Plug into Generation IM
For the generation that grew up with the Internet, social networking and IM-ing are second nature.
Now educators must learn the same language
wrapped up in technology?
Roughly 200 million people worldwide have accounts on the social-networking Web sites MySpace and Facebook.
It should come as no surprise to school administrators that many of those users are their own tech-savvy students. Every single day kids post huge quantities of information—blog entries, comments, photos, music, their likes and dislikes— to their interconnected networks of online friends through computers, cell phones, and BlackBerrys. As is common with technology at the forefront of popular culture, kids were among the first to discover these networks and understand how to use them for their own socializing. It is an integral part of their daily lives. Quite simply, they get it. Now it’s time for educators to get it, too, and to start to use these same social-networking principles in the classroom.
There are signs that educators are beginning to use social-networking ideas in the curriculum, but not necessarily in the ways we might expect. Sure, there are schools simply plugging their classes into mainstream social-networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, and this approach can certainly yield dividends. But there are other ways for educators to go.
Here are just a few of the most killer apps out there:
Kelly Tenkely is a k-5 tech teacher at Cherry Hills Christian in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and an education tech blogger with her own Web site. One concern she has when teaching her young students: how to share with them the interactive world of social networking and blogging in a safe and supervised environment. The likes of MySpace and Facebook are far too freewheeling and difficult to moderate, and they can expose kids to inappropriate language and images. She was also keen to teach principles of Internet safety to her young charges.
So, two years ago, Tenkely started using Imbee, a sort of MySpace with training wheels. There are several social- networking-like sites up and running that are geared toward much younger users, such as Webkinz and Disney’s Club Penguin. But Imbee’s parent company, San Francisco–based Industrious Kid, has been marketing Imbee aggressively, and specifically, toward schools since it was launched in 2006.
The attraction of Imbee is quite simple: It has all the bells and whistles of a MySpace, with none of the risks. Because it’s a closed network, kids may only “friend” people they know, and all posts and e-mail may be supervised and approved by parents or, in this case, teachers like Tenkely.
“With Imbee, I receive an e-mail any time students add content of any kind to their Imbee pages,” Tenkely says. “This makes it simple for me to see what my students are doing all in one place.”
Tenkely initially introduced social networking into her computer classroom as a way to teach kids about Internet safety and “netiquette,” and to introduce the basics of blogging. But she also uses social networking to get her students to think more analytically. “For example, I might pose the question for the day through an e-mail: ‘You want to go to a movie with your friend, but you don’t have any money. Your big sister keeps a stash of money in her desk drawer and probably won’t notice if it’s gone. What would you do in this situation?’ The kids brainstorm and blog together about ways to handle different scenarios,” says Tenkely. Imbee has also been used to help the students learn collectively, by solving math problems or writing poetry together.
Unlike many learning applications, Imbee is popular with students outside of class. “Some students have started book clubs on Imbee where they discuss books online,” says Tenkely. “This is all on their own time.”
Using a social network has other benefits, too. For one thing, “It gives students a place to post their projects so that they can show family and friends,” says Tenkely. “Imbee gives them a real sense of audience, and I have found that the quality of work has increased exponentially because they know that their friends will be looking at it.” Tenkely also gets to know her students better. “I know their likes and dislikes and which after-school activities they are involved in,” she says. “When I am creating lessons, I can better differentiate instruction.”
Many schools have begun to implement free open-source software in a big way, primarily to save money (see “Open-Minded Schools” in Scholastic Administr@tor’s June 2008 issue).
One such open-source software project is Moodle, a course-management system that helps teachers create their own online learning communities. In practice, it uses social-networking concepts in an interactive environment, in a way that’s useful for both teachers and students. Moodle began in 1999, but has taken off in the past few years. It has a diverse user community, with more than 400,000 registered users in 193 countries.
One of those registered users is Mark Fuson, an English teacher at New Palestine High School in the Southern Hancock County (IN) School District. After 15 years in the classroom, Fuson will take to the road next year, traveling across Indiana to instruct other teachers on how to use Moodle.
When Fuson first started using Moodle, he put all of his teaching materials online, along with an outline of assignments for each week, so students and parents could go to a centralized Web destination for all the information. Moodle’s interactivity, which allows students and parents to leave comments or contributions, makes it a virtual classroom accessible from anywhere.
But not everyone was on board with Moodle right away. “I think parents were a little leery. They would say, ‘Are you still teaching, or are you depending on a computer?’” he says. “As they began to see how we used it, as a living syllabus, I think they liked it more.”
His top students, on the other hand, loved it. “They’re very conscientious students. They can can go online and get any information they need. My regular stream students like it as well, but they joke with me that it’s a pain because my answer to questions about assignments is ‘Check it for yourself on the Moodle page.’” It really increases student responsibility, Fuson says, and “students use it to organize their lives. They know when materials are due, and they can balance that with their other classes. It’s not me keeping them organized.”
Online social networking, says Fuson, has gone some way toward decentralizing the teaching process. “All of the teachers are excited about being free to roam, helping students when they need it, rather than being the center of attention,” says Fuson. “That’s kind of a dream situation in education.”
His goal is to help teachers better guide students to find information on their own. “I think a lot of teachers still look at technology as: We’re doing a project, and we’re going to use PowerPoint. But they’re still doing all the work,” says Fuson. “What we need to do is teach students how to find information for themselves and to judge its validity. The key is for students to learn how to find the answers when there’s no longer a teacher there to tell them.”
One of the more ambitious projects using a social-network angle to attract students is iCue, a project of NBC Learn, the New York–based educational arm of NBC News, in collaboration with minds from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. iCue is billed as a free online “collaborative learning environment” for students 13 and older.
It includes many ways for student to interact, via peer-moderated discussion forums, games, and, most especially, hundreds of hours of current and historic video footage from NBC News. A two- to three-minute clip of footage of a particular event—say, the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s bus protest—is put on virtual “Cue Cards” that students can collect and trade with their friends, as well as use in timeline and memory games. “They can write on it; they can tag it,” explains Nicola Soares, vice president of marketing at NBC. “They can organize them by color-coding the Cue Cards. They can also look at their peers and what they write on their Cue Cards. These cards are traded, they’re collected, they’re added, almost like an iTunes list.” It’s sort of MySpace meets YouTube—meets Tom Brokaw.
Teachers are really taking to iCue, for a familiar reason. “What they’re most excited about is that they can tell their students that they are able to use it outside of classroom time,” says Soares, “and it reinforces all the instruction that’s going on in the classroom.”
After a year and a half of development, the iCue site launched this past May and already has thousands of users. The social-networking aspect has certainly been a key attraction. “We’re essentially using the principles of social networking,” says Soares. “If you think about it, we have now become a society of self-expression.”