A recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 73 percent of online teens use social-networking sites. Updating their Facebook or MySpace page has become a regular activity for teens as is using these services to catch up on what their peers are doing. But, for the most part, teens are using social networking while they are away from school. Many schools actually ban access to services like Facebook and Twitter and often configure filtering programs to block students from accessing them.
While I can understand why it might not be educationally relevant for schools to allow students to polish their online profiles while in school, I worry that schools are disallowing the very technology that kids are using for their informal communications and learning. As my ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier blogged on NetFamilyNews, "Gutenberg's press, was pretty controversial back in the day (15th c.) and probably didn't make it into 'school' for a while."
Today, of course, books are a staple in school but, as any trip to a bookstore will illustrate, not all books are appropriate for classrooms. Should educators ban books because some books are "bad?" Of course not. Educators select appropriate books for use in class and incorporate them into the educational process.
The same should be true of social networking. While I'm not convinced that school filters should prevent kids from accessing sites like Facebook and MySpace from school computers during breaks, I can understand why educators would mostly avoid them for classroom use. Of course, there are pages on these sites with educational value, so it makes sense more sense for teachers to be granular by allowing access to appropriate social-networking pages rather than banning them entirely.
Social networking designed for schools
But it also makes sense to think about ways to incorporate specialized social networking tools in class. The Flat Classroom Project is one example where educators have built social-networking sites (mostly using Ning) specifically for use in class and home assignments. Not only does this allow for educationally relevant communication for students in the classroom, but for them to interact with students in far away classrooms both in the U.S. and abroad so students around the world can reach and learn from each other.
Fortunately, the idea of school-based social networking is starting to take hold. It has caught the attention of Mary McCaffrey, CEO of SchoolCenter. School Center, which bills itself as a "Web solutions company in the education market," is in the process of developing social-networking tools marketed specially to schools. These tools will encourage students to interact with each other, using many of the same techniques they do when away from school but focused on their educational mission.
I spoke with McCaffrey not only about what her company plans to offer but about what many schools are currently missing.
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