Online social networking includes much more than Facebook and Twitter. It is any online use of technology to connect people, enable them to collaborate with each other, and form virtual communities, says the Young Adult Library Services Association. Social networking sites may allow visitors to send e-mails, post comments, build web content, and/ or take part in live chats.
Social networking has quickly transformed how people of all ages work, play and shop—and even how we elect presidents. A 2010 Pew Study illustrates that it has become an integral part of the world beyond k12 schools. In the two years prior to the study, use among Millennials (ages 18 to 33) rose from 67 percent to 83 percent, every generation 45 and older more than doubled its participation, and adults 74 and older quadrupled their participation (from 4 percent to 16 percent).
Among students surveyed in a National School Boards Association study, 96 percent of those with online access reported using social networking, and half said they use it to discuss schoolwork. Despite this prevalence in everyday life, schools have been hesitant to adopt social networking as an education tool.
A 2010 study into principals' attitudes found that "schools are one of the last holdouts," with many banning the most popular social networking sites for students and sometimes for staff.
District and school administrators justifiably have questions about social networking: How can we protect students? What are the educational benefits? What policy issues need to be considered? There seem to be no quick or easy answers. as a result, the adoption of social networking for education purposes lags behind the public's general usage. Likewise, due to the newness of the phenomenon, empirical research is scarce.
Survey research confirms, however, that interest in harnessing social networking for educational purposes is high. As reported in School Principals and Social Networking in Education: Practices, Policies and Realities in 2010, a national survey of 1,200 principals, teachers and librarians found that most agreed that social networking sites can help educators share information and resources, create professional learning communities and improve schoolwide communications with students and staff. Those who had used social networks were more positive about potential benefits than those who had not. In an online discussion with 12 of the principals surveyed, most said, "social networking and online collaboration tools would make a substantive change in students' educational experience." They said these tools could improve student motivation and engagement, help students develop a more social/collaborative view of learning and create a connection to real-life learning.
In the Web 2.0 world of social networking, students are not only accessing online material but generating content and interacting with others. (The term "Web 2.0" simply refers to web applications that facilitate interaction and collaboration.) The consortium for school networking (CoSN) has outlined how states are addressing Web 2.0 technologies from a policy standpoint (see www.cosn.org/ initiatives/web2/aUPguide/tabid/8139/ Default.aspx).
Most national, state and local policies have not yet addressed social networking specifically; by default, it often falls under existing acceptable use policies (AUPs). While AUPs usually provide clear language on obscenities, profanity and objectionable activities, they also leave out gray areas that could open students to harmful activities while excluding them from certain benefits of social networking. Likewise, boilerplate policies that ban specific applications, such as Twitter, may miss other potential threats while also limiting the ability of students to collaborate across schools, districts, states or countries. The challenge for districts is to write policies that address potentially harmful interactions without eliminating the technology's beneficial uses.
CoSN notes that Arizona's Dysart Unified School District has updated its AUP to protect students while allowing room for flexibility. For example, the AUP specifies that teachers should never accept students as "friends" on personal social networking sites, but it allows teachers to incorporate the technology into the classroom as long as the plans are presented in advance to school administrators, fellow teachers and parents. (See "Sample Guidelines" for additional information.)
Social networking could become a vital part of the education environment if implemented effectively. In a 2008 study of high school students in the Midwest, researcher Christine Greenhow discovered that social networking expanded the students' abilities to perform work by "actually practicing the kinds of 21st-century skills we want them to develop to be successful today."
While some informal surveys suggest that students who spend the most time social networking have lower grades, causation has been difficult to establish. Meanwhile, a 2009 study by the British Council counters that students in the United Kingdom tend to learn more effectively in a social setting and recommends that teachers do three things to capitalize on this finding:
? Determine which social networking sites students like to use.
? Make students aware of free learning opportunities available via social networking sites like Second Life and Facebook.
? Show students how to set up their own blogs using free sites like WordPress.
The authors of a MacArthur Foundation white paper observe that social networking is most effective when educators can "link learners with others who might share their interests or - encourage students to publish works - [for] a larger audience." The technology offers unique opportunities for collaboration not only among teachers and students but also scientists, business leaders, artists and others from around the world. Social networking can be used to improve team-building skills or to create communities of students, teachers and/or others to discuss a specific subject—much the same way that people get together on Facebook to discuss stamp collecting or a musician.
In a white paper, Greenhow lists four other benefits of social networking:
? Meeting various students' needs, including emotional and cognitive support
? Challenging students to express themselves to multiply their audience
? Fulfilling various social learning functions, such as "obtaining peer support for creative endeavors and help with school-related tasks"
? Building students' communication and technology skills and understanding different points of view
Greenhow cautions, though that more studies are needed to determine how social networking interactions fit within the larger learning environment, how it complements educational values and how it affects "institutionalized approaches" to education.
In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan 2010 calls for "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering." The plan encourages all states and districts to experiment with social networks and other Web 2.0 technologies "both within and across education institutions" to expand collaborative learning opportunities for students and to create communities of practice among K12 teachers.
Stan Bumgardner is a freelance writer who has worked with the Virginia Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. Kirk Knestis directs research and evaluation at Hezel Associates in Syracuse, N.Y.