Tech Leadership

Lifting the Limits on Social Networking Sites


The popularity of commercial social networking sites, notably Facebook and MySpace, among today’s middle and high school students is unprecedented. Facebook is the most popular networking site in the world with more than 300 million active users.

But these sites have a decidedly smaller fan base among educators. Fueled by national media that have vigorously focused their coverage on potential privacy breaches and safety concerns associated with the use of these sites by young people, school leaders nationwide are limiting the in-school use of social networking technology, including blogging, podcasting and file sharing. The prohibitions are based on fears of exposing students to inappropriate online content, students making inadvertent contact with sexual predators and student-based cyberbullying.

Kevin BradyKevin P. Brady

The National School Boards Association published a report in 2007, “Creating and Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational Networking,” that compared national survey responses of students, parents and school district administrators on their attitudes toward Internet-related practices. While more than half of the education leaders wanted to prohibit the use of social networking sites in their schools, a majority of the parents and students expressed high expectations about the positive role social networking technologies could play in students’ lives. About 60 percent of the students surveyed indicated they use social networking sites for online discussions about schoolwork.

More recently, a national report by several industry groups on social networking and content-sharing tools revealed that educators who already had joined a social networking site were much more positive and receptive to their educational value, but even these educators want the capacity to separate their personal and professional online communications when using social networking sites.

Safe Tools for Schools
Often called “educational networking sites,” a growing number of these sites, such as Elgg and Ning in Education, have been developed specifically for the education community while simultaneously addressing safety concerns voiced by school leaders. Unlike Facebook, MySpace and other commercial sites, educational networking sites provide educators and their students with the benefits of social networking technologies while recognizing legitimate concerns relating to the protection of student privacy and safety.

Given the infancy of these sites, little is known currently about how educators are using educational networking sites for student learning purposes. A leading advocate of the use of social networking sites in schools, Steve Hargadon, director of the Consortium for School Networking, argues that privacy and safety concerns unfairly undermine both the educational and technological benefits of using these networking tools. Additionally, Hargadon, founder of Classroom 2.0, a site exclusively for educators interested in introducing students to social networking, maintains a website listing of current networking sites used exclusively in schools or for educational purposes.

One school district that has adopted educational networking into its schools is the Saugus Union School District in northern Los Angeles County. The leadership in Saugus authorized Elgg, a social networking site created and controlled by the district, for use by the entire school community, including students, parents, teachers and administrators. Approximately 150 teachers and administrators across the district’s 15 schools presently use Elgg for blogging, file sharing, posting videos and podcasting.

Elgg differs significantly from other commercial social networking sites due largely to the degree of control an individual user has over who can access the user’s own individual site. Because Elgg can be locally installed on a school or district server, both social networking site access and content can easily be controlled and monitored by the district. This level of control over the online content of social networking sites is an important consideration for school leaders as they consider whether to allow social networking sites in the schools.

A Choice
In terms of their value to student learning, a recent University of Minnesota study of students 16 to 18 years old revealed technology and communication skills, creativity and openness to new and diverse views as primary educational benefits associated with using social networking sites.

Many administrators may be unaware of the existence of educational networking sites as viable alternatives to the commercial social networking sites. Educational networking sites provide a safe environment controlled by the school district that enables students, parents and educators to actively participate in the use of 21st-century social networking technologies.

Educators have a choice: They can allow students to develop social networking skills on their own or play a significant role in exposing them to the educational benefits these sites provide, using technologies that simultaneously protect student privacy and promote safe navigation.

Kevin Brady is an assistant professor of educational leadership at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. E-email: