"Social networking technologies give teens the chance to practice reading and writing literacy skills in real and meaningful ways. When teens use social networking they aren't just writing and reading for out-of-context classroom experiences, they are writing and reading in in-context experiences that have something to do with their real lives. Is there a better way to learn how to get ideas out there and find out what others are saying about the world in which we all live?"
--Linda Braun, YALSA, from here
I really like this quote. I have been thinking a lot about the usefulness of social networking tools in schools since the beginning of this course. Social networking sites are the only web 2.0 tools blocked on the school computers here. The news is full of teens bullying and being bullied with these sites. There is controversy about them being used for cheating. I was beginning to think sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo had no use in the classroom or library. After all, what can they do that blogs, wikis, and photo/video sharing sites can't? The quote above refers to all social networking (web2.0) tools, but I think it is particularly apt to sites like Facebook. Our teenage students are communicating through these sites: the Ashley Jones reports in the March 2008 edition of EContent that 55% of online teens have a social networking profile, and the number is climbing rapidly. To be honest, I'm surprised the number is that low.
So if we can't beat 'em, join 'em? As teachers and librarians, why not establish a presence on these sites and encourage our students to use them for good? There are Facebook groups dedicated to good causes that students could explore and participate in, or they could create their own to champion a local cause. Librarians could use Facebook groups to teach critical thinking and other information literacy skills as students navigate them looking for opinions on current events and issues. The sites are ready made for collaboration and could be an alternative for students trying to coordinate group work (though I'm convinced wikis or blogs would be better suited here). The incident at Ryerson is a great jumping off point for a discussion on academic honesty, abuse of technology, and the nature of collaboration. And, if monitored by teachers, I think these sites are a great way for students to study together, discuss school work and solve problems collaboratively.
The big 'but' is cyber bullying. The tragic case of Megan Meier may be an extreme, but it demonstrates just how destructive online bullying can be. Bullies feel emboldened by their sense of anonymity, and indeed, often targets don't know the identity of their tormentor. The Carol Brydolf's article in the October 2007 Education Digest Minding MySpace: Balancing the benefits and risks of students' online social networks describes a bullying situation at a school in California and how the school dealt with it. The school principal "decided that his devotion to free speech had to take a back seat to his responsibility as a school administrator." The student responsible for the bullying pulled his nasty post off Myspace and was suspended. The school then used the incident as a spring board for discussion. This is a tricky balance. We want to keep our students safe, but we want to encourage them to express themselves as well. So is the solution banning the sites outright, to save teachers, administrators, and librarians the trouble of striking that balance?
Keeping social networking sites of off school computers doesn't keep students from the sites. Sure, not all students will have access to them at home, but most will. So the bullying will still happen, but school staff won't know about it. Ignorance of a problem doesn't make it easier to solve. If, rather, we embrace these sites, use them, encourage students to push the potential of the sites, we can keep an eye on what is happening and address concerns right away. By being a part of our students' MySpace or Facebook or Bebo experience, we can help them learn how to stay safe and participate appropriately: skills they need on the Internet, and in life.
Another California school district in the Minding MySpace article takes an approach I'd like to see in more schools. Rather than hide from technology, they embrace it by providing every student in grade 6 and up with their own email address, web page, and access to discussion groups, and monitor them, rather than censor them. The district works hard to educate students on how to stay safe, and educate teachers and parents on how to monitor what kids are doing.
Stephen Abram, in the January/February 2007 edition of Multimedia and Internet@Schools, writes my new favourite analogy on this topic: banning social networking sites to keep students safe "is like teaching traffic safety to kindergarteners by banning roads." The problems with social networking sites are another opportunity for educators to bring current, relevant issues into the classroom for discussion, communication, and learning. We have a responsibility to prepare students for the real world, not a perfect world.
I was just about to end this blog when I found this comment on the Ning in Education site. Ning is a place to create your own social network, which could take care of some privacy and safety issues for schools. Basically, she argues that Ning, and social networks in general, are more like a conversation that a wiki can ever be, which may be more appealing to many people, particularly those most social of beings, teens. Something else I thought of was that students might be less intimidated commenting on a social network than on a wiki, since it is more of a conversation that the altering of a web page, although the way we ran our discussions on the wikis worked well enough for us grown ups.