Connecting Students with a Social Network

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Well I’m not sure if it was official, but one of the overriding themes at the CUE conference seemed to be social networking.  Just looking over the conference program I can find at least a dozen listings for the words “social network,” a probably a few dozen other terms related to social networking, such as Ning, Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.  Many of my conversations with fellow educators revolved around how we could use these tools with our students.  On Thursday I had the opportunity to listen to Mike Lebsock, teacher in Fresno, describe how he uses Ning with his 8th grade students.  For those of you who have never used a Ning, its a private social network and users can set one up for any group or topic.  As a matter of fact, I started one a few weeks ago to build a community of instructional technology educators in my school district.

Lebsock uses his Ning to create a digital hub for his students.  Its a place where his students can log in and access class resources, but its much more than just a class website.  Since Lebsock’s digital hub is a social network students are also able to maintain personal profile pages.  This provides student by-in to the classroom website, meets them in “their world” with a technology they enjoy using, and provides opportunities to authentically discuss cybersafety and ethical online behavior.  While I applaud the way Lebsock is using social networking technology in his classroom, I am concerned with using the Ning product with students.  Users who have Ning accounts can use those accounts to start their own Ning or join other networks.  Personally, I’d feel a whole lot more comfortable with a hosted solution like Elgg or BuddyPress where teachers and school administrators have ultimate control over the network and student profiles.  I like the Elgg network created by Jim Klein in Saugus Unified School District for this reason.

One of my CUE presentations, Web 2.0 – Six Degrees of Separation?, had a social networking component and the feedback I received was interesting.  At the end of the session nearly half of the room stayed to discuss how we could effectively and safely use social networks with our students.  During the conversation no one, I repeat no one, shunned the technology.  I found that amazing.  Not too long ago the mere mention of MySpace for Facebook could shut down a room full of educators.

Yesterday I stumbled across this post by Will Richardon discussing an article from Ed magazine on social networking.  “Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with my Homework” discusses the educational potential of sites like MySpace and Facebook and follows the research of Christine Greenhow.  Greenhow and her colleagues interviewed some 1,200 low-income students in 13 high schools in the Minneapolis, St. Paul area and their findings were pretty interesting.  Here are some highlights from the article.

“Even though students came from families with incomes at or below $25,000 a year, 94 percent of them used the Internet, with 82 percent logging on from home. Of these, 77 percent had profiles on social networking sites…”

“Greenhow and her colleagues started asking targeted questions about what students themselves thought they actually learned from these sites, finding that more than half of them recognized they were getting some kind of education along with hanging with their friends. The highest percentage identified technical skills (65 percent), followed by creativity (61 percent), appreciation for diversity (46 percent), and communication skills (43 percent). Not ready to take their word for it, the researchers then did a more detailed content analysis of the home pages of several dozen students, followed by a rigorous “talkabout” with 11 students, in which researchers watched as students logged on and navigated their sites. The anecdotal findings mirrored the more quantitative data with actual examples.”

“What was more surprising to her (Greenhow), however, is how few teachers were using the Internet at all — and even fewer were aware of, much less using, social networking sites, despite their heavy usage by students. “It is the kids who are leading the way on this,” she says. “They are forming networks with people they meet every day as well as people they have barely met. If we can’t understand what kids are doing and integrate these tools into a classroom, what kind of message are we sending them? I think we’ll see an even bigger disconnect than already exists.”

So after a week of listening, presenting, and reading I’m reminded to give social networking a closer look.  There’s a lot of power in this technology by connecting to students on their level and showing them how to use social networking tools effectively and safely.

Joe

Photo: Plugged In by SkipSteuart on Flickr

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