I’d like to share what I gain from using Twitter and other social networks (Facebook, Google Wave, LinkedIn, this blog, Library Thing, Delicious, and others), then I will be extrapolating my own experiences and knowledge to the broader topic of whether or not social networks should be blocked in schools. First, I am continually meeting new contacts that amaze and inspire me to do better. Just this last week, I have been speaking with a very interesting special education teacher in New York City, an educational technology professional from Australia, an elementary school teacher from California, and more. The diversity, experience, and skills of the people I meet online are astounding and it is an honor to be able to learn from many of them. Second, I am able to get outside of my limited box in Tennessee, USA. About half of the people I follow on Twitter are from outside the US – there are a wealth of excellent teachers all over. At the moment, I speak with many from Australia, Canada, and Europe and am looking to make more contacts from all locations. Third, this personal learning network keeps me on the forefront of educational technology and pedagogical techniques. I saved the searches #edchat and #edtech (click for public tweets) and these continually developing and updating conversations are tremendously helpful. Fourth, I become more productive because I want to give back to the community that I take so much from. Fifth, teachers are natural helpers and sharers; social networks allow us to increase these gifts. The people on the networks I follow have had universal goodwill towards each other; they do not always agree, but they are willing to help each other and share ideas and resources. Sixth, there is timely feedback on ideas. For example, after I wrote a blog on podcasting, I posted it to Twitter. Within an hour, I had 6 people reading it on the blog and someone sending me a follow-up message on Twitter. There is no waiting a week for a teacher to have time to look at my work and hopefully give me some constructive feedback; it is authentic and often almost instantaneous.
Despite the advantages that are listed above, almost all social networks are blocked in my school district. The only one that is allowed is LinkedIn. There is nothing wrong with LinkedIn; it is a social network for professionals. I am a member of as well, although I haven’t been on in a few weeks. It is the one social network that students will not be interested in using because none of their peers are using. It is safe. Furthermore, some of the central office staff use it, including the director, which shows that they see some value in social networks. Repeated attempts to get some social networks unblocked or for the district to install their own open-source alternatives (such as Moodle, Mahara, StatusNet, etc…) fell on deaf ears. For several years, I have been running my own Moodle server for myself and any teacher who wants to run a course there. (It is mostly for my staff, but if you need hosting for a course or two, email me.) I have also dabbled in using Mahara for social networking, blogging, and eportfolios. A colleague, scottac87, has had to run StatusNet microblogging tool on his own server. Unfortunately, teachers who are less technical or were not aware of these tools, just did not have a way to add it to their classes. I help everyone I can at my school, but there are about 40 schools in my district. Hopefully this post and, even more so, the groundswell that is building among the teachers and students will cause the district to rethink their position on this topic. I’ll not say that I am without bias, but I will do my best to treat the topic fairly and look at both sides of the issue in the rest of this post.
Although I am sure that I will miss something, below are the advantages to social networking as I see them. I will be discussing them in a broader context as they apply to middle and high school students.
- Networking and contacts – Students network and make contacts on their own whether we allow them to or not. Almost all of my students have both a Facebook and a MySpace account. Some even have Twitter and Google Wave accounts. Even without this, they exchange phone calls, text messages, and emails almost without thinking. It is a part of human nature to be in relationship. We can either encourage this and be a constructive part of their relationship building, which can help them in this process, or we can be a hindrance to it. Not allowing social networks, restricting student conversations, forcing the students to interact only on our terms when we see fit, all show that we as educators are far more concerned with our own agenda than with what students want and need.
- International acculturation – As I mentioned above, social networks are ideal methods to connect with others across the globe. I live in a military town, so it sometimes seems like no one was born here. However, I still have a large number of students who have never left the town that they were born in. Social networks make it easy for teachers to meet other teachers around the world and for those teachers to help their respective students connect. This experience is really beneficial to students and helps to broaden their world view.
- Increased productivity – I have seen this so many times over the last few years. When students are working together on a common goal (not just an assignment they were forced to cooperate for, but something they buy into and want to do), they will work harder to accomplish that goal. None of the students participating will want to let down the other students. Social networks allow them to communicate, collaborate, and keep each other up to date. A few weeks ago, I saw a student sharing notes (not cheating) and communicating a homework assignment on Facebook. The social network, instead of distracting, actually helped a student to get his work done properly and on time.
- Increased openness and interdependence – Our school Moodle forums attest to the fact that boundaries that exist in person do not always exist online. Students feel more comfortable to be honest. When social networks are properly leveraged, the students’ honesty is rewarded with trust and cooperation. Students learn to value each other and to help each other.
- Authentic, timely feedback – Unfortunately, many teachers still wait anywhere from 1 to several weeks to return work. Any waiting more than 2 or 3 days, and the feedback is no longer useful or relevant to the student. Social networks allow students to give each other feedback, sometimes even instantly. That feedback becomes a lifeline for students; it helps them learn and grow. Teachers who understand the value of good feedback can learn from this and participate by giving authentic, timely feedback via social networks as well.
- Current information – Students often seem to live in the now, even if it sometimes makes it difficult for history teachers (past) and guidance counselors (future). Social networks tap into this. Twitter is a real-time search engine; Facebook has a “Live Feed.” Social networks help students to learn about the most current information on whatever topic they are interested in. Whether there interests lie in Aristotelian philosophy or their friend’s taste in clothing, we should still be giving them the skills to find the most recent information in the best way we can. To eliminate social networks entirely is to limit the students.
- Teach students responsible Internet use – This has always been an important issue for me. IT staff are not meant to be the morality police. Granted, I understand the need to block pornography and sites that promote illegal activity; however, the goal of education is to help students learn not to shield students from experiences. We need to teach the students how to use the Internet responsibly and how to react when they come across something undesirable. Social networks can help in this regard because each community of users set its own norms and keeps its members accountable to them. Students learn how to interact responsibly in a community and contribute back to it thoughtfully.
I promised to treat the topic of social networks honestly and as impartially as possible. There are some disadvantages that need to be understood fully before social networks are implemented.
- Distraction – Most administrators experience with social network involves students going to proxy servers to bypass the school’s firewall to message about topics unrelated to the content that they are supposed to be studying. There is a large risk of distraction when students are given free reign on social networks or poor assignments. This can be avoided by careful planning. When students want to do the work, they are much less likely to be distracted. Furthermore, when the teacher designs how the lesson around how the students will properly interact with the social network and make clear the expectations and the consequences for not meeting the expectations.
- Inappropriate Content – There are two basic types of social networks: those that you run and those that you don’t. If you or your school installs StatusNet, a Twitter clone, they can monitor and moderate it. It is installed on the school’s (or teacher’s) servers, so they ultimately have control over all aspects. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace are much larger and beyond the control of a school district. Facebook has more users than most countries have people. The school or teacher has to teach the students about what is and is not appropriate online. There is the risk that a student may find something inappropriate. In fact, someone probably will over the course of a year, but that is not a great concern if the students are equipped with how to handle those situations.
- Danger – There have been cases of young people meeting someone online and then meeting them in person only to be hurt, kidnapped, etc… While I do not desire to detail all of the crimes that have been committed on chat rooms and social networks, it is a real danger. It can be minimized by teaching students how to interact with others online and teaching them about safety. When students are properly informed, social networks in school are, in my opinion, much less dangerous than having a student walk to the bus stop alone in the dark.
There are many potential reasons that school may block social networks. My district has not given an official statement, so I can only speculate. These are what I believe are the most likely reasons. I am not listing fear, as that is too nebulous a term for what I believe most school districts have to consider.
- Worry over the above listed cons – The cons that I mentioned are real and many school districts do not feel equipped to handle them. Students need to be taught how to use social networks safely and responsibly, but many school districts do not believe that they have enough qualified personnel to instruct the students thoroughly.
- Worry over loss of control – When a school chooses to let students use a social network, particularly an established social network (as opposed to installing one locally), they are willingly giving up a modicum of control. Schools are designed to control students. I would posit that giving the students more freedom (with appropriate guidance and observation) is a good thing. It helps students to become self-motivated and engaged.
- Traditional school mindset is to contain students – The way that many schools work, in my limited experience, is to try to control students from all aspects. We determine when the can sit, stand, talk, eat, walk, etc… To purposely give some freedom to students would be to break a very established paradigm and it is difficult to do with the inertia in the educational institution.
- Lack of understanding – Many administrators do not seem to understand what social networks are and what power they have. They see them only as tools of distraction, not as something productive.
- Misunderstanding teen psyche – Teens thrive in relationship; they need to know that people care about them. Many administrators are realizing this as more and more research proves it, but it is not translating from research to practice quickly enough. Social networks should not be the only means of relationship between students and teachers, but it should be an extension of that relationship.
I am sure that I have missed much in the advantages, disadvantages, and reasons for blocking social networks. I am very passionate about this issue, so I would appreciate any comments. The issue basically is very simple. Students are going to use social networks whether we let them or not. As the current crop of teachers become younger and more tech savvy, they are going to use social networks as well. Do we harness the power of this tool and teach the students how to use it safely, or do we ignore it and keep students in the boxes we so often try to put them in? While ignoring social networks and blocking them seems like the safe choice, it is dangerous and borderline negligent. If we keep blocking all social networks, especially without giving students as alternative, then someone is going to get hurt because we did not prepare them for what they would face online.