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Online Edge

Building Networks in Schools

Creating your own social network is easier than you might think.

Think of social networks in schools and you probably think of trouble. MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and the rest seem more of a challenge than an opportunity to districts around the world despite the fact that students are participating in droves outside of school walls. But some new free tools are making it easier to bring social networking into the curriculum, giving schools the ability to help students leverage the connections they make online in safe and effective ways.

In my last column, I wrote about the National School Boards study that showed the great extent to which our students are already using the Web to connect socially online irrespective of school. The bottom line, like it or not, is that we have to educate our kids on how to flourish and learn in these new environments. Our students need to be clear about what posting that less-than-appropriate picture might mean for their future-that they are building a personal portfolio that will follow them all of their lives. And they need to have the skills to navigate what is a much more complex world when it comes to their own privacy and personal identity online.

Enter, a social networking tool that was created by Marc Andressen, developer of the Netscape browser. As the site tagline states, at Ning you can "create your own social network for anything." And that includes schools. Members can create their own blogs on the site if they like, but they can also connect via discussion groups about their interests.

Classroom 2.0: Social Network

One look at the "Classroom 2.0" Ning site shows the potential. There you will find one of the most successful Ning sites of all, with over 3,000 educator members sharing ideas, links, photos and videos and collaborating in various projects. often it's used as a clearinghouse for ideas; it's not unusual to see posts like "Starting a Wiki Project: Need Advice" on a regular basis. And that's what makes this particular site so powerful, I think; it's a place where teachers can participate and begin to understand the potentials and pedagogies they might use before bringing them to students. Teachers new and old to these shifts have created some powerful connections on the site according to its creator, Steve Hargadon, who now consults with Ning regarding educational use of the site.

The power of social networking lies in the connections students build.

"It's a lot easier to dip your toes in the world of Web 2.0 by making a comment on someone's post than to set up your own blog," Hargadon says. "Here someone can start being a part of the dialogue at a pace that is comfortable for them."

And that, as millions of kids are already learning, is where the power of social networking lies: the conversations and the connections they build. From a classroom perspective, Ning allows for the study of those connections in safe ways, giving teachers complete control over who can access and use the site. That's why Kim Cofino, a second-grade teacher at the Bangkok International School in Thailand, chose it for a collaborative project her students are doing with a school in Maryland called "Global Village."

Parents as Part of the Network

"Ning is password protected, and it has a really easy user interface that even younger kids can work with," Cofi no said. "And it makes it easy for us to invite our parents in to participate in the project as well."

Ning in and of itself won't solve many of the other issues associated with social networking, the types of issues that revolve more around the actions and choices students take regardless of the technology they are using. And, as with just about any Web 2.0 technology, safe use depends on the user, not the tool. But what it can do is provide a way to begin to deal with issues of cyberbullying and harassment, safe and ethical use, and the building of global learning networks in a much more managed space.

Will Richardson is a contributing editor for District Administration and The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate,