At the risk of showing my age, I have to admit that every time I think about social networking I think about this old shampoo commercial:

You have to admit that apart from the online aspect of social bookmarking, the idea of friends telling friends about a common interest (okay, it’s just clean hair but you get the point) is at the heart of social networks. The only difference is that there are now numerous web-based tools known as social networking sites that make connecting with people who share common goals or interests a whole lot easier and physical distance is no longer a factor.

Wikipedia lists over one hundred active social networking systems. There are social networking systems that suit the needs and interests of virtually anyone on the planet if they care to look. From Webkinz and Club Penguin for the under fourteen age group to the wildly popular Facebook and MySpace for older teens and adults, to Nings for a little older crowd, social networking sites are among the fastest-growing and most visited sites on the Internet and have become “a ubiquitous part of our culture” (Rosenfeld, p. 1). Among youth, more than 80% of young people online are networking and believe it or not, studies show that upward of 70% of these young people use networking sites to discuss education-related topics (Richardson, p. 1).

In addition to being able to connect with others who share common interests, family and friends, most social networking sites allow participants to communicate synchronously in live “chats”, and asynchronously sending e-mails, uploading videos, pictures, text files and music. They are a place to join or create new clubs or social forums, post messages on personal bulletin boards, create social calendars and personal blogs, play games, take quizzes and advertise anything you want for free. In fact, there are so many ways to personalize social networking sites that for some people, they have become virtual extensions of their physical selves.

My experience with social networking sites is limited. Although my three teenage sons avidly participate in and maintain their Facebook and MySpace sites spending as much time on them as I will allow, I haven’t tried social networking until this course. What I discovered when I signed up for my own Facebook account was that the basics of the site are really quite simple. After adding as much information on my user profile that I was comfortable with, I went searching for “friends” – family or acquaintances based on where I live and where I went to school. This ability to find and accept “friends” from the past and present is called “friending” (Carter, et al, p. 2) and is the process which links profiles together and expands the friendship list of the user since the user now has access to not only to their friends’ profiles but also to the profiles of their friends’ friends. And so on and so on…..

Social Networking from a Personal Perspective

As I “experimented” with Facebook these past two months, I found myself wearing three hats – as a private person, parent and educator. On a personal level, I found it difficult to understand the fascination millions around the world have with Facebook. To be honest, I think that’s mainly because I haven’t had enough time to use it because I’m just too busy. I plan to keep using it after this course to see whether I enjoy it more when I’m not so pressed for time. I also found it difficult to share much of myself in this format so I tended to send messages directly to the people I wanted to rather than write public messages on “walls” and tell everyone what I was doing. One of the features I loved the most about Facebook was how easy it was to upload pictures and videos for my family and friends to see. I sent a video to one of my cousins whom I spent a lot of time together over the summer. I doubt I would have done this had I not seen her profile online and had I not had access to a video-sharing tool.

Using Facebook so far I have reconnected with one of my high school friends which is pretty cool and wouldn’t have happened otherwise (I’m going to expand my parameters after the course to see if I can find any university friends). I now know that all of my over eighteen nieces and nephews have Facebook accounts and use them quite regularly. I have also found out what goes on in the lives of one of my sister-in-laws, cousin and to some extent my university instructor who all use Facebook on a daily basis. Honestly, I really don’t need that much information about other people’s private lives but I can see that they are able to easily let others know about what is happening in their lives and thus stay connected.

Social Networking from a Parent’s Perspective

From a parental perspective, using Facebook has been a real eye opener. When I asked my sons which site was the best and which one I should sign up for they all replied in unison, “whatever we’re not on!” So being the evil parent I am, I promptly signed up for the one they use the most – Facebook. And guess what has happened in the past two months – you’re right, they went back to updating and using their MySpace accounts! Mmmm….what does that tell me as a parent? Should I be worried???

My sons are no different from thousands of teens all over the world – they love to interact socially with their friends. Although they still like to get together with their friends at their homes or the mall, when they can’t get together, they love to interact with their friends online. When I was a teenager, I would have been on the phone; now teenagers are using social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to keep themselves informed of what’s happening with their group of friends and making new friends through old friends. No matter the medium, teens will find a way to communicate with one another. In this new medium, they are as happy as can be with an endless world of relationships to explore and all kinds of people to hear what they have to say (Kollie, p. 1).

As a parent, I am not interested in “invading” my sons’ personal spaces online. I believe that they need a place where they can be themselves, discover who they are and actively participate in the world around them. If it’s not Facebook they’re using to discover who they are, they will always find another way, perhaps even a more dangerous way, to sort out for themselves who their friends are and what they’re interested in. I am also not interested in preventing my children from using social networking sites even if they are not risk free. I recognize that my children need to learn how to interact socially with others online since the digital world is the “new reality.” I figure if I can teach them to not talk to strangers they meet on the street, I can also teach them to not talk to strangers online!

My role of a parent is to stay informed about where my children are going online and how they are going about making connections with others. According to Tracy Mitrano in “Web 2.0,” parents need to get their “heads out of the sand” and become more informed of how social networking tools work. Although I trust my sons to say and share appropriate things online, this course has forced me to become more informed about how Facebook works. Now I am able to ask my sons intelligent questions about how they are using Facebook and how they are keeping themselves safe online. It also doesn’t hurt that they now know I can find out what they are saying online which I think helps them to take a sober second look before posting (at least I hope it does!)

Social Networking from a Teacher’s Perspective

I approach thinking about using social networking in schools much the same way as I do as a parent. Since social networking sites are not going to disappear and students are not going to stop using them, I believe it is my role as an educator to give my students the skills and knowledge they need to use social networking sites ethically and in a safe manner. It is also my role as an educator to model the positive use of this Web 2.0 tool so that students can learn positive ways of building connections and networks and finding their passions which they can then apply to future learning and life situations.

As educators, I believe we also need to dispel the myths about social networking sites and their potential dangers. Did you know that there isn’t a single case related to MySpace where someone has been abducted? In an article Doug Johnson wrote about Facebook, he states that safety issues need to be put into perspective by sharing reputable information resources such as “Predators & Cyberbullies: Reality Check by Larry Magid & Anne Collier at ConnectSafely.org report. He says that teachers need to emphasize that cyberbullying and “reputation destruction” are far more hazardous to students than predators.

Take a look at this video about cyberbullying to see how destructive cyberbullying can be:

As I have prepared this post, I have read many articles defending the use of social networking sites in schools. They have been written to combat the growing fear many school and divisional administrators and school board officials have about various social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. I know that my school division is one of hundreds that currently ban social networking sites from their schools. As Doug Johnson states in his Blue Skunk Blog we need to teach students how to be safe using social networking tools rather than ban them. As Johnson wonders, if we won’t do it, who will?

How am I as an educator dedicated to teaching students how to use Web 2.0 tools effectively and ethically going to teach them these “new literacies” if these sites are banned from schools? Kollie likens this to giving students the keys to the car without being given a license to drive! (p. 2) We need to open the access to these sites so we can model the effective use of social networks and design lessons and programs that teach students how to use social networking sites ethically and responsibly. I believe there is more inherent danger for students to ban these tools in schools than to talk about them openly and honestly.

Will there be bullying online? Will students post too much information on their profiles and pages to put them at risk? Will students post information that will damage either their own or someone else’s reputation? The answer to all three questions is “yes” but the real question is: Will there be less or more of these behaviors if we choose to not talk about them in schools? As Stephen Abram writes in “Scaffolding the new social literacies,” students “are only as safe as the user has the awareness and skills to make good judgments” (p. 1).

Students are drawn to social networking sites because of the connections they make, the content, and the activities they can do there. As they share a part of themselves, they begin to sort out who they are and how they can become contributing members of society. They can also use these sites to show off their creativity and demonstrate what they know (Kollie, p. 2). If students are taught to use social networking sites appropriately, they can provide wonderful learning opportunities for students including global discussions, data sharing and cooperative problem solving (Lamb & Johnson, p. 1).

Through online social networks, students can take charge of their own learning and exert their independence by sharing and debating ideas with a wide audience using a variety of mediums. No longer do they just have to use static web pages to find information. With social networking sites, students can learn to find and build a network of people resources to help them solve problems and make decisions much like they would do in real-life situations.

Students could be encouraged to use social networking sites to ask others about what they missed if they were away from school. They could call upon their classmates to help them complete their homework if there were questions they didn’t understand or maybe they would just like to complete their homework together. I might use social networking in the library as a way of sharing reviews of the latest books. These reviews would be written and/or recorded by students for students. I noticed this week that the Edmonton City Library that they have a Facebook link for patrons directly on their site.

Even though as a teacher I believe that we shouldn’t shy away from using social networking sites in schools, I think teachers need to be extra mindful of what they, themselves, are sharing on online networking sites. As Carter, Foulger and Ewbank remark in their article, “Have you googled your teacher lately?” “It’s difficult to know where privacy ends and professional life begins” (p. 5). Whether we like it or not, teachers are held to a higher moral standard than most of the general population so we need to be extra cautious in this regard. Although I would remind everyone of the same, a good rule of thumb for teachers is to remember that you shouldn’t be posting anything online that you wouldn’t say or show to others in public and as Tracy Mitrano reminds us in her article, “Thoughts on Facebookremember the “Golden Rule:” Don’t say anything about someone else that you would not want said about yourself. After all, what gets posted online stays posted online forever especially when online items can be cached.

I also think that teachers need to be careful with the types of relationships they want to have with their students online. I think teachers might find themselves compromised professionally if they want to carry on “buddy-buddy” online relationships with their students. Again, what you wouldn’t do in the actual classroom, you wouldn’t want to be doing online.

A Social Networking Alternative for Teachers and Students: Nings

If Facebook and MySpace sites just seem too wide open and downright scary, there are alternatives. If teachers are looking to join a professional online network(s) to expand their professional development or professional connections, or if they want to create an online network for their own teachers or students, a Ning is a great alternative. As the National Council of Teachers of English describe in their blog, a Ning is a free online social network that allows you to create or join a customized network based on the needs of a specific group of people.

Since the creator gets to decide who is invited and what they can see and do, a Ning is a more secure online social networking site that might be more acceptable to some, especially to educators. If desired, teachers can approve all postings before they go up, they can delete any groups or discussions that aren’t appropriate, ban members from the network and reverse any decisions they’ve made by clicking a box. If teachers are looking for a way to teach students about online safety, cyberbullying and how to use social networking sites appropriately, this might be a way to start.

I was really impressed with Joyce Valenza’s TeacherLibrarianNetwork Ning. I found her invitation for teacher-librarians to join the group so enticing that I did just that – I signed up and added the site to my Google Reader so I can get regular updates without even having to visit the site. Like other Nings, the TeacherLibrarianNetwork Ning includes many of the same elements as Facebook and MySpace. There is a place to find and connect with members and other groups, you can send private or public messages, upload photos, videos and podcasts, participate in the forums, find out about current library events and post articles on the blog.

After looking at this Ning and viewing some of the other Nings such as The Classroom 2.0 Ning, and its sister site, Ning in Education I decided to ask the music coordinator for our division if he would be interested in setting up a Ning for the band teachers in our school division ( remember I’m also a band teacher; I would have asked our teacher-librarian coordinator if she wanted to set one up as well but she just set up a wiki for the teacher-librarians to communicate with so I thought that was adequate). After explaining what a Ning was and how it could serve as both a professional development tool for his teachers and as a professional relations tool, I gave him a list of several Nings that had a similar purpose that he could examine at his leisure. It will be interesting to see if he takes me up on my offer to help him set up a Ning for his band teachers.

I see tremendous possibilities for using Nings in the classroom.

Nings would be an ideal way of establishing a collaborative learning community within a classroom where all students could share their work and thoughts as equal learning partners. Since they’re online, Nings could also be a way for teachers to keep parents informed about classroom events and share student learning.

As noted in the NCTE Inbox Blog, Nings could be used in the classroom to set up groups based on student interest in any subject. Forums could be established for literature circles and peer writing groups. Gone are the days of boring book reports and presentations since students can use the Ning to attach their work in a variety of mediums such as text, podcasts and multimedia productions like voicethreads and videos. Librarians could set up a Ning to discuss favourite books and genres.

library-thing

If you’re still not convinced that social networking sites are great places to meet people who share common interests, you might want to check out LibraryThing which is a specialized network designed for people who want to share what’s in their personal libraries and find out what others have in their libraries. Members have access to a catalogue of over thirty million titles, they can read book reviews, join specialized groups and can take part in group discussions through a messaging service and post blog entries and comment on all blog postings. If you’re into books, this site is amazing.

shelfariAnother site that I enjoy using as a teacher-librarian and lover of books is Shelfari. Like LibraryThing, Shelfari is a specialized network designed for avid readers and anyone who wants to show off their book collection or their favourite books. You can see what your friends and other people in the network are reading and discover great books in the process.

My Final Thoughts on Social Networking

The fact that so many students are drawn to social networking sites and actively seek them out should be enough indication for educators that they need to do more to understand how to incorporate social networking sites into their daily classroom routines. After all, if you “can’t beat’em” you might as well “join’em” (O’Hanlon, p. 1). I believe that teachers like myself need to “seize the day” and begin to develop authentic learning experiences that infuse the use of this Web 2.0 technology in order to “harness the power of social networking to build rich, interactive, robust learning communities” (New Media Consortium, p. 2). To do this, we must first become comfortable in the social networking world of our students. I believe through this course, I have come one step closer to entering this world and understanding the power of social networking.

References

Abram, S. (Mar./Apr., 2008). Scaffolding the new social literacies. Multimedia and Internet @ Schools, 15(2), p. 1-3. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

Carter, H.L., Foulger, T.S., & Ewbank, A.D. (May, 2008). Have you googled your teacher lately? Teachers’ use of social networking sites. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(9), 1-7. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

Johnson, D. (Oct. 6, 2008). Facebook – an educational resource? Blue Skunk Blog. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2008/10/7/facebook-an-educational-resource.html

Kollie, E. (Jan., 2007). Social networking: It’s a good thing! School Planning & Management, 46(1), p. 1-3. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

Lamb, A., & Johnson, L. (Oct., 2006). Want to be my “friend”? What you need to know about social technologies. Teacher Librarian, 34(1), 1-7. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

New Media Consortium. (Jan., 2007). One year or less; Social networking. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from http://www.nmc.org/horizon/2007/social-networking

O’Hanlon, C. (Aug., 2007). If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” T.H.E. Journal, 34(8), 104. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

Richardson, W. (Nov., 2008). Footprints in the digital age. Educational Leadership, 66(3), p. 1-4. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/nov08/vol66/num03/Footprints_in_the_Digital_Age.aspx

Rosenfeld, E. (Feb., 2008). Expanding your professional network with Nings. Teacher Librarian, 35(3), 1-2. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

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