Safety and Social Networking

from Technology & Learning

How can we maximize the learning power of participatory Web sites while ensuring students are protected and behave responsibly?

The various scandals around social networking abuses have garnered lots of press in the past couple of years. Predators, bullying, slander, and harassment of all kinds on sites such as MySpace and Facebook are increasingly the subjects of horror stories and play into a renewed wave of fear about the dangers online.

As a professor of educational technology and media in a teacher education program, I have encountered some frightening tales myself.

Rob was a bright, well-mannered young intern whose career almost ended in controversy in fall 2006. He entered his practicum in top form with strong classroom management skills and a brilliant grasp of the high school math curriculum. Rob was well-liked by his students—perhaps a little too much by some. Three of Rob's female students created a fake MySpace account of the young teacher, populating the site with digital photos they found through Web searches and with information from Rob's authentic MySpace profile. Students took these acts further, digitally altering photos to produce images of the young teacher "pounding back shooters" at a local nightclub with several high school students by his side.

Katie was a seasoned elementary teacher and mother of two teenage girls. I met her two years ago when presenting on digital citizenship and cyber safety at a parent-teacher association meeting. The presentation, "Do you know what your kids are doing online?", shook a few parents, and Katie was one of them. She called me the next day asking for ways to track her children's online behavior. I gave her information regarding some free tracking software, along with the cautioning question, "Are you sure you want to do this?" The next day, Katie called me again, this time in tears. She had descended deep into the secrets of her 16-yearold daughter's life, finding it heavy with sex, drugs, and alcohol, much of it fueled by contacts she met through Facebook and MySpace.

Students Are Already There

In August 2007, the National School Boards Association released Creating & Connecting, a study of children's use of online social networking. The study shows that the majority of American youth polled (ages 9–17) report they spend "almost as much time using social networking services and Web sites as they spend watching TV." Remarkably, students report their activities as being anything but passive, and that they are likely to "engage in highly creative activities on social networking sites." The recent PEW/Internet report Teens and Social Media (December 2007) affirms and extends the findings of the NSBA report. It states, "The use of social media—from blogging to online social networking to creation of all kinds of digital material—is central to many teenagers' lives." The kids are already there, connected, and teachers and parents need to accept this fact.

A New World of Learning

Once the fear of safety is removed, social networking sites can open up broad and exciting new worlds of learning for both educators and students. Innovative teachers are recognizing the potential of tools such as MySpace and Facebook to bridge cultural gaps and create authentic 21st-century learning environments.

At the International School Bangkok, in Thailand, teacher Kim Cofino connects her fifth graders through an online social network to classrooms in Australia, China, the UK, and the U.S. The project's goal is to encourage students to think deeply and to communicate about their reading.

Also with an international reach is the Flat Classroom Project. Cofounded by Vicki Davis, known in the edublogosphere as "coolcatteacher," the project is a global and hands-on initiative where middle and high school students from the U.S., Australia, China, Austria, and Qatar work together on projects inspired by Thomas Friedman's groundbreaking book, The World Is Flat.

These projects exemplify what's possible when the power of social networking sites is harnessed in the service of Digital Age education. However, carefully crafted guidelines are key to the success and safety of such projects, with central issues being control and administration, and the health of the online environment.

Control and Administration

Educator control over the social network service may be the most important strategy for assuring safety within the social learning experience, especially when working with young children. While services like MySpace or Facebook could be used to facilitate learning, an educator would have little control over student activities or communications. Alternately, a service such as Ning is more appropriate. Ning, the prime collaboration tool for the international social learning projects described above, is a sophisticated platform that allows anyone to create their own social network. The Ning platform includes a number of important features vital to supporting student safety (see "Advantages of Ning").

Creating and administering a private social network is an excellent method for establishing a safe social learning experience. Though at this time Ning seems to be the easiest and most complete tool for network creation, other services such as Snappville and BrainHoney, from Agilix, are promising as well.

Dr. Alec Couros is a professor of Educational Technology and Media in the Faculty of Education, University of Regina, Canada.

Safe and Healthy Communities

Some common, adaptable rules for keeping online social networks safe and healthy include the following:

Use the tools. There are many technological tools that can be adapted for student learning, but not all are suitable. Take time to experiment with the tools and to better unders tand social networks befo re launching your own network. Join the Classroom 2.0 community at Ning, or get a Facebook account, and connect with other teachers who are using these tools in education. Their expertise, successes, and failures are the best learning tools.

Review and update school policies. Acceptable use policies for students are still a must, and even moreso as students become connected, whether in a controlled net work environment or not. Continuous review of these policies is important, but avoid making revisions that name the "technology of the day" such as Facebook and MySpace. Rather, use more generic, universal language such as social networks and instant messaging. These policies should be clear, succinct, rational, and easily accessible to students and to teachers.

Share the responsibility for guiding students. Policing of online activities should begin through the work of persistent, diligent community leaders (usually teachers). As the community grows, this work should be performed by students (of sufficient maturity) or through mentorship opportunities with older children or young adults. The involvement of parents, teachers from other schools, pre-service teachers, or other responsible individuals can help develop a more authentic community. Let it be understood that all community members, not just the students, are responsible for online health, safety, and growth.

Match the tool with the outcome. The use of online social networks as an educational tool should have a rationale that exceeds the novelty of the activity. It is important that you continually assess its appropriate use by asking the question, "Could I have achieved the same level of student learning and engagement through a non-technological method?" Be sure to weigh your rationale for using a social network (e.g., digital citizenship, globalization studies, connectivism) against potential costs ( e.g., access, online safety, time).

Design matters. Successful online communities, ones that are fun, reflective, engaging, and safe, can be nurtured through careful attention to instructional design. One of my favorite reads is Donald Norman's Emotional Design, where the author identifies three constructs of design: visceral design—how things look, feel, and sound; behavioral design—how things function and work together; and reflective design—what things mean, or the emotional impact of activities. Careful and intentional design of community interactions will go much further toward overall community health and safety than relying simply on policing activities and behaviors.

Advantages of Ning

Unlike most social networking sites, Ning offers teachers and administrators a variety of control features, including the six listed below:

  1. Strict control of network membership (networks can be made public or private).
  2. The ability of administrators to remove or edit content created by any user.
  3. The flexible control of network features (communication and notification features can be added or removed).
  4. Minimal (and custom) information requirements for user sign-up.
  5. Ad-free networks for K-12 classrooms.
  6. The reporting of all net work activities (e.g., blog/media posts and commenting through RSS feeds), making it easy for teachers to react, if necessary, to inappropriate posts.