Personal Journey with Social Networking in Elementary School

Educators Personal Journey with Social Networking,
By Zoe Branigan-Pipe

When I was in school, the only people who saw my written work were my parents and my teachers. I wasn’t getting real feedback, I was getting the feedback of someone being prepared to someday write for real-world feedback… probably years in the future. These students are learning to communicate with their peers, with adult facilitation and mentoring, in a way that only those who wrote for the student newspaper before were able to do. What a great world awaits us. Posted Steve Hargadon, Nov 01, 08


My First Social Network in my world:
Ever since I can remember, I have always had a keen interest in technology. As a child, I used a headset and music to memorize facts for tests and quizzes at school. When learning a second language, I became dependent on the computer translator (very basic model) inhigh-school and I was completely enthralled when I was introduced tothe WorldWeb Web\ during college (which I predominately used to download music lyrics). While these tools helped me as a learner, they confined my learning to their terms. My input was not an option.

It was in University that I first felt a true sense of connection to what exists beyond my own day-day reality. Sometime in the spring of 1999, Kosovo hit the international headlines when forces under the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic tried to suppress the Albanian majority’s independence campaign. This news item struck my interest because my neighbours had recently immigrated from a small village in Yugoslav and I had spent many evenings on our back porch learning about the political turmoil and war crimes faced by the Kosovo Albanian citizens. With my new computer and first ever Internet connection, I followed blog posts from Kosovo Albanians who were being forced to flee their homes – thousands killed. Leaving my homework aside, night after night I would read posts from people all over the world expressing their disgust and concern over the Milosevic rule. My understanding and compassion for these people were more than I could have imagined, something that I had never experienced outside my own family. This was my first taste of the Web 2.0 – My first time publishing my own thoughts for the world to see. The only people who had every read my work before were my teachers, or family. This was my first Social Network outside my personal space. I felt incredibly empowered and excited that this could be possible and I knew that that would by my mission as educator, to give students the opportunity to know what exists beyond them, to connect to others, to read each other’s work and publish their own.

The following article will explore how educators, myself included are changing their teaching practices by using Social Networks in the classroom and what challenges they have encountered by having to adapt to new technologies and new methods of teaching. Finally, I will provide recommendations of how classroom teachers can incorporate safe online practices that allow students to express themselves in the on-line community. I hope that this article will spark further conversation by schools, districts and parents about the use of Social Network at the district, school, and classroom level.


Education had to change -it did and it will:

Not so long ago (surely the equivocating sign of a greybeard) companies were actually paying consultants to train their people to write bullet point memos so they could communicate big ideas or complex messages within the confines of a single page of paper. Then it became email training, so the same workers could transition from the single-page paper memo to asingle-screen, no-scroll email. Now email communication has evolved into Facebook, and Facebook is in the process of giving way toTwitter. Posted by: MagicBram

I was hired with the HWDSB I did not know at the time that I would be taking as Robert Frost would say, ‘the road less traveled’. It was year 2001. There was no Internet and no classrooms computers. The term Social Networking was not even spoken. But still, I took this less traveled road thinking because I felt pretty certain that soon the world would open up to these students. I did not know that what I was doing was taking my very first step at transforming a way of teaching.

By 2006 each classroom was equipped with networked (internet) IBM computerswith the most up to date software and a brand new computer lab (25computers), a ratio of 1 computer for every 10 students. By 2007, the school purchased its first Smart Board (Interactive Whiteboard) as well as a mini-lab station with five portable laptops, which contain specialized assistive technology for special needs students and by 2008 every classroom in the school was equipped with a Sound Field Speaker System, laptop computer, Wireless Internet and Smartboard.Continued support for change brought continued growth in the area of technology with the addition of digital cameras, video cameras, scanners, printers, webcams, document camera’s, use of pda’s, and finally, electronic home reading programs embedded within the program. The stage was set, however, the actors were not ready yet.Social Networking will prepare all of the actors to be ready, current, and constantly evolving and learners and educators.
Social Network in Education – What’s that?:


Social networks (and social media in general) enable communication that can be as deep, shallow, broad, or specific as we might want. Businesses are using social media t0 reach new audiences, build knowledge bases, train users, and enable cross-team collaboration like never before. Schools can do the same, while kids will continue to be kids and talk to each other, even if it isn’t “tying up the phone line” like we used to do. Posted by: Christopher Dawson


According to Boyd (2007), social network sites are defined “as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.’ (Boyd & Ellison, 2007: 2).


As an educator myself, this definition sounds pretty overwhelming and a little scary. It talks about ‘public profiles’ and ‘lists of users’ and ‘sharing connections’, all of which are things that we tend to have our students avoid due to potential safety risks. We would never encourage students to physically go into the community and find a bunch of unknown people to associate with – or would we? Don’t we have our students join clubs and teams – a group of strangers, united by a common interest? Don’t we allow our students to enter public buildings where they can possibly speak to strangers? Don’t we teach, everyday, students how to behave safely and responsibly through Character Education Initiatives? I find myself in conflict with this thought, however, because by exposing my students to potential safety risks, I can teach them how to make the right choices if and when they find themselves in precarious situation. Through constant and current communication and education to parents and community about the use of these tools, then students learn how to approach problems both in the digital and real world. This is no different than allowing my ten year old to walk home from the school by himself, after I have talked to him about street safety, or bullying, or peer relations.
The definition of a Social Network also makes me question how and what we are teaching our children. Like many educators, I too think about the potential risks of social networking for students as it pertains to learning. According to Susan Greenfield, a professor at Lincoln College in Oxford, who was quoted in the Guardian, “the experiences of children on social networking sites are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity.” (Patrick Wintour, 2009). I would have to agree with Christopher Dawson who questions this statement in his blog called Stop Bashing Social Networks,

Isn’t this the whole point of what we are teaching – to teach the children to weed the wheat form the chaff and find deeper meaning in the streams of data widely available to them” (Dawson, 2009).

When using Social Networks with my students and colleagues I have discovered that not only do these tools allow them to discover deeper meaning but it gives them a cohesive narrative and a long term significance. When I asked students today about their own social networking practices, over 90% of 9 and 10 years reported that they blog on a regular basis and 90% report that they are podcasting in the classroom at least 3 times per week. One student responded, “Social networking can benefit us because we can help each other”. 75% of the students surveyed stated that they use Social Networking tools almost everyday in the classroom. Such tools consist of blogging, podcasting, collaborative documents and the use of micro-blogging such as twitter. One student writes:

Social networking can help students in school because it can help students blog, participate with each other ,hand in assignments talk with each other without disturbing others. It can also help students be encouraged with school work and enjoy it rather than hate it. It not only affects the students grades and marks yet we also help our environment by conserving paper and posters and pencils. Not only that but we can also help those who come unprepared to class or cant get appropriate school materials. Why should we do it the old fashioned way by using pencils and papers when we are in reach of this type of technology. This technology that encourages students to learn helps the environment and is one of the best resources that helps students broaden their information and knowledge through the worldwide web. We are the future, remember that!
Grade 7 Student, Lawfield Elementary School.

The above example clearly emphasizes how students today are truly becoming digital global citizens. Instead of covering their work with a propped up textbook like I did in grade seven, students talk about collaboration and helping one anther. According to the national School Board Association, Ann Flynn, Social Networking in education is not just about complementing the curriculum. She says

“collaboration, self-direction and problem solving are all long-term academic and life skills that social networking helps students practice”.

“If someone is going to react other than the teacher, a child is much more likely to take an assignment seriously,” Flynn says. According to a Kids Social Networking Study by Grunwald Associates There has been explosive growth in creating and authoring activities by students on social networking sites in recent years, especially in the area of music, photos and videos where students are expressing, creating, manipulating and sharing content online (The national School Boards Association, 2007) GrunwaldAssociates LLC This same study indicated “Almost 60 percent of students who use social networkingtalk about education topics online and, surprisingly, more than 50 percent talk specifically about schoolwork. Yet the vast majority of school districts have stringent rules against nearly all forms of social networking during the school day — even though students and parents report few problem behaviors online Grunwald Associates LLC. After completing an online survey (through the use of Twitter and Google Docs), I also noticed many disparities between school districts across North America as it relates to Social Network Policy. What was blocked and not blocked was not consistent from district to district even in the same state or province. For example, Twitter and Skype are blocked in the regional area in one school district when it is not in another. In every district that responded, however Youtube was blocked. For every person that responded in the survey, they indicated that their school district fully supported the use of Social Networking in their schools. A large proportion of educators that responded indicated that they do use Social Networking as Professional Development tool for themselves (see below example).


Does your school or district support podcasting or blogging tools as a relevant teaching strategy?




Scale the use of Social Networking USE in your work environment (for constructive purposes)




Real Experiences of Social Networks in the Classroom
For the past four months, I have been learning how to use Social Networking tools both for professional development as well as with my students in the classroom. The only real way that I can learn these tools is by fully engaging in them myself, which is what I have done. In January, when meeting my faculty supervisor at Brock University, I agreed to document my learning through the use of Social Networking Tools on a variety of levels. These are examples:

First, it was First Class:
In 2004, with my grade five class, I introduced the students to our districts network called First Class, a collaborative on-line learning community. Providing each student with an email account and website domain, they began publishing their own work. I set up conference areas for our staff team and effortlessly, the people I work with began submitting lesson plans, that were open for both each other and students. Homework and review sheets would be posted along with exemplars and rubrics. Soon, our teaching was becoming transparent. In January of 2005, my students began reading blog posts and daily news blogs about the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Like my experience a couple of years early, the students developed personal connections to the victims of the Tsunami and were able to express their connections by replying to blog and podcast posts. This is what sparked the students’ interest to use the First Class Social Network by creating their own blogs and podcasts.

As I am learning, however, change is necessary in order to progress. The students in my class soon expressed drawbacks to only using First Class to reach “the world”, as they would say. Only they could respond to each others’ posts as FC was password protected. As well, after about their 3rd or 4th podcast, their user limit for network space would be exceeded and they would have to delete previous posts, which they did not want to do. I had to find another way. Unfortunately, policy had not yet been developed to help guide me where I could go next with my students. I wanted to stay current and innovative but I also had to protect my students from potential privacy, trust and danger concerns as it related to the Internet.

Twitter: For regular contact and quick passing of information and PD, we micro-blog through the use of Twitter. Now that I have clearly learned how to use micro-blogging myself, I began to use it with my students (http://twitter.com/zpipe, http://twitter.com/lawfield213) as a way of communicating with students, parents and other teachers. I have provided research and documentation for parents as well as inviting the parents to my classroom to learn about Twitter and other Social Networking Sites.

Drupal:
For a more elaborate and specific sharing, we use the Brock Learning Network –“an innovative, virtual community of the Faculty of Education…. with Web 2.0 capabilities (similar to Facebook™, YouTube™, online news reports, and calendars) rolled into one dynamic site. The next stage is to incorporate Drupal as a platform to partner the Faculty of Education and the District School Board in order offer educators and students at all levels the most current and authentic research and collaboration opportunities as possible.

Wikispaces:
My students now use Wiki’s as a collaborative platform to share and present information in a Jigsaw format during language activities. Each small group of students is given a set of tasks to present (example).These groups are to present all information, regardless of product (picture, video, poem, research, timeline, audio) in the wiki. At the end of the learning session, the students have created a collaborative collection of their work (example). This work is also used for studying for tests about content. Students complete and hand in homework assignments through the use of Wikis (homework example one)(homework example 2). I recently introduced the concept of Wiki’s in a book club that Iam a member. These educators, from both elementary and secondary level had never used a Wiki and after participating in the book club wiki assignment, they planned on using it with their students.

Google Docs
More recently, I have been using Google docs with my students as a word processor for four mainreasons: 1) to help contribute to a paperless environment; 2) to allow students to work collectively on assignments using the “share”tool; 3) so that I can mark and edit work easily and anywhere thathas internet; 4) so that students can work on the document from any computer with internet. This exampleshows how the student shared her assignment with me so that it could be edited. I have found Google Docs an extremely useful tool when collaborating with my student teachers and teaching partners. We use the share function to create lesson plans and create joint assessment tasks –example of learning tasand the tasks or lessons can easily be shared with administrators when requested.

Blogging
I have found blogging to be the most useful tool both as a learner and educator. I have set up a blog for each learning task to provide students with a method of reflection and collaboration. Using the classroom website Blog Page, they are able to publish their own work as well as read and respond to the other students work.
Podcasting
Podcasting has no doubt been the most fun Social Networking tool, because it allows students to express themselves orally. I have several students who have Learning exceptionalities, especially in the area of writing. To allow these students the opportunity to vocalize their responses, I can get a better idea of their comprehension (social networks in education, 2009)
Both my students and myself have experienced a tremendous learning curve in how we are expressing ourselves publicly. When our work is published on-line, whether through micro-blogging, podcasting, wikipages or Google docs, we take more time and care about what we have to say and how we participate in the editing process. Students have begun to feel more comfortable about editing each others work because they now fully understand the value of collaboration. They are also able to see the bigger picture– that their classmates are a tiny audience compared to the World Wide Web and that they would rather expose their mistakes together then online and so they ask each other for help without fear or intimidation. As an educator, it is humbling to watch students as they take risks and share to an audience far bigger that I have ever had myself.

In December 2008, students actively participated as they blogged /podcasted to five Hamilton and Halton men who set out on an expedition to the South Pole to raise money for poverty. On Dec 17,2008, our class received a phone call from the team and podcasted the call for the world to see and later created their own podcast to thank the team members for their contribution to our community. These experiences are ones that I changed my way of doing things as a teacher. While I have provide opportunities or set the stage and provide the direction, I have learned to unleash the control – it is the students that have constructed their own learning and participated actively in their own educational process.

While I have fully embraced the potential of Social Networking in the classroom (I have a long way to go), I do not ignore the potential problems that could and will occur as our schools and classrooms learn how to use this form of language. It is through my own experience that I offer the following recommendations for any teacher who wants to experiment himself or herself and unleash the potential that these tools possess:
First, I suggest that you start by opening up your own professional blog. Walk the talk. Do notexpect your students to grasp the concept of blogging in an educational sense unless you are prepared to do it yourself. I use blogger because it is free, but there are many other blogging web 2.0 sites available. Blog (write) at least once per week and focus on a theme or a lesson that you have done with your students. Give examples and share resources.
Second, I suggest that you join a Social Networking Community as a means for professional development. By involving yourself with other educators with like interests you will soon find yourself in a world of resources and support, even when it seems like you are lacking in these things in your work place. I thoroughly enjoy using Twitter http://www.twitter.com/zbpipe and have met some incredible educators that provide constant and current professional development everyday. There is always someone that I can ask when I need a resource or simply have a question. Recently, my school district http://www.twitter.com/hwdsb has joined the Twitter community along with a few superintendents and trustees.
Third, I suggest that you start a classroom website or blog to post current and relevant information for your students. Start small -Your classroom schedule, a calendar of events and curriculum highlights and topics. Eventually your classroom site will grown into a dynamic and informative hub for you and your students to constantly draw from. First Class provides an area for educators to have Websites. I have chosen to use a combination of web.me account because it allows me enough webspace for blogs, podcasts and video’s.
Last, I suggest that you continue to grow, and evolve the way education does. Always be willing to trynew methods so that you are meeting the needs of all of your students and colleagues. Constantly advocate for your students to have access to the most current and relevant tools. Like you advocate for your students and your colleagues, be a critical thinker and question pedagogy. Most importantly, always try even when it seems out of your realm of comfort or understanding – let your students orchildren teach you. Because many of our policy makers and administrators are also new to Social Networking – it is necessary that teachers and other educators advocate for change.


Bibliography:



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(2009). Retrieved from social networks in education:
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Dawson, C. (2009, 02 25). Stop Bashing Social
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Hargadon, S. (2008, 11 01). K-12 Educational
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Viva, A. (2009). Technology and Social Media Trends
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