The MySpace Effect

Inside many schools across the country, is a dirty word. But does that have to be the case for all social networking Web sites?

Many administrators have chosen to block access to MySpace, the Internet’s most popular social networking site, judging its content to be inappropriate for schools.

Now, as more social networking tools like blogs and wikis are developed for classroom use, technology directors face a difficult dilemma: how to balance the educational benefits of these new tools with concerns about student privacy and safety.

“We do believe that in the right environment these social networking tools do have instructional value,” says Ted Davis, director of enterprise information services for Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, the country’s 14th largest public school district just outside of Washington, D.C.

Sanctioned Spaces

In fact, social networking will soon be allowed on Fairfax County’s 24-7 Learning portal, a hosted environment built on the Blackboard Learning System that lets teachers, administrators, and students look at classroom assignments, calendars, announcements, discussion boards, and other information.

Because access to the Learning portal is limited, and the school district can control and monitor how the tools are used, Davis believes it’s much safer than a public site such as MySpace, which Fairfax County began blocking in November 2005.

In addition, sensitive student information is protected and teachers can remind students about ways to protect themselves on the unfiltered Internet outside of school. “We believe strongly that the best defense is to educate our students and community on how to deal with these dangers and still enjoy the benefits offered by the Web,” Davis says.

Fairfax is testing a suite of social learning applications from Learning Objects called Campus Pack that add blogging and wiki capabilities to the Blackboard portal. Community High School District 99 in Illinois and Duquesne University and Seton Hall University also use Campus Pack.

The blogging tool, Journal LX, allows blogs to be structured three different ways. In a “course blog,” the instructor controls access and posts notes that create an ongoing record of the course material. In a “course assignment blog,” a group of students work together to write entries that classmates and teacher can comment on. A “personal journal” can be open for peer review or closed to everyone but the teacher.

Teams LX is a classroom Wiki tool that lets students add and edit content while maintaining a full history of revisions made by each student. Teachers can review individual contributions, making it easier to assess grades for group projects.

“Together, these two tools could give the student the ability to experiment with blogs and wikis in a safe, secure environment where they would receive feedback from their teacher and classmates that was monitored and attributable,” says Paul Regnier, community relations coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Fully Blocked

However, not all school districts are as enthusiastic about incorporating social networking tools into their classrooms. Gwinnett County Public Schools in the metro Atlanta area, the largest school system in Georgia with projected 2006–07 enrollment of nearly 152,000, has no plans to conduct similar tests as in Fairfax County, according to Scott Futrell,, Gwinnett’s CIO.

Futrell says one reason students won’t find blogs or wikis in use in schools in Gwinnett, which also blocks, is that instructors have not made a formal request to try out the tools in their classrooms.

The DOPA Factor

Looming in the background is a piece of legislation that could force schools and libraries to ban social networking sites if they want to receive federal E-Rate dollars—not just MySpace but other sites that may contain educational material.

The House passed the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 last July, and it now waits for a Senate vote. The American Library Association has asked its members to oppose the bill.

Davis of Fairfax County testified before the House of Representatives subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet last July that the legislation has admirable goals but was poorly written, because it “does not lend itself to a technical solution.”

“Unlike current restrictions against obscene materials that can be objectively identified, this legislation would require schools to subjectively predict which sites may be misused,” Davis told the subcommittee. “Identifying and evaluating such sites would not take advantage of the technical capabilities of filtering vendors and likely lead to blocking of legitimate instructional sites. Thus this burden would fall back on to the schools.”

Christopher Heun is a writer in New York City.