by Greg Toppo
July 25, 2011
Among educators, Eric Sheninger is something of a social networking hero.
The principal of New Milford (N.J.) High School has nearly 12,300 Twitter followers (his handle: @NMHS_Principal). He and his teachers use Facebook to communicate with students and parents, and students use it to plan events. In class, teachers routinely ask kids to power up their cellphones to respond to classroom polls and quizzes. Rather than ban cellphones, Sheninger calls them "mobile learning devices."
He replaced the school's "static, boring" website with what has become a heavily used Facebook page, and his teachers encourage students to research, write, edit, perform and publish their work online.
Sheninger is one of a growing number of educators who don't just tolerate social networking in school he encourages it, often for educational purposes. He says sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube long banned and roundly derided by many peers actually push kids to do better work and pay attention to important issues such as audience, quality research and copyright laws.
"The Internet as we know it is the 21st century," he says. "It is what these students have known their whole lives. They're connected, they're creating, they're discussing, they're collaborating."
He and others say working online also pushes education beyond the confines of school, allowing kids to broaden discussion of their work. And it forces them to do "authentic" work that gets tested out in the real world, as outside viewers see it and respond to it.
Challenging a new generation
"Being literate in 2011 means being digitally literate," says Chris Lehmann, principal of Science Leadership Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia that has been using social media since it opened in 2006.
Sheninger and others also say it is naοve to think that kids raised online will respond to school the same way as previous generations. "Kids are coming to us bored, disconnected, and it's a challenge for us to figure out how to leverage the tools inherent in the real-time Web," he says.
The American Library Association encourages schools and libraries to think twice before keeping kids off social media, saying such prohibition "does not teach safe behavior and leaves youth without the necessary knowledge and skills to protect their privacy or engage in responsible speech." Their policy statement on the topic says that instead of restricting access, librarians and teachers "should educate minors to participate responsibly, ethically and safely."
Federal regulations have long kept most popular social networking sites off-limits, since school districts that receive federal E-rate funds to wire schools to the Internet must block material that's obscene or "harmful to minors." But as more educators discover the virtues of social networking sites, they're using a variety of approaches to get around the rules: Often they ask kids to access the sites at home or on mobile devices; sometimes they tweak in-school Internet filters to allow blocked sites that they find appropriate (the regulations allow schools to make this call). Still others simply look the other way when kids inevitably find a way around the filters.
Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education's director of educational technology, says it's important to find a good middle ground.
"The Internet is not going away," she says. "We need to do everything we can to make it safe and really a wonderful place for children."
Providing structure, guidance
Perhaps the biggest objection to widespread use of social sites is the likelihood that kids will encounter irrelevant or even offensive material a fear that many teachers say is overblown. While the Web can seem like "a sea of pornography and idiots," says James Lerman, the author of several books on educational technology, schools must help students figure out how to navigate it so they "can get to the good stuff" that's applicable to school.
"We as educators need to do a better job of advertising and sharing the meaningful work done with social media," says Matt Levinson of Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif. He writes about the struggles schools face using social media in his 2010 book, From Fear to Facebook. "If you keep it out, kids are creating their own cultures in this space with no guidance from adults and that's not responsible."
The other big misconception: that schools with open Web access are simply letting kids "play freely as if there's no structure," says Lisa Highfill, a 5th-grade teacher in Pleasanton, Calif. A longtime devotee of YouTube she used it recently to show her Oakland-area students videos of tornadoes and mudslides Highfill says she chooses videos in advance.
"I don't just search in front of the kids," says Highfill, who also uses a YouTube add-on that strips "related videos" off the right-hand side of the page.
She admits that even with careful planning, learning online carries risks. But the risks shouldn't be overstated. "When we go on a field trip, when we go anywhere," she says, "we warn (students) of the dangers of where we're going."
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