Social Networking and the Secondary Student

Meeting the Needs by John AdsitMost discussions on this site dealing with the use of social networking in education are devoted to post secondary education. This column will look at the unique challenges of using any form of social networking in secondary education. The differences are significant, partially because of the ages of the students and more importantly because of the role of boards of education. Social networking in the secondary level has to solve some problems if it is to be used successfully.

Years ago I administered one of the first public online schools in the country. Most of our students came to us with a history of failure or some other problem that made school success difficult, but we also had students using online education to allow them to follow gifted/talented pursuits. I was gratified to see one of our first students help the United States win a team bronze medal in gymnastics in the last Olympic Games. I want to tell the story, though, of one of his equally gifted classmates.

This sophomore was also a world class athlete, but she may have been even more gifted as a scholar. Her first online history teacher said he felt at times that she knew more than he did. She seemed mature beyond her years as well, interacting with staff on what felt like a peer level on those occasions when she visited our program headquarters. The staff happily modified classes and assignments to provide her with the challenges she needed to be successful.

The first time she missed an assignment due date, the teacher said nothing, assuming she would get it done with a very reasonable excuse for its tardiness. It was a couple of weeks before we realized that she had not turned in any assignments in any classes during that time. The ensuing investigation revealed that in her research for a class project she had visited some online discussion sites, a strategy suggested by her teacher. On one of those sites she had met the love of her life, the middle-aged man of her dreams who was going to take her away from all the cares and frustrations of her teen-age life and help her live happily ever after.

Her parents were not amused. They pulled her from the program and threatened a lawsuit. It all ended at that, but it was, frankly, a terrifying lesson for us in many ways.

The psychological vulnerability of an adolescent creates problems in other ways as well. Cyberbullying has led to suicides to such an extent that we have a new word for it: cyberbullicide. Studies indicate that adolescent victims of cyberbullying are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as the average adolescent. If you want to check out what it is like yourself, go to a site like Facebook and see how long you have to search before you come to a site dedicated to posting hate messages about a specific individual. It shouldn’t take more than 30 seconds. When you understand that Facebook removes these sites as soon as they become known, you realize how often this must be happening.

While it is certainly true that, when considered as a percentage of the total use, the incidents I described are relatively rare, that does not matter in terms of policy. Boards of education typically act on the belief that even the most remote possibility is too great a risk. If past history is any indication, it will take only the rumor of a possibility to lead some boards of education to ban the use of all social networking in school programs. Instructional designers need to anticipate such problems if they want to make any form of social networking a part of their instruction.

If past history is any indication, it will take only the rumor of a possibility to lead some boards of education to ban the use of all social networking in school programs.

If a student is bullied in the halls of a traditional school or if a middle-aged pedophile were to enter a school, someone would immediately question the school’s safeguards. People are supposed to be patrolling those halls to prevent such occurrences. One solution for these online problems would be to create the cyber equivalent, safe interaction sites that would be patrolled by school personnel. That solution is very limited, though, for it eliminates many of the benefits of the use of external sites. Smaller programs would have so few participants that it would simply not be worthwhile.

Perhaps most importantly we need to provide education for our students in the proper use of these tools. We are so fixated on providing an education that has changed little since the Committee of Ten made its first recommendation in 1982 that we cannot find the time to squeeze in instruction related to the world in which our students actually live. If educators are willing to give students a new and exciting instructional tool, they should also take the time to provide instruction in its safe and effective use.

Our online program created a short course on learning online that included the software students would be using as well as the proper use of the Internet tools available at the time. It also taught program policies and provided useful guidelines in other areas. Students had to complete the class before they could start any other class with us. Perhaps a similar approach can be useful in other schools as well. If that is not possible, then individual course designers should consider using some kind of similar instruction early in the course, before students embark on their first such assignment.

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