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Social Tools in Schools Taking Root

An NSBA study suggests fears about the Web may be overblown.

So here is the latest news about the Web for school leaders: it's not as scary for kids as it has been made out to be, your students are already using social networking tools extensively to discuss schoolwork, and, believe it or not, your parents support more use of social Web tools in schools.

Those are some of the findings of a National School Boards Association study released in August that seems to bring, finally, some much needed perspective to the debate surrounding the use of social networking technologies in the classroom. What's the bottom line? Instead of continually seeking ways to block and filter the sites our kids are already using outside of school, we need to find ways to embrace them and teach them.

There is little question that our students' use of Web technologies far outpaces the use of educators at every level. A Pew Internet study last year showed that close to two-thirds of adolescents have pages on sites such as Facebook or My Space, and fully three-quarters of college students do. Compare that to the number of teachers at your school that engage in those sites and it's easy to see the disconnect that currently exists. By and large, educators have little context for their students' use of social tools.

Blocking and Filtering

That disconnect is not helped by the fact that the vast majority of schools currently block or filter many of the sites and technologies that students use outside of school. The study reports that of the 250 district leaders surveyed, over 80 percent reported that they have rules against online chatting and instant messaging, two of the primary tools that students use to communicate outside of school. And, incredibly, over 60 percent of schools still prohibit students from sending and receiving e-mail in school.

Only 0.08 percent of the respondents had actually met someone in person without their parents' permission.

Most of those restrictions are in place because of fears for students' safety in their online interactions. But the NSBA survey noted that students and parents reported far fewer problems with cyberstalking or bullying than school policies seem to imply. Only about 7 percent of the over 1,200 students surveyed said they had either been approached for information or bullied online. Only two percent reported that strangers they had met online had attempted to meet them in person, and only 0.08 percent of the respondents had actually met someone in person without their parents' permission.

Of course, no such interactions are acceptable. We must constantly work to keep our students safe from those who may mean them harm both online and off . But, as the NSBA recommendations suggest, we must also begin to think about how to educate our kids to keep themselves safe when they are out of our supervision. That means finding opportunities at every grade level to model and teach the safe, ethical and effective uses of the Web whenever we can. And the best way to do that is to make sure our teachers and administrators begin to make use of these social tools in their own learning to build their own networks and communities of practice online.

Use the "Nonconformists"

We must also tap into the experiences that our most Web savvy students are already having. The study identifies almost a third of all teens as "nonconformists," students who report breaking online safety rules and who are "significantly heavier users of social networking sites than other students." Not surprisingly, while this group exhibits "an extraordinary set of 21st Century skills," they are also more likely than other students to have lower grades. Yet members of this group are influential leaders, and the NSBA recommends mining their knowledge and status to track the latest tools online and help create more engaging opportunities for learning.

After years of simply trying to prevent the use of Read/Write Web tools with our students, here's hoping the tide might be turning. By bringing these deeply collaborative and cooperative technologies into the classroom, we'll be better preparing our students for a world that is already making extensive use of them.

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