“I propose that we listen to the signals that come through the walls of our classrooms from the outside.”

Anne Ruggles Gere

The value of social networking and its place in 21st century education was the talk of the town at last week’s National School Boards Association’s Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.  The association released a report, “Creating and Connecting”, that detailed the findings of a survey conducted by the association in conjunction with research firm Grunswald Associates that examined the use of social networks by school age children and the implications of those findings for public educators.  The study was comprised of three surveys: an online survey of 1,277 nine- to 17-year-old students, an online survey of 1,039 parents and telephone interviews with 250 school district leaders who make decisions on Internet policy.Here are some of the findings from this survey:

·          96% of the students surveyed who online access had reported they had used social networking technologies, which includes chatting, text messaging, blogging, and online communities like Facebook and MySpace.
·          81% of the students surveyed said they had visited a social networking website in the last three months.
·          71% of the students surveyed reported using social networking tools at least once weekly.
·          60% of students reported that they discuss educational topics on their social networks; 50% reported that they specifically discuss homework.

What do students use social networking sites and tools to do?
·          Posting messages
·          Sharing music
·          Sharing videos
·          Sharing photos
·          Building websites or online profiles
·          Blogging (1 in 6 reported adding to blogs they have created weekly); 30% of the survey participants reported having their own blogs.
·          Creating content

Students who identified themselves as nonconformists—students who step outside the rules of online safety and behavior rules—tend to be the ones who are the cutting edge of social networking.  Nonconformists tend to be significantly heavier users of social networking sites than other students. 

How do these facts relate to school district policies regarding access and the use of social networking tools and technologies? 

·          84% of school districts in the survey prohibit online chatting ; 81% prohibit instant messaging on school networks. 
·          62% of school districts in the survey do not allow participation in blogs on campus; 52% of the districts do not permit students to use any social networking sites at school.
·          School district leaders seem to believe that negative experiences with social networking are more  common than students and parents report.
For example, more than half of districts (52 percent) say that students providing personal information online has been “a significant problem” in their schools, yet only 3 percent of students say they’ve ever given out their e-mail addresses, instant messaging screen names or other personal information to strangers.      Similar differences occur between districts’ beliefs and students’ and parents’ reported experiences with inappropriate material, cyber bullying and other negative incidents.  While many educators now require their students to use the Internet or have web access for assignments, school policies across the country do not show that administrative decision makers are convinced about the value of social networking technologies as effective educational tools.  However, the survey indicated that attitudes may be shifting; the following results may be hints as that policy changes could be on the horizon:  ·          District leaders say they hope social networking will help students “get outside the box” in some way or another.  However, fewer than one in three (29 percent) believe that social networking could help students improve their reading or writing or express themselves more clearly (28 percent).
·          Large proportions of district leaders say that a strong emphasis on collaborative and planned activities (81 percent), strong tools for students to express themselves (70 percent) and an emphasis on bringing different kinds of students together (69 percent) would be required for them to buy into social networking for school use. But most also would insist on adult monitoring (85 percent) and would continue to prohibit chat and instant messaging (71 percent) as conditions of social networking use in school. 

After reviewing the data in the survey, The National School Boards Association made the following recommendations in their report:
 ·          Explore social networking sites.
·          Consider using social networking for staff communications and professional development.
·          Find ways to harness the educational value of social networking.
·          Ensure equitable access.
·          Pay attention to the nonconformists.
·          Reexamine social networking policies.
·          Encourage social networking companies to increase educational value.  

How might the findings of this study and these recommendations affect our technology use in the Cherokee County School District?  What are ways we can harness the educational value of social networking?  We are already using del.icio.us, a social bookmarking service, as part of our pathfinders here at the Creekview High School Media Center as well as blogs.  We are also considering how we could establish a presence on Facebook and MySpace like many college libraries have already done in order to be more accessible to our patrons.  What do you, as students, teachers, and parents, see as the potential of Web 2.0 tools for learning and true educational value?  Do you feel the current use of Web 2.0 tools by CRHS is helping you learn?