Apr 3, 2007
There has been much discussion of late about the potential of social networking in the K-12 environment. These tools, which include blogging, podcasting, file sharing, and RSS, as well as the "social" structure of friendships, communities, and peers, have been said to have the potential to transform both teaching and learning, and rightly so. They enable creativity through easy to use tools, and encourage collaboration and sharing.

Our district has realized some amazing, quantifiable benefits, from improved science scores as a direct result of teacher review podcasts and group science projects to improvements in reading, writing, and language fluency, not to mention increased confidence and student engagement. We have communities of teachers developing and testing content, sharing ideas, discussing technologies, and communicating with their respective communities. We have students doing research outside of the base curriculum, both in groups and individually, to develop informational podcasts. Second graders are collaborating on creative writing and podcasting projects, while fourth graders post class reviews. In short, the concept of community is alive and well at Saugus.

So what's the problem, then? Why aren't more schools getting involved with social networking for teachers and in the classroom? I believe the problem is a matter of approach. Everyone is searching for that "Myspace for education" out there on the internet. And there are plenty of people trying to build one - from Ning to Eduspaces to Imbee there are quite a few to look at, yet none are really seeing much more than casual interest. A few bold teachers have engaged them, but most have simply ignored.

Why? The answer is quite simple: these external sites don't feel safe and comfortable. Teachers want to know that they can control who has access to their content, and they want to have complete control and oversight over their students' posts, including comments. They want to be sure that theirs and their students' content:
  • Won't end up on a site where just anybody can post
  • Won't get lost in a huge space full of unrelated and/or irrelevant content
  • Won't be in a place where something objectionable might be posted and consequently be associated with it
  • Is easy to find
  • Is generally associated with their school or district
In addition, they want a space that:
  • Includes people they know or feel a semi-direct association with
  • Is customizable, providing tools and templates that allow them to "take ownership" of their space
  • Provides sophisticated access controls that allow them to keep items private, share them with individuals or groups, or with their school or district, as well as with the public at large
In short, they want a low risk, highly relevant environment to collaborate in.

While many of the solutions on the web provide some of this capability, they all suffer from an inability to meet at several of the above listed needs. I have yet to see a good one that offers strong access controls and student oversight as an online service.

The reality is that the only way to meet all these needs is to host the social networking space locally. General purpose public spaces will always have shortcomings that scare teachers away, if for no other reason than that they are designed to be public. Creating a space at your school or district affords the ability to meet all the above needs and comfort levels.

Of course, there will be those that jump at the opportunity to be public, to be associated with the "global community" and so on. My experience (which is easily verified by simply perusing the various sites) has been that these are few and far between. We can talk about how great this site or that site is until we're blue in the face, but the reality is we'll likely never see any large scale adoption without meeting our teachers and students' needs.

Visit the SUSD Student Community to see what social networking can do to education.


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  1. Jim,
    I totally agree with what you have shared. My experience from the Tech Ed Conference shows that so little is being done with the availability of a curricular integrated concept in other districts. In a room full of educators(35-40)from elementary to college level for the last session on the last day of presentations I was surprised to see that only one had even tried podcasting.
    The biggest complaint is that there isn't enough time, in addition to locating a safe place to share the podcasts and blogs. Teachers also need to have a supportive IT department that wants to provide access.

  2. I also agree that locally hosted social networks are a great idea for this community. Web 2.0 has changed the look, feel, and function of the web and while teachers are scratching the surface and getting excited about the possibilities, this is uncommon territory for most of us and that breeds caution. Most of the externally hosted spaces have tools in place to create the safety that teachers desire, but knowing how to use them is a problem. With a local community, we can just bug you guys if we need help. Another thing that happens with external hosting is the stigma of possibly being associated with things that have had bad press. My Space is a good example. People have seen so many negative examples of how it's used that it's hard to entertain the possibility that something good could happen there, educationally. Using the same sorts of tools, the whole package can be re-wrapped and stamped with "Saugus" and viola!- stigma gone. Education is a strange practice from a teacher's point of view (well, from this teacher anyway). It can be a really messy job. Not every lesson works right, not every student story is perfect, and sometimes the things that students write about (their interests) are not "school appropriate" *gasp*. Social networks that put raw student communication out for public consumption put a kind of video camera in the classroom. It allows people to see student work live and uncut. That can be very intimidating to teachers. As I see it, we either have to get comfortable with the idea of "rawness" of information that seems to be inundating the web, or we need tools that simulate the web, but only exits in the shelled-off space of the classroom. Classrooms have always been a microcosm of the world, why not our communication tools likewise be a microcosm of the web?

  3. Found this site while looking for example of Elgg.A bigger question is probably: Why hasn't social networking taken off in academia in general?It's a great tool for focusing attention on common concerns, course materials.One real problems are that there are too many sites to check, newsgroups are much easier.One example from real life: How to I find blogs and wikis that host content about future studies?I'm scanning one of the key documents from the 1970s (a 3 volume PhD thesis), and it makes sense to have a place to comment on it, update the references, and generally move it into the 21st century.I'm considering putting it on Vox, but there should be a way to add more structure to people's new contributions, more like wikipedia but with the ability to go back to the original source material as needed.Suggestions welcome

  4. Oh yes. The new communication mediums are irresistable for teachers, but for all the reasons David posts and more, they are not yet entirely appetizing for teachers to use in the classroom with students. I have found all the professional resources for communication very valuable for my own professional growth which does, eventually, enter the classroom in an indirect way. In such an instance it would not be useful to tie that type of communication to a single small district when you have the nation and the world at your disposal. For local "teacher-talk" any communication medium would need to be specific and have a value that could only be filled through local talk--like perhaps lesson study groups. :)Bonita

  5. Jim, excellent comments ... Here is a potential education social network solution that may meet your identified challenges successfully. We have developed a community-based social network platform for educators on the Internet called I-CAN (www.ican-network.com). As opposed to the horizontal (peer-to-peer) "facebook" type model, we use a vertical (learner-to-expert) model which is more structured and uses the participant (student/teacher) profile to "push" information (announcements, learning content, Internet news, e-mentors, job opportunities) to their individual web portals on the I-CAN platform. Because it is community based (i.e. a school district or other defined community), it can identify relevant content, participants, mentors, etc. prior to being allowed into the community. The community leadership can identify other communities that they may wish to share content, mentors and participant collaboration. So essientially it is a closed loop community (unless connected to other specific communities by choice) hosted by us, where we stack WEB 2.0 and smart technologies, to create a "safe" and structured environment for teachers and students to explore, discuss, create, publish and receive mentorship and interaction through virtual technologies.Jon Beard, CEO - Internet COmmunity Action Network, Inc. 919-848-8972 jonb@ican-network.com

  6. Hi Jim,Great writeupDevelopment of our application - EdWeb 2.0 - is focused on much of what you mention, and a way to do it at a district-centric level. So, your writeup helped to validate that what we are working on is needed and relevant.We've seen some success in using the newer pieces within it like here: http://edweb.pylusd.org/mkoenig for a simple, but controlled blog, and here: http://edweb.pylusd.org/golson for a teacher that's doing podcasting with student audio. But, like you mention, the time needed to create the audio, and plan the lessons is probably still a sticking point. The interest is there it seems, but the time available to do prep-work holds many back even once they have learned how to do it.Next phase is to begin carrying over what the teachers can do within EdWeb to the student portal side, available only internally at the district, but with some controlled exceptions. The goal there is to give the students an 'internal only' mySpace-like page, but with some accountability and responsibility for what they post there. Hoping to have that piece in place by the start of 2008/2009 school year in September.gthomson@tierrasoftware.com
    Developer of EdWeb 2.0

  7. I believe SUSD is a pioneer in the use of social media in K-12 education, particularly in L.A. County. We are happy to see that you have found a successful way to use it in the classroom.

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