Social networking is still in nappies 28 May 2009

Social networking is still in nappies

Today I received an email from a colleague who is writing her PhD thesis on literacy. Here is a passage from it:

I read a recent BECTA report that says only 5% of schools (don’t know if junior or senior) have used social networking as an educational tool. That makes what we have done with Reading Group innovative to say the very least. Why is this I wonder? Is it because of child protection issues? Yet you overcame those with the ning site by setting yourself up as the manager. Is it a lack of ICT skill on the part of the teachers? An NFER reports claims that 33% of teachers felt they lacked the technological skills in order to fully exploit the technology available to them in schools. What do you think?

I have done a survey amongst the Reading Group and they all use social network sites. No surprise there. They all said that they use them at home and not school but one respondent said he would use them at school if there weren’t filters on to stop them. So, are all such sites blocked at school as a matter of routine? Is that our policy or wider policy?

My reply:

Social networking is a tricky beast. What ning provides is good for schools because it can be locked and controlled. Facebook and bebo and myspace are a different kettle of fish. They are external ‘friend’ sites for socialising online. Obviously they can be put to any use the user(s) choose.* We had facebook available until they activated an online chat feature that runs through the entire network. Students were then able to IM (instant message) each other across the school or chat with people outside school. Unsupervised IM is not allowed in school.
* [I have created an A Level ICT teaching group on facebook, kept it private and invited my 6th Formers into it. We used it for revision and questions about secure (i.e. securing the marks) exam answers and it was fantastic. Deleted it when one of my female students posted holiday snaps and they appeared in my timeline and were seen by my daughter. Removed all connections to current students then as I realised I could be compromised.]
Primarily, you need to approach this from a demand point of view. If there is a demand with positive educational justification then a case can be made. However, there are always alternative tools that might be used. Ning being an example. Moodle (Bernard) is another. There is little that you are using ning for that could not be achieved in moodle. However, it was simpler to use an entirely separate facility for your research. There is an obvious argument both ways for using facebook in education: children are there already, check it every day; or not: get out of my face[book], not appropriate. It depends how you see facebook and what it should be used for. There is no right or wrong here, only professional judgement.
Most schools are governed by a Local Authority. They sometimes make blanket decisions about what is strictly not allowed and not care for individual’s who think they know better, even if they might.
Similarly, eSafety is an huge area. Teenage suicide is a reality and there are instances of facebook groups where girls have communicated about their suicide attempts, scoring each other according to how close to death they achieved. We do not see this. And we don’t know much about it until it is too late. But imagine if the girls were doing their ‘facebooking’ in school, geeing each other on closer to death? Clearly not something a school would invite. [conversely, surely it would be better to have this sort of thing going on in a space with the highest opportunity to get caught possible? Schools can monitor internet activity and maybe spot something like this]
These things require balance. The point of online connection (social networking) is about publishing to the world, not just connecting to people you already know. However, it is tricky (dangerous?) for a teacher to put their pupils out there with no supervision. Even though it might only be one in a million (?) that gets groomed, or wrapped up in something they can’t control, it may be considered to far outweigh the still unproven benefits. Too risky.
These issues are still in great debate. Also, they are young. Social networking is still in nappies. If every child was online seeking the attention of the adult world it would potentially be a nightmare for those whose opinion and comment was being sought. At this stage it is only progressive pioneers achieving this kind of feedback and usually this is pre-arranged between teacher and expert. And then we are back to the ‘offline’ classroom where the majority of expert collaboration is organised by the teacher. Although, the online tools do make it much easier for everyone involved.

I don’t think it is ICT skill (of lack thereof) that inhibits the use of social networking in schools. A third of teachers declaring their ‘inadequacy’ to exploit technolgy are probably not talking about socialnetworking as we have used it. What I would say is that if any teacher witnessed the benefits social networking might bring to their teaching and learning, and they wanted to start using it, they would, like yourself, have access to people and resources to get it up and running.

Social networking is still in nappies 28 May 2009

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