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A Pioneer of Social Networking

A California IT director leads his district in rethinking writing instruction and pedagogy.

Jim Klein, director of information services and technology at the Saugus (Calif.) Union School District, is leading an ambitious plan to rethink how writing is taught in his schools. It’s centered not just on social tools but on planning for and executing writing in multimedia as well.

“We use social media tools across the curriculum from as early as first grade,” Klein says, citing student use of blogs to write and publish podcasts and other presentations on SlideShare. “Writing is at the center of all of their activities, regardless of the delivery mechanism, and the process is often structured to produce a collaborative result.”

Klein started using social networking, specifically Elgg, in his district in 2005. Elgg is student-centered and “eliminates boundaries,” Klein says, which means students in any grade can read what other students are doing in other grades, and anyone can respond. But teachers have their own blogs and their own lessons under their own accounts, which keeps students focused. They also have their own separate social network, or “personal learning network,” in which to share and collaborate with other teachers.

Any comments from anyone, including students and outsiders, are read first by the teacher to ensure they contain nothing inappropriate, threatening or vulgar, Klein says. He recalls a few instances where comments had to be blocked, but they were more from peers or a family member. For example, rude comments made by an “older brother being obnoxious to his little brother” would not be posted, he says.

During the 2007-2008 school year, a graduate student conducted a study of student writing online that showed fifth-grade students “were more motivated to write and thought better of their own writing,” Klein says.

In 2008-2009, the district also implemented SWATTEC, or Student Writing Achievement Through Technology Enhanced Collaboration, a program that targets fourth-grade writing, information literacy and Internet skills in a technology-rich environment. Every fourth-grader received as ASUS Eee netbook and used social media tools and Vantage Learning’s MyAccess evaluation software for learning. As a result of a newfound motivation to write generated by increased access to 21st-century tools, test results showed a 24 percent increase in English language arts scores from 2008 to 2009, with 79 percent of fourth-graders scoring proficient.

Now about half of the teachers in grades 1 through 6 use social networking in their classes. Not every teacher is comfortable or wants to use it, Klein says.

Klein sees himself as a pioneer of sorts. “We always talked about it as a learning environment, not a social network,” he says. “We take advantage of teachable moments.”