Like most school systems, Bradley County Schools in Tennessee is divided on the use of social networking tools in the classroom. There are teachers and administrators who have embraced it whole cloth, others who are hesitantly dipping a toe in the water to check the temperature before diving in, and those who look at you quizzically when you even say the words “social networking.”
As a tech coach for four secondary schools in our moderate-sized, 10,000-student district just north of Chattanooga, it is at least part of my job to help teachers navigate the waters of what is available, safe, and accessible. If I were pressed on the issue, I would say that there is a limited but growing use of social networking throughout our system.
A Skype Evangelist
For me, the whole voyage into social networking started with a simple program called Skype. It didn’t really start at school. My oldest daughter moved several states away, and my youngest granddaughter went with her. We started using Skype in order for me to “visit” with them more personally. It wasn’t long before the 2-year-old was walking past the computer, pointing, and saying, “Papaw.”
From there, Skype started to become a staple of my daily life in the classroom. At the time, I was responsible for four computer labs at one of our middle schools. The teachers in our cohort didn’t have a common planning period, so we stayed on Skype all day in a group chat talking about lesson plans, making last-minute changes to the day’s activities, and dealing with student issues and a host of other topics.
Soon, I was a Skype evangelist trying to bring as many teachers on board as I could.
In order to kick-start the use of Skype as a networking tool, I collaborated with an English teacher at the middle school across town. Using our personal laptops and webcams, we connected our classes for a writing activity. We co-taught a lesson to both classes based on the idea of digital storytelling. By the time our kids were done, they were marching up to the camera one at a time to read their stories to an authentic audience in another location. They loved it, and we were hooked.
Today, Skype has its own social networking website for educators (http://education.skype.com) where teachers can find others who want to connect classes, do interviews, share teaching time, and more. And like every other social networking tool that matters, it is free.
From Consternation to Coordination—Edmodo, Google Docs, and More
The two big names in social networking these days are Facebook and Twitter. We have much less of a presence on these sites than I envision. There are teachers using these sites to create their Personal Learning Network (PLN), but using them to connect to students is rare in our district. A couple of schools now have Facebook pages primarily aimed at public relations, and at least one has a Twitter profile where athletics and school announcements are posted infrequently.
These are sites where some consternation still crops up. Some teachers are on Facebook all the time with status updates about family, school, weekend activities, and other interesting but often meaningless information (my hand would be raised high here). The problem stems from the fact that our district has no policy on the use of sites such as these. Teachers don’t know if it is safe to connect to students online. Some have lots of students as “friends” on Facebook while others won’t connect to any students at all until they graduate from high school. However, the majority of teachers do not have a Facebook account at all. The whole social networking craze is simply not on their radar.
As an answer to this dilemma, our district has begun to experiment with Edmodo. Edmodo is a free social networking site geared toward education. I first set up an account with Edmodo 3 years ago and quickly forgot about it as I could not get other teachers excited about what they could do with it. This year, however, Edmodo partnered with FETC (Florida Educational Technology Conference) to create back-channel groups for every single presentation offered. It so happened that, for the first time, all the technology coaches from our district were at FETC, and when they logged in, they were hooked.
Overnight, we set up a district account that would allow us to create separate school accounts. We began offering training. As teachers created accounts, they immediately began populating classes with students. Edmodo gives them the opportunity to share files, create assignments, keep a current grade book, and more. Teachers’ fears about student online safety are easily laid to rest because students can only interact with the teacher or with the class as a group.
Over time, we feel that Edmodo could become the “hub” for all our online instruction.
One other way we are connecting students and teachers is through Google Docs. Teachers are now creating planning documents that are shared with other grade-level or subject-specific teachers. Each teacher has access to the document and adds his or her part of the plan. Several teachers can be logged into the document at the same time to edit or create. Collaboration is in real time, yet teachers can be across the world from one another.
More and more teachers are creating documents for their students to use as a collaborative study or research tool. Small groups or entire classes of students can share a single document. Each one is responsible for part of the notes on a chapter of the textbook, a paragraph of an essay, or sections of a research paper. Almost like their own private Wikipedia, students edit each other’s work so that the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Filter Factor
Social networking at school is not without its problems. The biggest of these difficulties can be summed up in one word: filters. In Tennessee, sites such as Skype, Twitter, and Facebook are all blocked. When you ask why, the answer is simple: They are social networking or telephony sites, and such sites are unacceptable for children according to Tennessee’s interpretation of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
I have always found these answers unacceptable. Skype’s website may be blocked, but it works if you download the program at home to a USB drive and install it on your computer at school. If you use the secure form of a URL (https://), sites such as Twitter and YouTube are suddenly accessible (a fact that most of our students know but try not to let teachers in on the secret).
Smartphones also help bypass the filters put in place by the state’s internet service provider. Teachers and students alike use their phones to browse the web unimpeded by the school’s filtering system. And with an app such as Flipboard, both Facebook and Twitter open on the iPad, despite the filters in place.
The Fear Factor
Another problem with social networking can also be summed up in one word: fear. Allowing students to collaborate online is simply too risky for some teachers. They are afraid if a student does something unforeseen the teacher could lose his or her job. Administrators often cannot help the situation because they don’t understand how these sites work and the educational value they can provide. In addition, the companies that filter these sites simply don’t (or won’t) think as educators.
Social networking is a powerful force throughout the world. We’ve recently seen the power of Twitter and other microblogging tools in Egypt and Libya. The entire world uses these tools everywhere … except inside many classrooms. The solution to this dilemma may be easier than we think.
Words are powerful things. They have the ability to change our reality, not just our perception of reality. Words are so powerful that they may cloud our own thinking at times.
The phrase “social networking” can conjure up images of kids doing what kids do when they socialize—party, share music, gossip, and, sometimes, get involved in risky behavior. Teachers and parents frown on this type of activity anywhere, but especially in school.
‘Academic Networking’ to the Rescue!
When I discussed the ideas of this article with a friend of mine, she hit on an idea I feel has extreme merit. She thought a paradigm shift might be in order.
What would happen, she asked, if we simply changed the phrase “social networking” to “academic networking”? The replacement of one word changes its entire focus from something parents and teachers might be afraid of to something they would wholeheartedly endorse. That simple twist changes the reality of those who were afraid.
Seen through the lens of academic networking, the utility of sites for educational purposes suddenly rises to the fore. The question changes from “Is this safe?” to “Is this the tool we need?” The paradigm shifts from connecting for the sake of connecting, like hanging out at the mall, to connecting in order to learn, grow, research, and develop.
So I would propose that we begin to talk about academic networking when we are making presentations to administrators, teachers, and parents. Perhaps we can get administrators to see the value in what students will learn from one another. Perhaps changing the paradigm will open the door to tools teachers feel are otherwise forbidden. Perhaps parents will encourage their children to participate in online academic networking. After all, it isn’t the students we have to convince.
Tim Childers is currently serving as the secondary technology coach for Bradley County Schools in Cleveland, Tenn. He is also the blog coordinator for the Tennessee Discovery Educator Network (DEN) Leadership Council and has been labeled a DEN Guru in the area of Project Based Learning. You can follow Tim’s random thoughts about education at his blog, Tinkerings (www.timchilders.com). Reach him by email at email@example.com.