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February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

Power Up! / Why Facebook Belongs in Your School

Power Up! / Why Facebook Belongs in Your School - Thumbnail
About four years ago, I met with a group of student council representatives. During our discussion about online technology use, I asked how many of these students had teachers who communicated with them on Facebook. I was taken aback when well over half the students raised their hands. I had asked the question because I was working on a set of social-networking guidelines for our district's teachers—and one piece of advice was not to friend students on Facebook.
Young adults and our younger teachers, it seems, have always been about two steps ahead of me when it comes to online communication. These groups spend their lives on social media—which makes it crucial that schools give them access to the tools they take for granted.

Don't Put On the Brakes …

Studies show that 94 percent of teens use Facebook (Madden et al., 2013). Yet many schools block access to it during school hours, claiming that it has no educational value, that its use leads to cyberbullying, and that it's just one more classroom distraction (Luhtala, 2011). Even in my own district, with its liberal Internet access policies, I regularly get requests from teachers who want to have Facebook blocked.
Clearly, schools are still trying to figure out how to deal with Web 2.0—the Internet's transformation from a read-only environment to a read/write environment. With the popular adoption of wikis, document sharing, and blogging, anyone who can get on an Internet-connected computer can publish for an international audience. One no longer needs to know HTML programming or have a server with web-hosting software. Schools should take advantage of this phenomenon and give students and staff access to Facebook and other social-networking tools. Here are a few good reasons.

Preparation for Modern Life

Students who do not master collaboration-enabling technologies may not be able to fully engage in modern cultural and political life. As Jenkins (2006) writes,
Our goals should be to encourage youth to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture. … A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship. (p. 3)

Motivation and Creativity

The Web 2.0 revolution has resulted in a golden age of self-publishing. The tools for sharing ideas and creative efforts through text, photos, movies, and sound have never been easier to use or more powerful. Most creators want to share their work and get reactions to it, so it's not surprising that giving students opportunities to create for a broad audience can increase their level of engagement and their investment in creating high-quality products. Teachers use Facebook to give assignments, link to curriculum support materials, enable online discussions, and post either students' work or links to their work. Although there are "walled-garden" social-networking solutions such as Edmodo or Schoology, Facebook is the most effective means of reaching secondary students and the general public simply because of its popularity. The students I've talked to about a "school-only" social network reject the idea.

Essential Stakeholder Connections

If educators want to reach both students and younger parents, they need to use the tools those groups are using. Studies have found that most students no longer send e-mails, preferring to use social media to communicate (Rubin, 2013). Increasingly, districts, schools, and school organizations are creating and maintaining Facebook pages and Twitter accounts (Solochek, 2013). Another useful tool is Google+, whose Circles, Communities, Pages, and Hangouts provide a variety of ways for subgroups in the school (such as the booster club, the parent-teacher organization, or the homecoming planning committee) to interact.

But Proceed with Caution

Much of the fear school leaders have about today's Internet is less about what students will find on it than about what students will post to it. To some degree, these concerns are justified—cyberbullying, interactions with dangerous strangers, and online reputation damage are all negative consequences of sharing information, ideas, and opinions online. Schools should provide digital citizenship training to address these safety issues.
Concerns over proper interactions between students and teachers in online environments also dampen the use of Facebook in schools. Friending students online seems as unprofessional, even creepy, as befriending students in their personal lives in the physical world. School social-networking policies should specify that staff members must not accept students as friends in their personal social-networking accounts. To use Facebook for teaching and learning, educators should use a professional Facebook account or set up a class Facebook page or group.
In addition, educators, like students, need to familiarize themselves with privacy settings and develop some sensibilities that will help them protect their online reputations. We need to remember that people we classify as "friends" have the ability to download and share our information with others. All of us should post only what we want the world to see—and that world includes students, their parents, professional colleagues, administrators, and our mothers. Common sense, which unfortunately is not as common as one would hope, dictates that we not discuss students or coworkers or publicly criticize our organizations online.

The Danger of Limitation

It's true that the world of Internet 2.0 can be dangerous. But there is also a genuine, if not as immediate or well-publicized, danger in preventing students from accessing the tools they need to participate in collaborative online learning experiences, to communicate with global experts and fellow students, and to collect data and do research. Modern learners need to share their ideas, receive feedback about them, and participate in discussions surrounding academic topics. Schools that block or limit the tools that make publication and communication possible are also blocking and limiting students' learning opportunities.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF

Luhtala, M. (2011, May 21). What's blocked in schools? A whole lot! [blog post]. Retrieved from Bibliotech.me at http://mluhtala.blogspot.com/2011/04/whats-blocked-in-schools-whole-lot.html

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., Duggan, M., Smith, A., et al. (2013). Teens, social media, and privacy. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-Social-Media-And-Privacy.aspx

Rubin, C. (2013, September 27). Technology and the college generation. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/fashion/technology-and-the-college-generation.html

Solochek, J. (2013, November 2). Pasco leads way as school districts explore social media. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/pasco-leads-way-as-school-districts-explore-social-media/2150543

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