Online Social Networking for Educators
Educators build community and collaboration online.
By Cindy Long
By now, you’ve heard the buzz about MySpace and Facebook, but you may still be wondering what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’re a little mystified by the whole social networking craze, or you’re a little wary about venturing into your students’ territory. But what if we told you it can actually be good for your career?
Sure, some of you are skeptical, and with good reason. We’ve all read the horror stories about the naïve teachers who posted suggestive photographs, musings about drug use, and worse on their profiles for the whole world—students, parents, and administrators included—to see. But those are the unfortunate exceptions. The vast majority of educators use social networking discreetly and professionally to make connections that can enhance careers, not jeopardize them.
“There are lots of negative connotations surrounding social networking,” says Steve Hargadon, an educational technology expert and founder of Classroom 2.0, a popular social network for teachers. “But we’re showing that it can provide productive professional development opportunities that were previously available only to those lucky enough to attend conferences.”
Coined by Australian professor J.A. Barnes while studying a Norwegian fishing village in the 1950s, the term social networking was traditionally defined as an association of 100 to 150 people drawn together by family, work, or hobby.
On the Web, groups of like-minded people have formed networks around everything from language, religion, and geography to health condition, hobbies, or even arcane academic disciplines. And unlike traditional social networks, online networks can have millions of members, thousands of members, or as few as 10 to 20, but they all share one important feature: they allow people to connect based on shared interests.
“What I like about social networking is that I can stay in touch with other teaching professionals to share materials, ideas, teaching stories, and sometimes even my gripe of the day,” says Brock Dubbels, a language arts and literature teacher at Richard Green Central School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And the beauty of online social networking is that it’s one-stop shopping, since social networking sites are really just aggregates of Web technologies we’ve all grown accustomed to using. You typically get started by creating a profile page where you can send and receive email and instant messages, post and view photos and videos, write blog entries, participate in forums or discussions, and share documents, thoughts, and ideas.
Dubbels is a member of what he calls “the big three”—the ubiquitous MySpace and Facebook, as well as LinkedIn, a hugely popular business-oriented social networking site where Dubbels wears his teacher hat.
“LinkedIn is where I post my work experience and join groups for professional affiliation,” he says. “This is pretty much the Joe Friday of social networks—I share many of the same friends here as I do on Facebook, but here we’re a bit more interested in sharing articles, making connections for research, jobs, and consultation. It’s a good space to keep abreast of new ideas, as long as you are part of an active group that actually posts.”
An active community is key, because social networks are only as good as the conversations that take place within them, says Hargadon of Classroom 2.0. “The conversations that used to happen in the hallways or teacher’s lounges or at conferences are now happening all the time on the Web, and the more conversations you can have about your work, the more you can develop your specific professional interest,” he says. “Putting these tools together in an environment that encourages community and collaboration creates enormous potential for history teachers, or Latin teachers, or music teachers to build a network of colleagues at their fingertips.”
Hargadon recommends that educators take a look at Ning.com, where you can create your own social network around a specific topic without having to join the larger networks where your students most likely spend their time (see sidebar on MySpace/YourSpace). Ning groups can be as open or exclusive (even invitation-only) as you like.
Dubbles’s Ning network, “Video Games as Learning Tools,” is a community of educators exploring the potential of gaming in the classroom. The network has expanded his professional development in ways he never predicted. Through the connections he’s made on Ning, he’s been invited to write and share curriculum, to speak at major conferences on video gaming in the classroom, and to participate as a source in a Christian Science Monitor article on social networking.
“Social networking connected me to people who were searching for ways to use video games and new digital literacies in teaching—people I would never have otherwise known were interested in what I was doing,” Dubbels says. “Beyond getting great ideas for teaching and staying excited about my profession, I find that I am not alone in wanting to innovate, learn, and grow,” he says.
It’s the site where most students hang out online, and it’s also a place for “old people like me who are regressing and listening to Led Zeppelin in their Volvo wagons,” says Minnesota middle school teacher Brock Dubbels.
Photo credit: Greg Jansen
Dubbels says creating a profile on MySpace is a good way to get acquainted with social networking sites and to learn what kids experience in the online world. But once your page goes live, rest assured, your students will quickly find it, and many will immediately ask to “friend you,” meaning add you to their networks. Dubbels strongly recommends that you simply delete their requests without any kind of response.
“They will find you here, and they might think it’s cool, but stick with your fellow work-a-days,” he cautions. “Just use your head. You wouldn’t give a student a ride home in your car would you? Keep a little distance, but use your newfound ‘Web-cred’ to build trust in the classroom.”
Below is a list of several social networks for educators. Share your own ideas in the comments box below.
Where teachers meet and learn.
Steve Hargadon's popular social networking site for educators.
A social network for environmental education created in partnership between the Weather Channel and the National Environmental Education Foundation, submitted by an NEA Today reader.
Provides the educational community with opportunities to connect and collaborate in order to share resources, lessons, and best practices.
A place for educators to gather, share and learn, submitted by two NEA Today readers.
A social network for English teachers, submitted by an NEA Today reader.
A social network developed to provide everyday teaching solutions.