One of my goals for this year was to try social networking in the classroom. I really enjoyed exploring and connecting on all of the various educational social networks last semester, so I wanted to bring that kind of experience into the classroom setting this year.
For me, the power of social networking, especially in the elementary school classroom, is the ease with which students can begin to take a leadership role. There is no “owner” of the space (like you might have with a teacher-led classroom blog), and there are multiple modes of communication and multiple spaces where a student might find their niche (from forums to blog posts to uploading media). Plus, the ability to create a private Ning allows our students to have open conversations, while still emphasizing online safety and appropriate use. Overall, social networking seems like an excellent tool to connect classrooms around the world using one online “home base” that provides a variety of formats for expression and limitless possibilities for authentic use of technology tools.
So, in an effort to explore the potential of social networking the in the elementary classroom, we have set up 3 networks, all using Ning over this past semester:
Grade 5: Xtreme Learning: Highly able students in all grade 5 classes connect about reading using Ning as part of our current organizational goal to improve student reading. Similarly abled readers in grade 4 and grade 6 will be added as the year progresses. 8 other international and local schools are participating in our discussions on reading and literature.
Grade 4: The Connected Classroom: 8 international and local grade 4 classrooms are connecting on one Ning to teach and learn from each other. We have just started, but have plans in place to share screencasts of classroom learning, digital stories, more book reviews, student-led forum discussions, and whatever else comes up. Our idea is to connect students on a personal level, in a private and safe space, to begin learning from each other, teaching each other and collaborating on projects together. We are hoping to see this project idea develop into a year-long, always-on, global classroom.
Grade 2: World Village: Two grade two classrooms are connecting on Ning to explore intercultural understanding and learn about the different cultures we have represented in our classes. We started in October, mostly just chatting and leaving comments. There are videos in the works and plans for some common projects to be conducted later in the year.
At this point, we’ve only really just begun. The teachers that are facilitating these spaces are as new to social networking as the students. They are learning how to model appropriate behavior, manage unwanted membership requests or bad behavior, and how to focus discussion on intended topics. For the most part we’ve gotten started with forum discussions and blog posts, but I can see the potential of uploading media (digital video, podcasts, images – all hosted directly on the Ning without having to worry about uploading to a non-private hosting service first).
Although things have been proceeding well, there are a few things I wish I had known/done at the begining:
Well, we did actually do this one, but I thought it was too important not to share here. To get us started, we sent home a permission slip for the parents to sign. Because I’m working with elementary students and many of them did not have their own e-mail addresses, this was the perfect place to get parent permission for that as well.
Clarify behavior expectations:
After discussing appropriate behavior online (not just safety, but cyberbullying, gossiping, and quality comments), create a class list of expectations and post it on the network for all to see (not that we’ve had any problems yet, but this is so obvious I can’t even believe I didn’t do it!).
Develop a teacher management system:
Given the fact that most of these teachers have probably never worked together, and definitely not face-to-face, it makes sense to set up a structure for managing the network. Once teachers join the Ning, they are made administrators of the network which allows them to add and delete users (and modify the network) as necessary. This way, each individual teacher in each individual school can add their own students and accept those pending membership requests independently.
The biggest issue we have had is student membership requests. For a while there I was getting dozens of membership requests a day from e-mail addresses I didn’t recognize, until I realized they were all from different classes that were using the Ning. As soon as I promoted each teacher to administrator (and sent out an e-mail advising them of the new update) they were able to manage their own classes, without causing any confusion for the other administrators.
Organize a method for accepting and screening new member requests:
What we’ve seen so far is that each teacher needs to be responsible for accepting only their students (and their student’s parents, if requested) into the Ning in a timely manner. Given the nature of these international collaborations, really the only person that can correctly accept student memberships is the actual teacher of those students – usually the students only use their first names and an avatar to create an account, and despite whatever the teacher may request, they don’t always put in their school information upon registering. So, that takes care of the individual students.
Of course, this leaves other teachers that may become interested at a later date, researchers interested in learning about social networking, and the odd random person that doesn’t seem to have any connection to education at all, requesting membership on a fairly regular basis. Who deals with all of those people? If we’re telling parents that the network is private (and therefore as secure as we can make it for their children), we need to make sure that every single member of the network is either a parent, student or teacher.
So, for these 3 networks, I’ve been doing that job. For every person that requests membership that I don’t already know from personal connections, I send an e-mail inquiring why they’ve chose to join the network. It may seem irritating to teachers that receive these queries, but it’s the only way I can figure out to identify who these people are (especially if they don’t have a picture, or list a website, or clearly identify which school they’re from). If I don’t receive any response to my inquiry, I decline membership (for a while there, the only option was “ban” which seemed pretty severe to me, but Ning seems to have added a “decline” option recently). I don’t like the feeling of exclusivity that this creates, but I can’t think of a better way to stay true to our goals of creating a private Ning.
Model, model, model:
Teachers sometime have a tendency to expect that as soon as students are given access to a technology tool, they will automatically know how to behave and interact with others. However, just because they can navigate the page and learn the tool quicker and easier (in most cases) than the teacher can upon first sight, doesn’t mean that they know what to do once they get there.
All too often, teachers set up an online space for their students and then just “let them have a go” – basically leaving the students on their own in this new environment (sometimes because the teacher is not sure where to start). Not only does this provide fertile breeding ground for misbehavior, but it is definitely not something teachers would do in the physical world, so there’s really no rationale for letting them go in a virtual environment. Teachers must be the model for appropriate behavior online, just like they are in the physical classroom.
Once you have the groundwork laid – planning is done, international connections are made, teachers know the basics of the technology tools, students are members of the space – and you’re ready to start working with the Ning, the first step is for the teachers (all of the teachers involved) to model appropriate use of the network. Everything from behavior, to attitude, to quality of comments, to spelling and grammar, to appropriate use of the variety of features available. Yes, this is a lot of work. Yes, this will seem a bit teacher-focused in the beginning. Yes, this often requires teachers to check in on the network outside of school hours. But, I promise, in the end it will all be worth it. Once students have been given a clear model for how to interact in this environment, they will be able to move forward and develop on their own.
We’re still in the initial phases of all of these projects, but I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback from parents and students already. They are enjoying the freedom to communicate and discuss their learning outside class hours, and the opportunity to connect with other students around the world – exactly the same things I was excited about when I started exploring social networking last year. I can’t wait to see how far we can go with this new tool!