Giving Students Access to Social Media Tools

Some general thoughts

Middle school students in Australian schools are being equipped with a powerful 10.2” Lenovo Idea pad S10e.  The Machine comes with Windows 7, Adobe CS4 and a complete version of Microsoft Office installed.  In NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) schools are being fitted with fast wireless access that seems likely to deliver around 5mbs to students using the computers.  First indications are that the wireless access points propagate a substantial footprint.  Schools will be literally swimming in accessibility.

Stu Hasic’s blog Parallel Divergence has an excellent thorough account of the roll-out, which in practical terms has been an outstanding success.

Of course access to the Internet isn’t unfettered, the DET filters it in the interests of student safety.  Despite the filtering student access is extensive and where blocked sites seem to be impairing educational needs teachers may apply to have sites unblocked.

Students are also able to take their computers home.  The machines give them access, through the web from other WiFi access points.  MacDonalds, for example, now provides free wireless access to clients.  I’ve tried it on one of the Lenovos and it works well.  Students also have access at home either direct cable access or WiFi access.  The baseline is that their journey into the Internet is still filtered, wherever they use their Lenovo.

Access to Social Media Tools

Whether or not students should have access to Social Media sites is now up for discussion in the DET so I thought it was time to jot down a few of my own ideas on the subject.  When I first started to think about this issue I found myself focused on the challenges of Web 2.0, since then my ideas have changed somewhat. Certainly I have concerns about cyber-safety but then I saw the immediate benefits for both teachers and students inherent in unblocking Web 2.0 sites.  Of course, this must occur within a clear policy and pedagogical framework but the educative possibilities it liberates are both wide and contemporary.

In my experience many students are already using a variety of Web2.0 tools outside school.  Most students have home access to the Internet, which might or might not be supervised by parents or carers. Any student with an iPhone or other Web enabled mobile already has an unfettered access to the Internet whenever there’s a 3G network, and that can be in the playground, the shopping centre, or even travelling on a bus.  Our challenge is to teach responsible safe use of Web2.0 tools.

Another challenge that’s intrinsic to Web2.0 is the fact that there are new forms of literacy and expression emerging from the use of social media tools.  Some of our students are becoming quite fluent and creative in these modes of expression.  These forms of expression are inherently immediate and therefore engaged with contemporary material.  They are characterised by a convergence of different media and the linking and layering of information in a manner that takes it beyond more traditional literacies.

If we ignore these challenges and adopt simple prohibitionist approaches, we will fail to effectively address the educational, social and cultural needs of our students. We will also implicitly undervalue some immensely creative and immediate processes that are already shaping the lives of our students.

Facebook and games

When children set up a Facebook presence or play certain types of online games they can, potentially, acquire social skills, knowledge of communications technology and begin to develop more sophisticated forms of digital literacy. It doesn’t automatically follow that merely engaging with these media imparts such knowledge and skill it depends on the intent and philosophy behind them.

Facebook does allow the development of social skills and digital literacy.  As a multi-layered event, a series of interlocking social networks it offers a great potential for groups to interact and for sound social behaviours to be demonstrated.  I use it and find it a valuable tool for staying in touch with family, friends and colleagues, wherever they are.

Unfortunately students often adopt this tool in relative ignorance of the inherent privacy issues and end up revealing far too much about themselves to be entirely safe. In one case that I’ve encountered, a girl, now 15, reported signing up to Facebook when she was 12 and uncritically providing her full name and other details that made it possible for people to easily locate her. She now regrets this but didn’t understand exactly what she was doing when she signed up.  Now she feels cautious about using Facebook.

Facebook is immediate, global and outside the formal media.  It’s a remarkable source of information about what’s happening in the world.  It’s relatively well regulated and based on two core principles

1. You should have control over your personal information.
2. You should have access to the information others want to share.

In addressing users Facebook says:

Always follow these important safety tips when using Facebook:

  • Never share your password with anyone
  • Adjust your privacy settings to match your level of comfort, and review them often
  • Be cautious about posting and sharing personal information, especially information that could be used to identify you or locate you offline, such as your address or telephone number
  • Report users and content that violate our Terms of Use
  • Block and report anyone that sends you unwanted or inappropriate communications

Barring students from such a resource locks them out of a rich discourse that is taking place around them.

In Safer children in a Digital World: The report of the Byron Review, Dr Tanya Byron makes a fundamental point that’s accepted by the UK government.  She says, at the heart of the matter our focus should be on

.  “ . . . a model of empowerment, equipping children with the skills and knowledge they need to use technology safely and responsibly and managing the risks, wherever and whenever they go online promote safe and responsible behaviours in using technology both at school and in the home and beyond

Obviously there are risks and it’s true, we cannot make the Internet completely safe, anymore than we can make society safe for children, or than we can make the ocean safe for them.  We can only attempt to teach them to swim and instil a sense of safe practice.

Some Conclusions

The point underlying much current discussion on Web2 is the importance of teachers and students developing skills to locate and present information, but also to be able to contribute and collaborate in both actual and virtual communities creating new knowledge and relationships that are about producing things rather than merely consuming them. These are the strategies we need to teach.   If we don’t embark on this course we are neglecting our duty as educators and allowing our students to float through the virtual world as relatively uncritical consumers, not skilled literate, discerning producers.

Dean Groom, Head of EdTech at the Learning and Teaching Centre, Macquarie University, Sydney, makes the rather obvious point that

Teens use  mobile phones, Bebo, Facebook and MySpace – to successfully strengthen friend networks. What they don’t know how to do is apply it to the discipline needed in obtain [sic] life affecting qualifications. There is a clear role for teachers to do this, and students readily work with these teachers – who are not necessarily technocrats – but are adoptive leaders and good communicators.

Incorporating Web2 tools into our practice allows us to adopt a constructivist approach and encourage our students to actively experiment, reflecting on and attempting to solve real-world problems, creating knowledge and discussing what they are doing and how their understandings of this process might be changing.

In the blog Learning and Laptops one teacher makes this point:

By empowering my students with technology that allows them to seek out understanding and clarification, my students have a new understanding of the world around them. However, this doesn’t mean that I have just let them loose in the wide world of web-surfing. Instead my role as a teacher has shifted. I can see my job as a combination of atelier, network administrator, facilitator, concierge and curator. Teaching is not a one descriptor job anymore. We need to be adaptable as do our students. And technology makes it all possible to not only meet the ever growing and changing needs of our students but for ourselves as professional learners too.

Looking at recent Twitter posts I came across the latest edition of a most useful e-newsletter Flex e-News from the national training system’s e-learning strategy. Several points made in the newsletter are relevant to this discussion.

“ . . . despite the widespread use and popularity of social media, and its ability to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration in workplace training, privacy issues and fears of misuse continue to deter many organisations from adopting these tools.”

“The biggest risk for organisations is to ignore social media. If organisations take this approach, they risk losing relevancy as we move from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Social media tools will be a key part of this new economy – so if organisations can’t use these tools, they won’t be able to engage effectively in the knowledge economy.”

The corollary is that if schools remain silent on social media, and if social media tools are not included as a relevant part of ICT across the curriculum, then schools will lose relevance and increasingly fail to thoroughly prepare students for the knowledge economy.

The newsletter goes on to stress that

Not being able to use social media tools effectively is a significant risk. The only way for organisations to overcome this is to provide staff with access to the tools and time to experiment and develop their knowledge. Organisations need to ‘learn by doing’ – create a blog; create a wiki; experiment with tag clouds and learn how they work.

This isn’t the final word by any means, but I hope it’s a useful contribution to discussion.

The DET You Tube video on the DEER is worth watching, it’s a nice piece of communication.

4 thoughts on “Giving Students Access to Social Media Tools

  1. Excellent post. I believe DET is looking to relax filters to allow access to social media sites like facebook and even MSN Live from outside of school. I agree with you, if we have an opportunity to shape the way our students use social websites, we should grasp it rather than ignore it and hope it goes away.


  2. Some good synthesis here. Social softwares offer significant affordances for teachers willing to plunge in.

    The opportunities for real learning outweigh barriers many are throwing up. Yes, cyber-safety is an issue to be addressed but the chance to leverage off the engagement factor to teach new literacies is not to be missed.


    1. I think that’s it in a nutshell it’s ” . . . the chance to leverage off the engagement factor to teach new literacies . . .”.


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