Teens using social networks and computers in classroomIt wasn’t long ago that our local high school in central New Jersey was taking cell phones from students and blocking access to the Internet. Cell phones were seen as a distraction and the Internet as dangerous. While cell phones can still be distracting and many dangers do lurk on the Internet, more teachers are using both to reach students, allowing them new opportunities to interact with the world outside the classroom. The new breed of social networking applications, the frontrunner currently being Facebook, is expanding the ways teachers and students communicate with each other and the outside world.

It’s said that Facebook accounted for 10 percent of U.S. web-page views in 2010, with three of every 10 Internet sessions including a visit to the site. Fifty-one percent of all Americans 12 or older have a Facebook account, according to a recent study by Edison Research. Three years ago, that number was a paltry 8 percent. With all that Facebooking, it’s no wonder new and creative uses for social media are appearing every day, but its application in classrooms remains a gray area for many education professionals.

Blurring Boundaries

The interactive and immediate nature of applications like Twitter and Facebook make them attractive tools to reach and teach students in and out of the classroom. Yet the fuzzy line where education stops and a teacher’s private life begins make social networking hard for some school officials to endorse.

To many, a personal Facebook connection that allows students to “friend” teachers is akin to giving out a teacher’s home phone number. While Facebook or Twitter could be used to reach the teacher for valid reasons, they also could be used to play pranks and cause trouble.

Unfortunately, some teachers have also had difficulty maintaining proper boundaries with social networking. Because of recent legal actions in the state and concern for the improper use of social networking, the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, conducts workshops on the proper use of social media websites and other electronic communication using nationwide examples of teachers in hot water and losing their jobs. Many education professionals see a growing need for districts to publish social media guidelines and draft appropriate policies.

Expanding Horizons

How can social networking safely enhance a curriculum? Facebook offers information to help teachers and encourage its academic use. Having clear educational objectives and knowing how Facebook works are key to its success with students. Using Facebook groups rather than personal pages, for example, provides more privacy; the creator of the group can limit membership to those who are approved. It also makes it easy to email all the members of a group.

Via Facebook, academic topics can be approached “socially” with classes in different schools, in different time zones, even around the world.

  • One teacher recently had students create Facebook pages for characters in a novel they were reading. Invited participants posted comments about the characters.
  • Foreign language study can be augmented with virtual conversations.
  • In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday, “Weekly Reader” created a social media adaptation of a classic play to help parents, educators, and teens stand up to bullying.
  • A class on investing exchanged real-time messages with a stockbroker who helped students better understand the mechanisms of the stock market.
  • While these are all good examples, social networking has yet to find solid footing in most academic curricula. Since social media applications are new to education and somewhat controversial, they remain blocked in many schools.

The Next Wave

The effectiveness and need for more social and interactive tools for education cannot be denied, and other applications besides Facebook are appearing to fill the void. Applications with odd-sounding names like Glogster, Prezi, and Animoto are becoming popular even in pre-teen grades. These well-thought-out applications are interactive, easy to use, and promote 21st-century learning and communication.

  • Glogster is the closest to social networking as we know it and can be used to create online, interactive posters or interactive home pages much like Facebook.
  • Prezi is a non-linear presentation program that can be used to make online presentations like
  • Microsoft’s PowerPoint.
  • Animoto lets students create short videos with text and music using a simple process of uploading pictures and music, something with which even young students are now comfortable.

Prezi and Animoto are frequently used with groups collaborating on problem-based learning activities, which could be seen as a kind of in-class, or limited, social networking.

Save the Trees

Electronic learning alternatives also may be a green boon to the bottom line. As school budgets shrink in hard economic times, the cost of replacing textbooks becomes prohibitive. And in environmentally conscious times, not having to manufacture more paper-based products is a plus.

Still, social networking is new and constantly evolving. Its pervasive use and unprecedented growth outside the classroom indicate that, if not Facebook and Twitter, applications like them will facilitate education in the future. Thus it’s important for teachers and students to understand, safely explore, and find academic uses for these powerful tools.

Sites & Sources

Bookie McDonough is a licensed social worker with experience in middle and high schools. Andy McDonough is a former public school educator, education consultant, and freelance writer. They live in New Jersey and are raising two teenagers.