Last March, I wrote a blog post about the general benefits of social networking in the classroom, and I briefly described a few tools like Edmodo. Since then, I’ve had the time to delve even deeper into educational social networking and, specifically, Edmodo. I’ve introduced the site to a number of teachers, who have each used it to transform their classrooms in various ways. After seeing what the site can do, I know that when I return to the classroom, Edmodo will be the first thing I implement. I’d even push to get my entire school using the site, from 3rd through 12th grade. As soon as kids are literate, a social network really can help them learn.
Why social networking?
Let me back up a bit here. When I first speak with teachers about social networking in the classroom, I usually see an immediate reaction that my former students might refer to as “stank face.” The idea of bringing something like Facebook or MySpace into our schools generally conjures up a long list of cons before we, as teachers, ever think of a single pro. So before I talk about Edmodo specifically, I want to discuss the idea of educational social networking in general. (Hopefully, you’ll feel that “stank face” slowly melt away.)
In the past couple of years, surprising even myself, I’ve become a pretty strong proponent for social networking in the classroom. But by no means am I alone. Both the National School Boards Association and the Young Adult Library Services Association encourage the use of social networks with kids, in large part because they prepare students for the real world. The library association contends that social networks help teens “learn a valuable life skill, as these social networking technologies are tools for communication that are widely used in colleges and in the workplace.” Today, there are people whose entire jobs are to maintain a Twitter and Facebook presence for a company. In my work, I use professional social networks daily to collaborate with my peers around the world. The fact of the matter is that social networks are no longer simply for socializing. They are tools for networking and collaboration — key 21st century skills that every student should learn.
There is a lot of talk about internet bullying these days, and teachers often point to this as the main reason not to integrate social networks into schools. But I would argue that this is a major reason for social networking in the classroom. Taking kids off the internet isn’t the way to solve it. Our students will be on Facebook and Myspace and Twitter, whether or not their teachers ignore those sites. So why not take the opportunity to teach them to appropriately and safely use social networks? Why not scaffold that learning with a safe, closed social network in elementary and middle school? As the National School Boards Association puts it, “Safety policies remain important, as does teaching students about online safety and responsible online expression — but students may learn these lessons better while they’re actually using social networking tools.”
Aside from these larger benefits, social networks can provide immediate, concrete academic benefits. Social networks can help students build a strong, supportive community. They help students see each other (and themselves) as holders of knowledge. Students will begin asking for and offering help, becoming leaders and collaborators while simultaneously taking some of that burden off of the teacher. (Translation: a classroom social network can actually make your job easier.)
Plus, a social network allows in-class discussions to expand beyond the 45-minute block of classtime. Social networks motivate students. Kids want to feel that their voice is important, and social networks give them a platform where they can be heard. When you start a social network in your classroom, suddenly kids will find and share answers to that question you couldn’t get to in class. They’ll even start asking and answering questions they didn’t have the time to think of during school.
My favorite thing about classroom social networks, though, is discovering the personalities of those kids who rarely speak in class. How many times has your class discussion been led by three or four students? Are there any students in your class who, even in March, you still don’t really know? Often, social networks give these kids an outlet — a place where they can think about and edit their questions and responses without pressure.
There are a lot of good reasons to try out social networks in the classroom. But why, specifically, am I such an Edmodo fan? Three main motives: it’s FREE, it’s safe, and it’s easy.
I may be cheap, but I don’t automatically love everything that’s free. Still, it’s nice. And unlike most free educational websites, Edmodo offers a ton of useful features for absolutely no charge (at least for now).
Plus, Edmodo is the only social network I’ve found that gives the teacher all the control. Teachers create classes, and students join those classes — this is the only way someone can be on Edmodo. Students can only interact with the classes they’re enrolled in. I think of Edmodo as a virtual classroom — all the doors are closed and locked, so no one can just walk in without permission. Anything that anyone says is shared with the entire class, so posts are like students raising their hands to speak in class. The only private communication is between teacher and student, sort of like a desk-side conference.
Lastly, Edmodo is pretty easy to use. Teachers can get started with the basics in just a few minutes and then begin using more advanced tools as they get more comfortable.
To start, go to Edmodo and create a teachers’ account. Then, create a ‘group’ (also known as a class) and get a secret code for that class. After going over expectations for appropriate user names, you can either create accounts for all your students or have them create their own, using the secret code to enroll in your class. (Kids don’t need an e-mail address to create an Edmodo account.) Once you do this, you’re pretty much done.
Students can add a profile photo (or choose an avatar from within Edmodo). All of your students, as well as you, can start posting things, and everyone can see everything, similar to the ‘news feed’ on Facebook. Students and teachers can share text (like Facebook status updates), as well as links, videos, and even files.
There are no private student-to-student messages, although the teacher can send private messages to students, and students can send them to teachers. Because everyone can see everything, kids generally don’t post anything inappropriate. And even if they do, the teacher can delete anything that’s posted on the site at any time. (I work with a half dozen middle and high school teachers using Edmodo, and they haven’t had any appropriateness issues, although one middle school teacher gave accounts to all his students’ parents for additional oversight.)
This basic posting feature is a wonderful place to start. It allows teachers and students to continue and expand upon discussions outside of the school day. It also allows students to ask for and offer one another help. A great way to start is to post a question or prompt to begin — or extend — a content-based discussion. But it’s important that students feel comfortable posting their own information, without a prompt. I tell kids that this is a “professional network” — everything on the site should be connected to what we’re studying. Whatever a student posts should be something they’d feel comfortable sharing in the middle of class because that’s what this is — a class discussion. Students can still be relaxed, informal, and even funny, but they should do this in a professional manner. In other words, this isn’t the place to post a YouTube video of a cat burping.
One benefit I’ve found of setting kids up like this is that I’m able to eavesdrop on students’ conversations. When they’re confused or they find something particularly interesting, they’re comfortable posting it. This lets me know what they’re actually learning and what’s most interesting to them. Students can’t (or won’t) always articulate their passions or misunderstandings — they rarely ask for clarification or help during class, especially during lectures. A social network gives teachers an opportunity to offer input if, for example, you notice that a lot of students are posting questions or misinformation about a particular concept or assignment.
Once you’re comfortable with the Edmodo basics, teachers can start exploring the additional posting options. In addition to general posts, teachers can post polls for students to respond to, which can be a great discussion starter. You can also post alerts, which are highlighted on students’ pages — alerts are great for things like field trip reminders.
Teachers can also post assignments on Edmodo, and students can turn in their assignments through the site. That’s right — they can attach documents and turn them in directly. The teacher can even post a worksheet as a Word file and require students to complete it and turn it in. (Better yet, teachers can post a link to a Google form, which students are required to complete. Google automatically saves students’ responses in a spreadsheet, so they’re easier to grade.) A totally paperless classroom! The great thing is that Edmodo keeps track of the assignments — who did and didn’t turn what in, so you and your students know whether you’ve received their work on time. Teachers can grade the assignments right on the site, and Edmodo keeps a class gradebook. The site will notify students when an assignment is graded, so they can review it. (Students can only see their own grades; not others’.) While I really like the gradebook feature, most of the teachers I know don’t use it because they already have a district-mandated grading system in place. Still, they’ll often assign and collect some assignments through Edmodo.
My absolute favorite thing about Edmodo, though, is the library feature. Anytime any student or teacher in a class shares a link, a video, or a document, that object is automatically saved in the class library. People are constantly sending me links that I love but, inevitably, when the time comes to share those links, I can never find them. With the Edmodo library, everything is saved in one place so you can go back and refer to the video one of your students (or classmates) posted months ago. Plus, teachers and students can create their own folders within the classroom library to organize the files, thus helping kids gain valuable organizational skills.
If you teach more than one class, you can create different ‘groups.’ Students will only be able to communicate with the groups they belong to, so you can have a ‘Period 1′ group, a ‘Period 2′ group, and so on. As the teacher, you can use the ‘filters’ section on the right sidebar to see only posts from one class at a time. But students will only be able to see posts from the class (or classes) they’re enrolled in.
If you’d like, students can belong to more than one group. So if you have, for example, several sections of Biology 1, you might want to create a group for each section, as well as a general ‘Bio 1′ group. Students can belong to both ‘Bio, Section 1′ and ‘Bio 1.’ When they post something, they can choose whether to send it to just their section, to all of the Bio 1 students, or just to the teacher. Students can also use the ‘filters’ on the right sidebar to view only what’s posted to students in their section, to all Bio students, or to both.
The teacher can always view and edit a list of enrolled students for each group. That means teachers can delete or move kids if they drop the class or switch sections.
At the end of the semester, you can ‘archive’ groups. This saves the posts (as well as grades, etc.) for future reference, while not allowing students to make any additions or changes.
Anytime you require students to use computers or the internet outside of class, you have to consider accessibility. I taught entirely in low-income schools where almost none of my students had computers at home. Still, they all had MySpace profiles. I was surprised that, after my elementary students began blogs in class, they started editing them outside the classroom, from friends’ homes, relatives’ workplaces, or the public library. When I taught middle school, most of my students would access their MySpace or Facebook profiles from their cell phones. Even kids who seem to have no internet often have limited access. But I wasn’t requiring them to go online outside of class. If you are, you’ll need to ensure that every child has access.
You might consider sending a note home to parents detailing your expectations and offering suggestions that include things like the local library’s hours. It’s also important to offer students opportunities to access the class social network from school. If possible, keep a computer lab (or your own classroom, if you have a few computers) open before and after school and during lunch. Even if your school doesn’t have many working computers, there are options. If your school has wifi, host a cell phone drive to collect people’s old smart phones. Removing the SIM cards from smart phones means they can’t make phone calls or send text messages (so NO monthly bill), but they can still go online via wifi. If you can collect a dozen or so of these phones, let students use them to access the class social network from your classroom before and after school, during lunch, and during your planning time. If you live in an area with numerous free wifi spots, you could even allow students to check out the smart phones.
Edmodo is so simple, there’s really no troubleshooting required for the site. But if you’re a teacher, you know that students sometimes require their own troubleshooting.
As I said before, because of the way Edmodo is structured, the teachers I know personally have had no appropriateness issues with their students. Still, as with any lesson, it’s important to set specific expectations for students. Just like some students will find ways to inappropriately use a pencil, sometimes you’ll have a kid push the envelope with Edmodo. I’ve heard of three possible issues with Edmodo that teachers should be aware of, but these are rare and easily corrected.
First, I heard third-hand that some students have started Edmodo teacher accounts and then invited other students to join their ‘group.’ Why would a kid do this? Well, it allows them to create a Facebook-type friends-only wall that they can access from inside their school’s firewall. In other words, it’s a way to access a Facebook-type site during the school day. I wouldn’t tell students that they can do this, but I would be sure to monitor students if they’re using Edmodo during the school day. In all honesty, even if students thought of trying this, it wouldn’t be rewarding unless a large number of other students joined the unsanctioned group.
Second, because students don’t need an e-mail address to set up an Edmodo account, they could potentially create anonymous users who join your class and post inappropriate things. I’ve never heard of any student doing this, but it’s a possibility. It’s also easily preventable. Once your students have joined their ‘group,’ you can change the group code. Then, don’t tell your students the new secret code. This means that no one else will be able to join your ‘group’ because they won’t have the code. Of course, teachers can always access a list of everyone enrolled in your groups so if there’s an unauthorized user, you can delete them at any time.
Finally, I’ve heard of students using unprofessional user names and profile photos. This truly is a teachable moment. With our aquarium students, we prevented this beforehand by explaining to kids that this was a professional network and they were expected to present themselves professionally. We told them their user names were required to include their first names and their profile photos needed to be appropriate. One or two students used weird user names, like ILoveOtters, so we told them they had to change their name or we’d delete the account.
Even if you have the world’s next evil genius in your classroom, Edmodo gives you all the power in the end. Suspending students from using the site for a few days (or weeks) will almost always solve any problem you’re having. Why? First off, Edmodo is fun, and they won’t be able to access the fun. Secondly, that student will no longer be in the know — things will be happening without him or her there. Kids (especially in middle and high school) are social creatures, and they’ll generally do anything not to be excluded.
Social networks like Edmodo are wonderful just in a general sense. At the aquarium where I now work, we were amazed at how often our middle and high school students continued on-topic conversations at home, through our social network. They shared ideas, links, home-made videos. They even started asking questions we hadn’t yet thought of investigating. But, used creatively, social networks can go beyond simple discussions. They can help students better understand, explain, and enjoy complex content.
On most of my blog posts, I list grade-specific lesson ideas for integrating the tool discussed. But just like a chalkboard can be used to teach any grade level, Edmodo can be used with all levels of students (once students are literate). The only difference is what you write on it. So instead of lesson ideas organized by grade level, here I’ll offer some content-specific Edmodo extensions.
Anyone who has taught in a K-12 classroom knows that no matter what subject you teach, you teach reading. Reading comprehension is ingrained in nearly everything we do as adults and, as such, is embedded into every K-12 subject.
But, often, teachers complain to me that technology is destroying reading and, specifically, reading comprehension in 21st century students. Kids are so used to immediate gratification — to getting everything in snippets, to 120-character tweets, to Google synopses, and to Facebook status updates — that 500-page novels are a bore. “Can’t we just watch the movie?” they’ll ask. (I think this last question has been around a bit longer than the internet; I remember my own peers asking it 20 years ago.)
It’s true that technology has changed the way we process information, including the way we read. There’s a plethora of recent research studying how these new technologies have affected the way we interact, process, and analyze. There are studies suggesting that, as a society, our very brain chemistry is changing. Good or bad, this is happening. As teachers, there’s virtually nothing we can do to stop our students from having Facebook accounts or using their cell phones. But our job is still to teach them to read, understand, and appreciate tons of different writing — literature, science journals, historic papers, daily news, math proofs, websites, etc.
Frankly, it’s never been easy to get most students to love The Odyssey. But now, technology has given us a golden opportunity — a chance to hook most of our students into reading novels, textbooks, newspapers, and virtually anything else. We just have to do what great teachers do best — get a little creative.
Reading is all about empathy. If we feel for the people we’re reading about, if we can imagine what they’re feeling and thinking and hoping, if we can relate to them, we’re hooked. And social networks can help students become empathetic. They can allow students to walk around in someone else’s skin, virtually.
Say, for example, that your class is reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Assign each student a different character in the book. The student’s assignment is to pay particular attention to that character — their beliefs, actions, motivations, voice. Everything. And then, to become that character. Have each student create an Edmodo profile, posing as their assigned character. Then, as you read the book throughout the semester, students must post updates, comments, related links, videos, etc., on the class social network. They are to become their assigned character, interacting on a social network. (It’s great if the teacher takes on the role of a character as well.) What link would Ron Weasley share with his peers? How would Draco Malfoy react to it? These are all high-level questions students will have to ask, think about, and answer through the class social network. Best of all, they can be funny or ironic or touching — all motivation to try their best at the assignment. Your class Edmodo wall might look something like this:
Social studies teachers have started some of the most creative social networking sites I’ve seen. It’s easy to see why — social networks can make history come alive for students, through role play.
When I was a kid studying the American Revolution, our teacher assigned each of us a historic figure to research. One student got Thomas Jefferson, another was assigned Ben Franklin, and so on. We all wrote papers and made posters. Then, we stood in front of the class and talked for 5 minutes, during which only about 3 kids paid attention. With social networking, this assignment can become more interesting and much more meaningful for all students. Instead of (or in addition to) writing a report, each student could be assigned to create an Edmodo profile, posing as a historic figure (like this Thomas Jefferson profile). Then, students could be required to interact with one another as that historic figure. How would Ben Franklin respond to Thomas Jefferson’s comment about democracy? Students would have to understand a lot about their own historic figure, but they’d also have to know a good deal about other figures in order to converse with them. Deeper, higher-level thinking would be required of students, but the assignment would also be fun and motivating for them.
Social studies social networks don’t have to stop with historical figures, though. No matter what time period you’re studying, students can be assigned to act as countries, groups of people, or even historical events. “If Historical Events Had Facebook Statuses” is a funny look at this idea (be aware, though — it was written for an adult audience).
Just like you can assign each student to be a literary character or a historic figure on a social network, you can extend that idea to science. You could assign your students to be famous scientists, scientific principles, or even scientific theories. What would Evolution say to Creationism? If you’re teaching marine biology, you could assign students to be different marine animals. How would they interact with one another if they had personalities, could speak, and could access social networks?
My absolute favorite idea for a science social network, though, was sparked by a video called “Chemical Party.” The video personifies chemical elements and compounds, and it got me thinking, “what would neon post on hydrogen’s wall?” Wouldn’t it be great if your chemistry students were asking this question at home on a Friday night?
Have you used a social network in the classroom? Do you have any ideas for ways to integrate them with content? Share your ideas, successes, and challenges as a comment!