Safety and Social Networking: How Can We Maximize the Learning Power of Participatory Web Sites While Ensuring Students Are Protected and Behave Responsibly?

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The various scandals around social networking abuses have garnered lots of press in the past couple of years. Predators, bullying, slander, and harassment of all kinds on sites such as MySpace and Facebook are increasingly the subjects of horror stories and play into a renewed wave of fear about the dangers online.

As a professor of educational technology and media in a teacher education program, I have encountered some frightening tales myself.

Rob was a bright, well-mannered young intern whose career almost ended in controversy in fall 2006. He entered his practicum in top form with strong classroom management skills and a brilliant grasp of the high school math curriculum. Rob was well-liked by his students--perhaps a little too much by some. Three of Rob's female students created a fake MySpace account of the young teacher, populating the site with digital photos they found through Web searches and with information from Rob's authentic MySpace profile. Students took these acts further, digitally altering photos to produce images of the young teacher "pounding back shooters" at a local nightclub with several high school students by his side.

Katie was a seasoned elementary teacher and mother of two teenage girls. I met her two years ago when presenting on digital citizenship and cyber safety at a parent-teacher association meeting. The presentation, "Do you know what your kids are doing online?", shook a few parents, and Katie was one of them. She called me the next day asking for ways to track her children's online behavior. I gave her information regarding some free tracking software, along with the cautioning question, "Are you sure you want to do this?" The next day, Katie called me again, this time in tears. She had descended deep into the secrets of her 16-year-old daughter's life, finding it heavy with sex, drugs, and alcohol, much of it fueled by contacts she met through Facebook and MySpace.

Students Are Already There

In August 2007, the National School Boards Association released Creating & Connecting, a study of children's use of online social networking. The study shows that the majority of American youth polled (ages 9-17) report they spend "almost as much time using social networking services and Web sites as they spend watching TV." Remarkably, students report their activities as being anything but passive, and that they are likely to "engage in highly creative activities on social networking sites." The recent PEW/Internet report Teens and Social Media (December 2007) affirms and extends the findings of the NSBA report. It states, "The use of social media from blogging to online social networking to creation of all kinds of digital material--is central to many teenagers' lives." The kids are already there, connected, and teachers and parents need to accept this fact.

A New World of Learning

Once the fear of safety is removed, social networking sites can open up broad and exciting new worlds of learning for both educators and students. Innovative teachers are recognizing the potential of tools such as MySpace and Facebook to bridge cultural gaps and create authentic 21st-century learning environments.

At the International School Bangkok, in Thailand, teacher Kim Cofino connects her fifth graders through an online social network to classrooms in Australia, China, the UK, and the U.S. The project's goal is to encourage students to think deeply and to communicate about their reading.

Also with an international reach is the Flat Classroom Project. Cofounded by Vicki Davis, known in the edublogosphere as "coolcatteacher," the project is a global and hands-on initiative where middle and high school students from the U.S., Australia, China, Austria, and Qatar work together on projects inspired by Thomas Friedman's groundbreaking book, The World Is Flat.

These projects exemplify what's possible when the power of social networking sites is harnessed in the service of Digital Age education. …