed here are closed social networks, This means that the only people who are going to be a part of the social network are members of your classes. This should all but eliminate the problem. If you choose to use a public social network like Facebook or Twitter, it just requires training your students on when they should click on a link. Third, never agree if the computer asks you to download something. Most schools have their computers setup so that students cannot download or install anything, which protects the computer. If not, we must continue to stress the importance of not agreeing to do anything we are not sure of. This may seem redundant, but continual repetition and reinforcement will help keep the students safe and the computers working.
The fifth issue is that students will be too distracted. In colleges and universities, where it is common for students to have laptops, many professors are squandering resources by not allowing students to use the tools they have to their greatest potential. Recently, a professor staged a demonstration in his class where he took a student’s (non-functioning) laptop, dipped it in nitrous oxide, and then smashed it. While the tool is different, the idea is the same. He did not want his students distracted.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it includes the assumption that without laptops or social networking, the students would all be sitting in rapt attention. I love seeing classrooms where every student is engaged, but that engagement does not come from taking away things that can make class more interesting. My first reaction to the professor after watching the video was that if the students are not paying attention, then maybe the professor is not interesting enough. However, that first reaction is not fair to all teachers. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try or how good a lesson, there will be a distracted student. It matters little whether this student is distracted by daydreams, tapping a pencil, or checking a post online. If the student is not engaged, often that means s/he is not learning.
Today, however, students are better able to multitask than ever before. While there is value in dedicating oneself solely to a task, expecting that of children for 6-8 hours a day is simply unrealistic. Anytime there are computers in the room, students will multitask. It is their nature. This gives us another chance to teach an important lesson: prioritization. Students must be able to rank tasks in order of importance. If your student thinks that the dance is more important than molecular biology, then we need to find a way to demonstrate the importance of the content area to that student.
Furthermore, let me explain how I function when I take graduate courses or attend conferences. I nearly always have my laptop. If not, I have a BlackBerry, an iPod Touch, or a notebook (rare). If the speaker is interesting, I am taking notes. If s/he is interesting, I am also posting questions and quotes to Twitter to get feedback from other teachers. If I find the speaker practically useful, I am simultaneously looking up links and resources on the topic being spoken about to further my own understanding. If the speaker is not interesting or I do not care about what the speaker is talking about, I start to drift to computer activities that are less related. If all I have is a notebook, I start to brainstorm ideas on unrelated projects, make to do lists, etc… As a teacher not too far removed from where the students are, I’ve learned to prioritize. If what I am doing or listening to has a lt value to me, I give it my full attention. Otherwise, how much attention I give the activity or speaker is directly proportional to how important it is to me. The kids need to learn these prioritization tools just as we need to continue to learn ways to make sure our class is a priority for them.
The sixth issue is the most difficult to eradicate. The Internet is slightly organized chaos. In that chaos, there are dangerous and inappropriate websites, information, and people. This is simple fact. The Internet has opened up the floodgates of information and no one can dictate the kind of information that is now available. If you have students use Facebook, Twitter, or Ning, there are groups of people that students, students’ parents, and/or administrators may find objectionable.
This is not, in and of itself, a reason to disallow social networks in our schools. When students are on the job, they will have the Internet open to them. They will have to deal with temptation and inappropriate content. If we do not teach the students how to best respond, then we are doing them a disservice. We need to help students understand the contexts in which to use social networks; we must help them learn to navigate the Internet safely; and we definitely need to explain what to do when they accidentally come across objectionable material, because that will happen at some point. These are not hard lessons. It just requires that we spend time up front having honest discussions with students and reinforce those principles throughout the duration of the school year.
This has been an excerpt from my new book, Techniques for Effective Technology Integration.