Weighing the Risks and Rewards of Social Networking

balance by hans s, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  hans s 

This week I had yet another colleague ask me if I truly thought letting kids use smart phones to text and tweet was really useful in learning, or just the newest fad in education – “much ado about nothing.” I remember well from where this colleague is coming. It wasn’t that long ago that I had the same reservations about the benefits of social networking tools in the classroom. Do the benefits really outweigh the costs and potential risks? Or, is this as my friend was intimating, another example of technology for technology’s sake and change for the sake of change without actually being constructive and productive innovation.

My response was to discuss my own metamorphosis from doubter, to believer and to tell him that as always, education requires us to balance new technologies for instruction with traditional instructional methods.  I directed him to a couple of great online resources that not only justify the use of social networking as sound constructivist pedagogy, but emphasize the need for a teacher’s purposeful planning,  creating the conditions in which a student can learn. The first was M.Madan’s post “Social Networking in the Classroom”  which effectively explores what social networking has to offer to learning: instant connection to promote sharing and collaboration in an constructivist pedagogy; and what social networking does not offer to learning: it does not ensure the development of a community of learning. To combat that he suggests a couple of important instructional considerations:
1. Maintain a constant presence.
2. Use a variety of supporting tools to process information.
3. Actively synthesize broadly scoped ideas into workable areas.
4. Continue to engage students.
The other great resource I found was an EmergingEdTech  post “7 Reasons to Leverage Social Networking in the Classroom”  which include engagement, social learning, better utilization of homework time and consequently class time, opportunities for writing, increased student dialogue, building of real-life communication skills, and connections.
However, as I suggested to another colleague a few weeks ago who said she really needed to get into Twitter, the best way to understand networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, is to use them yourself first. The best way I can think of to understand how you can use Twitter in your classroom is to let it be your classroom for a while. Start by using it to create a personal learning network for your own professional development. Sonja Cole suggests “25 Ways to Teach with Twitter”  with simple things like asking for recommended lessons and books, asking for professional advice, starting to tweet about resources that have been useful for you, inviting  followers and looking for people to follow.

I’m not sure if my resources convinced my colleague, but what it did to was challenge me to think outside the box and reaffirmed my belif in the value of social networking in student directed learning. Although there are risks in terms of privacy and professionalism, I belive that the risks outweigh the rewards. Thoughts?

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From Dinosaurs to Dolphins: Technological Evolution in Education

Dinosaur by shvmoz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  shvmoz 
After watching a recent episode of Terra Nova  my son observed “it would be so cool if there were still dinosaurs roaming around!”  Of course, my response was, really, you would like to be spending your days in flight or fight response avoiding man eating dinosaurs? He agreed that would likely be pretty scary, maybe it’s better to leave them to the museums and science fiction shows. This got me thinking, why are we so slow to evolve and discard those dinosaurs in our classrooms, the antiquated audio visual aids which do nothing but get our blood pressure up and are far better left in museums and history books? If biologists only focused on the past, they would never discover new and exciting biological species like the Barrunda Dolphin, discovered this fall off the coast of Australia. Last week in EC&I 831, Stephen Downes  talked about the need to become networked educators and consequently discover new  roles as a teacher. Such new roles as collector, curator, alchemist, need to be considered in the search for this new species of teacher.   Of course all of this is predicated on the discovery and utilization of  new technology tools in and out of the classoom.

Last week I stumbled upon I Love Ed Tech Blog  which is the Blog for the Simple K-12 website. It has some great posts including the June 2011 post “17 Signs Your Classroom is Behind the Times”.  Below are 6 of the 17 which particularly resonated with me:

  • Your students turn in their homework on printed paper…instead of digitally.  It’s hard to believe that I still have English teaching colleagues who are collecting hardcopies and not using digital submission tools such as Turn it In  which educate students on plagiarism, proper referencing, and provide peer editing and revision tips.
  • You still have chalk.  Or a Dry Eraser. It’s exciting for me, who just happens to be allergic to both chalk and the residue from dry erase, that tools like smart boards eliminate any sort of chemical exposure and reduce consumable expenditures in the school budget!
  •  You try to pull up a web resource on your computer to show the class and you receive a “This website has been blocked” message. As an administrator, I know which of my teachers are developing PLN’s – they are the ones coming to me to ask IT to unblock Youtube videos and Blogs – heck, last week I had to phone to get them to unblock the sample Blog I created for an ELA class!
  • You don’t find at least one thing to call the IT department about every week. See previous point!
  • You spend most of your class time lecturing students… rather than getting them collaborating and learning from each other. Arriving in the staffroom for coffebreak with a bad case of laryngitis often is a symptom of nagging educational disease “Sage on the Stageitis.”
  • You create more content than your students do. I often wonder why it is that so many of us as teachers are working harder than our students? No wonder our profession has trouble with teacher retention. We have do less and create more opportunities for our students to take charge of their learning.
  • Your students aren’t teaching you something new (likely about technology) at least once a day. My most connected teachers are the ones who frequently pop by my office to share an exciting technology tidbit just taught to them by a student which invigorates them and supports the learning of their students. Good things are happening in their classrooms.

So , I think maybe I would like another role added to Stephen Downes’ list, that of scientist. I want to discover new species of teachers and learners, my own Barrunda dolphins by encouraging my staff to embrace a blended instructional approach and discover some new habitats of education! It absolutely can happen – and if you need a little inspiration from the biological world, for your viewing enjoyment check out “Cool, Rare, and New Weird Animals/Species 2011.”

Putting “Social” Back Into Learning

Last week in my Blog  I talked about personal learning networks and their potential to create professional learning communities  for teachers by providing 24/7 professional support with the potential to extend the walls of their staffroom by connecting teachers from all over the world.  Of course, personal learning networks are not, nor should they be, restricted to teacher use. When we talk about the  “the connected classroom”  – we are looking at  expanding the communication and  collaboration of our students and their  classmates to include experts, students, and facilitators from all over the world through Web 2.0 and social media. Who can argue with that? And yet, K-12 classrooms and colleges have been slow to embrace the use of social media in the classroom, with many college instructors instituting laptop “lids down” time, and states like Missouri, restricting and banning its use public education. Why? Likely, it is due to the stigma surrounding the phrase “social media.” The notion of “social” conjures up fears of idle gossip, time wasting and distractions, as well as inappropriate contact between teacher and student.  As  Jenn Pedde (May, 2011) blogged in Education 2.0: Why Facebook and Twitter Should Be Part of Your Classroom “being social is inherently human.” Social media are merely the tools that enable the student to be actively social.  Considering schools are the primary “socializing” institute! Shouldn’t learning be social? Why should the social nature of learning through communication and collaboration be restricted to the classroom?

Perhaps the obvious answer is this is the fact that education has been traditionally top down delivery. Teachers have been the gatekeepers of the knowledge, selecting what to pass down to students. Although, pedagogically, education and curricula development now recognizes the student as the centre of the learning and the teacher as a facilitator guiding the inquiry, the bias against “outside” sources of instruction may still exist within the teaching profession. Teachers who have traditionally worked in isolation are not likely to embrace opening the “windows “into the classroom.  For those teachers who have embraced technology, the challenge is to find ways to employ social media without crossing the professional line. Such practices as creating Facebook pages for the classroom where teachers would not have profiles or “friend” students, and sending Twitter messages to parents are  promising uses of social media  outlined in the Heriff Jones WhitePaper: The Educational Promise of Social Media (September 2011)  and the New York Times article Speaking Up in Class, Silently, Using Social Media .  However, the primary obstacle may still be the bias against the phrase “social media” – how do we convince teachers, parents, and school divisions that being  “social” is positive and necessary form of collaboration for our students? What suggestions do you have for overcoming this bias?

Personal Learning Networks

 
 Up until now, I will confess, that though I blogged, posted and tweeted, I never really considered the concept of a personal learning network until the last several weeks.  Struck by the information Nicholas Christakis  shared in his TED talk The Hidden Influence of Social Media,  I was amazed at the power of social networks and how they have always played an integral role in our personal well being. In fact, our social connections can be linked to obesity, happiness and other physical and emotional states! Amazing! Christakis states that social networks have value as a source of capital. His assertion that we need to become more connected and that we must pay attention to the configurations and combinations of these connections brought home just how integral social connections have always been in our human condition, and the potential for  the social media of  Web 2.0 to create new and exciting social connections which can further  enhance our human condition! to rephrase his metphor – we can create carbon or diamonds depending on the configuration. This may be the best argument I can think of for negating the doomsayers who think Twitter and Facebook are a waste of time.Further to this discussion comes the research of Shelly Terrel on the value of personal learning networks. Her video Why Do We Connect offers the perspectives of student and teachers citing such powerful arguments as “the freedom to learn anything, anytime from anywhere”, “to break down classroom walls”, and  “24 hour professional development.”For years we have talked about reducing teacher isolation by creating professional learning communities, but for the most part this has been perceived as those communities we build within our schools or school divisions – same subject teachers with whom we have direct access. However, the reality is that sometimes this community is too small, or in the case of a specialized teacher, non-existent.  Also, depending on the fluidity of the collective, there may be no new ideas or techniques explored leading to stagnant discussions and little innovation. What better way to create a wide and accessible professional communityand to energize and infuse new perspectives than to build a personal learning network? To that end I found the following video PLN – How to Build One! particularly useful, and shared it this week with a colleague who was looking for a starting point in establishing her own PLN. It outlines 5 initial steps; underscoring all of these, are the three C’s – connect, collaborate, and contribute!! Check it out and let me know if you have any other advice for those of us just beginning to explore the value of a Personal Learning Network.