Facebook Training Wheels: A Secured Social Networking Site Allows Schools to Incorporate the Technology into Academics While Preparing Students for the Perils of Online Communities

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"We're not reading and writing across and down the page anymore. We're reading and writing in three dimensions: across, down, and out, the 'out' being hyperlinks. It's a whole different kind of literacy; it's a whole different kind of writing; it's a whole different kind of reading. It's a type of literacy that can't be done anywhere else but on the web."


Web 2.0 applications like online communities, blogs, and wikis should not be thought of as just a passing fad or idle socializing, but as an activity that has embedded itself into the way work gets done.

"Almost every business I can think of is using some sort of social networking tool, whether it be a chat tool within their business or using wikis to develop their manuals and their support, to do something comparable to an internal Facebook," says Yap, the director of instructional technology and data management for the Ramapo Central School District in Hillburn, NY.


For schools to keep pace with the trends being established in the world at large, Yap believes it's imperative they recognize the central role that social networking tools have grown to occupy in how employers do business, and make room for them in students' education.

"[Even] the government right now is creating an internal Facebook," he says. "It's pervasive, it's across the board."

An internal Facebook for the K-12 set is just what Yap found at the 2008 National School Board Association's (www.nsba.org) Technology and Learning Conference, where he got a glimpse of Saywire (https://saywire.com), an online social networking and learning site designed specifically for in-house use by schools and students. Saywire wants to create a safe environment where constructive Web 2.0 skills can be developed while students are young, so they grow up to be smart, civil online citizens. Since its launch last October, the site has registered more than 160,000 students and teachers across the country.

Yap knew the product would appeal to the Ramapo super intendent, Robert MacNaughton, whom he describes as "a visionary who really understands technology" and who wishes to provide 21st-century learning, Yap says, "not as an initiative but as a culture." As an example of that commitment, the district is in its third year of incorporating the virtual world Second Life (http://secondlife.com) into its middle school curriculum, and, according to Yap, has been told that its online databases rival those of Ivy League universities.

In January, after MacNaughton viewed a demo presentation and signed off on piloting Saywire in the district, Yap began rolling the tool out to 500 Ramapo teachers and students in grades 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9. By focusing on younger students, the district can use the system's controlled environment to teach proper use and behavior in web-based communities. "Our goal now is to catch students when they're young, so that by Year 2 or Year 3, as they're entering high school, they'll have a really strong grasp of the etiquette surrounding online social networking," Yap says.

Social networking is just one piece of technology integration, Yap says, but it's a piece that the district felt it needed to introduce to its students "before they go into the Wild Wild West of Facebook, or MySpace, or any other sites that are out there right now."

On the surface, the Saywire tool appears strikingly similar to Facebook or MySpace, starting with the log-on screen, where each user inputs a unique numerical password, which Yap considers part of the learning.

"So much of the information we access online today is password-protected," he says. "Students need to learn how valuable a password is, and that they can't share that password with anyone, not even their friends." Yap says that it's crucial to their understanding of the threats present on social networking sites that students learn the sanctity of private information. …


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