Social Networks in Schools: How to Make it Work


Introduction

As the use of social media in education increases so does the argument for and against.  The purpose of this article is to try and take a balanced view of both sides of the coin and also to look at some of the reasons why schools won’t engage using social media.  In order to achieve this Matt Britland (@mattbritland) and Alan Mackenzie (@esafetyadviser) have collaborated, with Matt looking at the curriculum aspects and Alan looking at any e-safety aspects.

The first step to understanding some of the issues was to create and Tweet out a link to a survey of 10 simple questions, the results of which were all saved to a Google Docs spreadsheet (put in public link).  Then, a further Google Doc was created to collaboratively write the article.

Clearly this has some restrictions; for example using Social Media (in this case Twitter) to ask for respondents to the survey would suggest that the survey results would be one-sided and in favour of social networking, however that didn’t turn out to be the case.  Additionally this is by no means an in-depth survey,  27 persons responded however their responses were quite diverse and gave enough scope to be able to understand some of the issues. (Results can be read here)

What is also important to remember is that schools and individual teachers are masters of their own destiny (with limits); in the same way that some schools are really pathfinding the innovative use of new technologies, some schools/teachers just don’t “get” social networking, some don’t want to get it, and no amount of coaxing or good news stories will ever convince them otherwise.

For the sake of clarity and to save this becoming too long we have had keep this fairly concise; some of the questions and answers could be individual blogs as they generate discussion from multiple standpoints.

Definition of Social Media and Social Networking

Definition is from Dictionary.com

1. A network of friends, colleagues, and other personal contacts: Strong social networks can encourage healthy behaviors.

2. Computers .

a. An online community of people with a common interest who use a Web site or other technologies to communicate with each other and share information,resources, etc.: a business-oriented social network.

b. A Web site or online service that facilitates this communication.

How Many Social Networking Services Are There?

That is very difficult to determine; of course we all know the popular ones: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Edmodo to mention a few.  Wikipedia lists 199 social networks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites) but I suspect there are many more than that and it all depends on what your own interpretation of “social” is.

A couple of interesting facts  http://www.socialnetworkingwatch.com/all_social_networking_statistics/ :

  • Social networking sites have increased 6% year on year.
  • Pinterest is the fastest growing social network with a growth of 4377% between May 2011 and May 2012; Twitter grew 58% and Facebook just 4%.

What uses are there for social media in education?

There are many uses, for example:

  • Using Facebook as a “broadcast” account.  This is a one-way communication from the school to parents, an information portal if you like.  This is a great use of social media for many reasons including: quick, easy, cheap, most parents will have an account, saves on “lost” letters on the way home, saves printing costs.
  • An increasing number of educational institutions are using Facebook Pages for promotional reasons. This is another way for schools and universities to market themselves.
  • Schools are beginning to use Facebook groups to communicate with students. This is a very powerful tool for sharing information and collaborating with students from a safe distance. Facebook groups do not require members to be friends with each other. Members of the groups can exchange files, links, information, polls and videos very quickly. Anytime someone contributes the group its members will receive a notification. If you have the Facebook smartphone App these can be pushed to your device.
  • Facebook Pages can also be used to create a central page for students and teachers to share information.
  • Twitter, like Facebook, is also being used as a “broadcast account”. This often links to an RSS feed from the website that automatically tweets a news article when it is published on the website. This is great for parents on the move and keeps them up to date on the latest happenings at the school.
  • Teachers have been setting up subject or class Twitter accounts that students can follow. The teacher then tweets information related to their class. Some even set homework via Twitter.
  • Pinterest is becoming popular as a virtual pinboard. It is great for sharing web resources that students will find interesting or relevant.

We should not shy away from using social media in education; it is clear from our survey that many senior managers are worried about abuse. However, if you have experts in your school they can provide a safe and secure framework for its use; they can create training materials and guidelines that teachers and staff can follow to ensure everyone knows what they can and cannot do. The great thing is that many people know how to use Facebook already, and Twitter is so straightforward it would not take long for people to learn it.  If there is no expert in school, seek advice, either from another school or from external expert.

I think it’s important to embrace social media as it is the primary way that young people communicate, alongside text messaging and instant messaging. Much of the time we force students down the route of email. Do we do that because it is easier for us? In my experience of using Facebook groups with students they pick up communications far quicker than email.

It is obviously not always appropriate to use social media, the important thing to remember is to use it where it seems fit. You do not have to ignore email or your VLE altogether. Ask your students. Would they like to have some way of communicating via social media? If so, what is best for them and the school?

Another issue that was raised in our survey was the fact that using social networks can encroach on students and staff members personal space. I can completely understand this, one of the many reasons for not using a personal profile for Twitter, Facebook or whichever social network you choose. Having this second profile gives the staff member some space. The same cannot be said for the student, as in general they do use their personal account. That being said, the students I have spoken to don’t see this as a problem so long as the teacher is not too ‘loud’. Twitter could be used to simply share useful links related to teaching and learning. It can be very unobtrusive.

As mentioned in the bullet points above the social networks could be used as broadcast accounts. This is perhaps the “safer” option, especially if all communication is outwards to the rest of the world rather than used to respond to questions.  Twitter is especially good for this as it can be linked to the school RSS feed. This is a huge time saver and reduces the need to keep tweeting news. However, the Twitter account can still be used for bespoke tweets by the Head or nominated member of staff managing the feed. If you are clear in the profile that it is for broadcasting information only, it will not look rude if you do not reply to tweets.

Schools also worry about inappropriate use not only by students, but staff as well. Most schools filter social networks which leads to the question that promoting the use of social networks is hypocritical when we do not allow them in school. You could argue that this is true. My personal feeling is that we need to teach both students and staff appropriate use; by banning them in school we are not teaching anyone anything. I am a realist and understand that most schools will not suddenly unfilter Facebook or Twitter for students. This is not a massive problem for me as communicating through social networks is actually better for use outside of school. Whether this is at home or at lunch or break. Many students are using smartphones to check their favourite network so filtering them in school makes little difference. In fact by filtering we have even less opportunity to monitor whether they are being used appropriately.

What about e-safety?

Social networking raises many obvious and some not so obvious e-safety concerns in schools.  e-Safety from the context of school governance is much like health and safety; the responsibility of the school and its’ staff, governors and parents is to mitigate risk by reasonable endeavour.  In much the same way that technology should not drive the curriculum, e-safety should not be your showstopper (in most cases) regarding innovation.

Regardless of what we do there is a risk involved; driving to and from work, lifting something off the floor, and as I found out recently to the detriment of my back, keeping fit!
Driving a car – we get in a car, drive it and we are steadily given more freedom on faster roads by the instructor.
Lifting something – we are shown to bend our knees.
Keeping fit – warm up correctly and maintain correct form.

In all of the above examples we are taught to be safe by “doing”, not by sitting in front of a Powerpoint.  (Actually that’s not strictly true, there is sometimes a little bit of theory first, but you get the gist).  In the same way I don’t promote sitting in a classroom and “teaching” e-safety because it is difficult to teach something which is constantly evolving; certainly you can discuss the risks (predators, bullying, personal information, trolls to name a few) but a fundamental outcome of e-safety is to empower the user from a young age to enjoy  technology through safe use.  Again going back to the driving analogy, practicing your driving skills and risk assessing hazards becomes second nature; this is a life skill, not a lesson.

The three fundamentals that I work to:  policy, liability, safe use.

Safe use – We need to dispel some of the ridiculous myths and scaremongering which seem to prevail with many internet “experts”.  On an almost daily basis I am reminded that all our children are in extreme danger, that predators are hanging around every corner of the web, their bank accounts are going to be continually emptied and the Nigerian government person who kindly emailed me to say that she needed to shift some funds because they had too much is really a scam (http://www.snopes.com/fraud/advancefee/nigeria.asp).  Incidentally, I still haven’t had my cheque!  Of course I am not belittling the facts, I am acutely aware that every time I get into my car and drive there is a significant risk to myself and others.  I am also fully aware of internet risks, and that’s the point:  I am aware of them and I risk assess against them.

Liability – schools need to understand liability; in other words what could happen if I don’t do something, or if I don’t do something correctly.  A good example of this is internet filtering.  When a filter is simply used to block websites (and I have seen some horrifically restrictive policies) you are wrapping the child in cotton wool.  It is detrimental to the education of the child and is detrimental to the teacher in so many ways.  On the other side of the coin there are many that call for schools to have no internet filter.  From a liability perspective this is impossible for a school (although I have seen it done).  Illegal downloads, illegal images etc. would put the school at huge risk.  Don’t use filtering as a tool to block – use it as a tool to manage.

Policy – Only when you understand safe use and you are aware of the liability to the school can you wrap this up in policy.  Policy is simply your school rules, written in easy to understand language (age appropriate) and understood by the whole school.

Social networking has all the same risks as the traditional online safety risks.  Many of the e-safety reasons cited for not using social networking in school are understandable because the risks are simply not fully understood.  This is because of a lack of awareness, which in some cases will be down to scaremongering.  This then culminates in the inability to risk assess because some schools don’t know what to risk assess against, and how to mitigate those risks.  I have written a brief document for schools titled “Twitter for Schools: Policy, Liability, Safe Use”.  It would be better to download this instead of reiterating everything here but the bottom line is this:

If you do want to use social networking in school.

  1. Start off small and don’t take bigger steps until you are comfortable.  For example use a broadcast account as a parental engagement tool (Facebook and Twitter are both good for this).
  2. Engage the parents first, nurture them along with you and I think you will be surprised the positive effects this can have.  Tell them what you are doing and why, e.g. better engagement, up to date and quick communication, cost saving (printing and letters), urgent messages (school shut due to snow) etc.
  3. Discuss what you wish to achieve with all school staff and why.  Discuss the tools you will use and who will use them.
  4. Set boundaries of use in regards to appropriate/inappropriate.
  5. Risk assess – note all the risks that everybody raises (regardless of how silly or unlikely some may sound).
  6. Expand the risks and mitigate them all (if possible).
  7. If you can’t mitigate, is it a red or amber risk?  If red there is a problem, if amber can you mitigate using reasonable endeavour?
  8. Wrap all this up into a social networking policy and cross reference to other appropriate policies (i.e. AUP, Behaviour, Bullying etc.)
  9. IMPORTANT: Before you start, engage all staff with an e-safety awareness session.  If you can do the same with parents, great!  If parents sessions at your school are poorly attended try to get the news out using alternative means.  You could always send out a parents online safety newsletter.

It sounds a lot, but it isn’t once you’re in the flow and others are onboard.

e-Safety: Dispel the Myths, Promote the Positive Use of Technology.

If you are not following Matt (@mattbritland) or myself (@esafetyadviser) on Twitter please do, say hello and ask questions about any of the above.  We’re pretty friendly!

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8 thoughts on “Social Networks in Schools: How to Make it Work

  1. This entry is of enormous use to me as I prepare to expand my social-media-in-teaching activities beyond my own students in the school at which I work (the London Nautical School). Thanks for taking the time to write it and especially for putting the ‘risk’ aspect into perspective.

    I have seen some incredible transformations in the work and, more importantly, disposition of my students TO the work, since introducing these components to my everyday teaching practice. I’m so excited about where this will go in the future.

    Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Thank you for this comment. We are really glad that this can be of use.

      I think there is a bright future for SN in education if we can use it affectively.

      Many thanks,

      Matt

  2. A very good and appropriate article. As an educator, i also embraced this new way of communication with my students. One has to adapt to new and emerging technologies, especially if it makes your tasks easier. Stanley (Pretoria, South Africa)

  3. Pingback: Using Facebook Groups in School – A Brief Report/Evaluation | mattbritland.com

  4. Pingback: Use Facebook in School: Facebook Guide for Educators | mattbritland.com

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