Schools Embrace Social Networking

Because they can easily be abused or often serve as distractions, many schools throughout the U.S. have blocked social media sites.  A few schools, however, are moving in the opposite direction and embracing the power of these tools as mediums for learning and exploration.  In addition to the main players, like Facebook and Twitter, a number of smaller social networking sites have cropped up.  Sites like Ning , VoiceThread , and SecondLife offer valuable opportunities for teachers and students to collaborate on projects or share best practices.

In the June 14th online edition of Education Week , Michelle Davis details some of the exciting possibilities in Social Networking Goes to School .

But it’s a world that some educators are realizing students feel at home in and is unlikely to disappear.  A study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released early this year found that 73 percent of Americans ages 12 to 17 now use social networking websites, up from 55 percent in 2006.

“Social networking is not going to go away,” says Steve Hargadon, the creator of the 42,000-member Classroom 2.0 network on Ning, a popular site among educators.  He’s also a social-learning consultant for the ed-tech company Elluminate, based in Pleasanton, Calif.  “These are so powerful in terms of learning,” Hargadon says of such tools.

Davis goes on to detail the many innovative ways these tools can be put to use in classrooms, including collaborative class projects that involve multiple schools across several continents.  A teacher at a school in Jacksonville, Florida, for example, utilized sites like Ning and Skype to connect students with peers around the world.  Each student was assigned a role and employed an online tool, like GoogleMaps or Twitter, to perform their assigned role.

Social networking sites also harness the power of collaboration to help solve problems and supplement instruction:

Students can also post questions on math homework at any time of the day or night.  Students can also post questions and answers to school math blogs, where a student struggling with algebra could find several classmates willing to walk him or her through a problem or even post video of the best way to solve it.

“The idea that kids would post blog items on solving linear equations was treated as a laughable concept” by the adults before the project launched, says Shawn Gross, the managing director for Digital Millennial Consulting, an educational technology firm based in Arlington, Va., that oversees Project K-Nect.  “The first week we had 75 students post videos on solving linear equations.”

And as many teachers are discovering, social networking tools are for more than just students.  Classroom educators are beginning to explore the professional development and training potential available through these tools, tools that tap into a much wider sphere than just an immediate peer group.

Social networking is allowing teachers, who often feel isolated in their classrooms, to revolutionize the way they connect with others, says Whitby, a former English teacher who is now an adjunct professor of education for secondary English at St. Joseph’s college in New York City.

Teachers are “finding out about a whole wide range of options beyond what is done in their own building,” he says.  “People are trying more things based on recommendations from teachers around the world.”

…In fact, Ning, a social-networking platform, is full of sites dedicated to different specialties – everything from geography to teaching English as a second language or first year teachers.

Given the ubiquity of social-networking, it’s good to hear about so many schools now finding innovative and useful ways to incorporate these tools into instruction.  If you haven’t yet given them a try, check out a few.  You may even find a few of use for your classroom.

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