Harness the Power of Social Networking in Your Classroom, Safely and for FREE

[UPDATE: A more recent post about social networking in the classroom and, specifically, about Edmodo can be found here.]

Social networking is a pretty broad term in the technology community – it can encompass things like Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter. But the basic idea is that these sites allow multiple people to create their own content and interact with one another virtually.

So what’s the point of social networking in the classroom (I mean, our students interact literally every day; why do they need to do it virtually)? It can actually provide a lot of benefits to teachers. Think about cooperative learning and how much it can help students internalize their knowledge. Social networking takes that idea a little further.

A social network can help students build a community because it levels the playing field to a certain extent – it gives even the shyest kids a platform and a voice that might otherwise not be heard. (This is especially true when teachers require students to leave comments or turn in assignments via the class site.)

Plus, students are motivated – not just because of the cool factor but because their homework is to talk to one another. Something they’re often disciplined for in school has become their job, and suddenly their voice and opinion matters. It matters so much that it can be seen and read and responded to.

This motivation is key – how often do your students go home, call their friends, and talk about atomic structure? When they’re motivated, though, you’ll find that students extend their school day. They’ll post atomic structure discussions online. Some will even spend their own time making videos about what they’ve learned, just so they can post it on the social network and generate comments.

On top of all the benefits for students, though, social networks can make teachers’ lives easier. There’s rarely enough time in today’s classrooms to have full-length in-depth discussions. Now, those discussions can happen after school. In addition to increasing their class’s on-topic discussion and interaction, teachers can also track the discussion using social networks. (Who was it that had that great point about democracy last week? Just check the online discussion archive.) If students turn in their assignments through the social network, teachers have everything in one place. That’s great for people like me, who can never seem to find a student’s assignment when I want to show it to a parent.

I’ve also heard of some teachers using social network sites to expand their normal assignments. For example, social studies teachers often have each student research a different American founding father. Then, each student does a presentation on their subject (often while the other kids nap). Instead, some teachers are now having students create a social networking profile pretending to be, for example, Benjamin Franklin. Another student will create a page as Thomas Jefferson. Then, the students will interact through the social network in the role of their subject. What would Thomas Jefferson say about democracy? How would Franklin respond to that statement?

Not only is it more interesting for all students, you’re moving up on Bloom’s Taxonomy by leaps and bounds.

Edmodo makes social networking a breeze

There are several Web sites where teachers can create their own classroom or school social networks. These sites basically allow teachers to create their own private Facebook.

Edmodo is my number 1 recommendation. Why? First off, it’s FREE (though there may be some fee-based options in the future). Secondly, Edmodo offers a ton of features that allow teachers to customize their social network. Those features include privacy settings that ensure only your students have access to the network you created. But the features also allow you to do a lot, or just a little, more. Here’s an intro to the newest version of Edmodo:

Third, creating a social network with Edmodo is as easy as creating an account. I had my network up and running within 10 minutes. It takes a little longer to become familiar with all the features, but that’s one of the beauties of Edmodo – you don’t have to use all the features at once. Use what you’re comfortable with first, and then add on other features as you’re ready.

After you get all your students signed up, maybe you can begin by just starting a discussion. Post a question and have all your students reply. Perhaps you can even have them reply by creating a video or glog and posting the link in the discussion. Then, you can post a poll for students to vote on and discuss. As you get more comfortable, you can start posting assignments. Eventually, you can have students use the real-time messaging feature to collaborate on projects.

The final reason for my Edmodo preference is that it allows you to create different groups within your network. I’ve been working with high school teachers a lot lately, and this is perfect for those who teach several different classes. They can post an assignment or a comment specifically for their integrated science class, and another for their biology class.

With the real-time messaging, assignments, and grading features, Edmodo can be a one-stop shop for teachers aiming to integrate technology into their everyday lessons. For more information, check out Keith Schoch’s blog post about using Edmodo in his classroom for the first time.

Elgg: the school-wide solution

If Edmodo isn’t robust enough for you, it might be worth looking into Elgg. Elgg is open-source (FREE) software that allows you to actually build your own social networking site, from the ground up. You’ll need a server and someone on the back-end with some programming knowledge, so it’s probably not a tool you’d use for a single class. Elgg is most often used district-wide or school-wide to create a larger interactive community.

Because you build your own Elgg site, you can control the available features — it can be totally private or completely public. It can include discussion boards, forums, and blogs, if you choose. Saugus USD in California built its district-wide community using Elgg and decided to leave it partially open to the public. (Members of the public can’t create profiles, but they can access students’ posts and leave comments.) I recently heard the district’s IT director speak, and he said he’s been surprised by some of the effects of a district-wide Internet community. For example, a fourth-grade teacher posted an assignment on the site, and her students posted their responses. But they weren’t the only ones – a second grader who was interested in the topic chose to complete the assignment as well, on his own time.

Allowing the public to access content had its surprise benefits, as well. One student posted a fictional war tale he had written, and a soldier serving overseas left a comment. The student was so excited and inspired that he continued the war saga, posting chapter after chapter on his Elgg page.

Ning might be your answer

Many teachers choose to create social networking sites on Ning. (If you’re familiar with Classroom 2.0, you’re familiar with Ning – the entire site is actually a Ning network.) One reason I prefer Edmodo, however, is that Ning users must be 13 years old or older, so it leaves a lot of students out. Also, Ning wasn’t created specifically for education so options like the gradebook in Edmodo aren’t built in.

If you’re familiar with Ning, though, it might prove to be the perfect fit for you and your students. Plus, there’s a Ning network for teachers who use the tool in their classrooms, which can provide a lot of support for a teacher trying social networking for the first time.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, it looks like Ning will no longer offer free social network creation. Their plans currently start at about $5 a month. Check out this article for more info.

Lesson Integration Ideas

Elementary Classroom

Grade: 3-5
Subject: Math (algebraic thinking)
Objective: The student will be able to verbalize his/her understanding of the mathematical meaning of the equal sign.

One thing that we teachers rarely do is ask simple questions, just to see what our students are actually thinking. One of the most eye-opening days of my career was when I gave my fourth-graders a paper with a simple question on it: “What does = mean?” The answers were more varied than I expected, and that worksheet turned into a weeks-long discussion that’s documented here. (Scroll to the bottom. Sorry — I didn’t have a social network at the time, so I had to document the conversations from memory.)

Give students a worksheet with three questions:

1.)    What does = mean?

2.)    True or False: 4 + 3 = 7

3.)    True or False: 9 = 5 + 4

After they complete the worksheet, have students log onto the class’s social networking site, where you’ve posted the same three questions. Ask students to post their responses and reply to at least two other students. (The reason for the worksheet first is to give students time to form their own opinions before they read other students’ answers.)

Based on students’ responses, continue to post questions like this: “True or False: 5 + 4 = 7 + 2” and “True or False: 17 = 17″ and encourage discussion. Keep posting similar questions, trying to lead students to the conclusion that the equal sign means “the same amount as.” Don’t just tell students what it means — ask the right questions to lead them to discover the meaning for themselves. When they come to the conclusion on their own, their understanding will be much greater.

Lessons like this have two benefits, as I see it. First, in order to understand math, it’s extremely important for students to learn to verbalize their mathematical thinking and be able to explain it, step-by-step. Second, having students’ thinking documented online will give you and your students some great insights. It is also a good tool for parent-teacher conferences, as well as when identifying learning disabilities in students.

Middle School Classroom

Grade: 6-8
Subject: Science
Objective: The student will understand the causes and effects of climate change.

After learning about climate change, post an assignment on your class social network asking students to come up with a project that will help stop the climate crisis. Students can advertise their project idea however they’d like – with videos, glogs, blogs, etc. – but they must post all their advertisements on the social network.

Then, the entire class will vote on which project they’d most like to undertake. As a teacher, you can decide if you want the entire class to take on the project that gets the most votes. Or you can have each student choose a single project, outside of their own, to help with and leave a comment on that post. Then, every student completes their own project, using the other students who signed up as helpers.

High School Classroom

Grade: 9-12
Subject: Social Studies, Science, English Language Arts, or Art
Objective: The student will be able to communicate the beliefs and motivations of a historical figure, based on research.

In social studies, students research leaders of countries. In science, they learn about famous scientists. In English language arts, they study remarkable writers. And in art, they learn about artists.

For each of these tasks, teachers can have students choose a specific famous figure. Through research, the students become experts on their subjects. Then, the role playing begins. Using a social networking site, students create profiles in the guise of their subjects. They update their status, leave comments, and post questions that their subject might actually post. (Wouldn’t it be great to post a status update as Emily Dickinson every day for a month? “I’m nobody, who are you?”) They interact with other historical figures – have conversations and debates – in the role of these subjects.

Teachers can create rubrics for this assignment as they see fit – for example, the profile must include the figure’s birthday, childhood details, photo, and beliefs about government. Each student must update their profile at least once a day and must comment on at least three other students’ profiles each day.

Grades can reflect how often a student contributed to the class network, as well as how accurate his/her statements were.

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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