When I asked my ELA summer school students, "Have any of you ever heard of MySpace?" they couldn't figure out how to react. Was their teacher so out of it that's she's never heard of MySpace, or worse yet, did she think that they've never heard of MySpace. "Are you joking, Miss?," one student asked. I told my students it was a simple question, and they began to nod their heads that they had indeed heard of MySpace...duh. We discussed how MySpace, like Facebook, is an example of a social network. I then asked them how they would feel about using a social network like MySpace or Facebook for learning and they seemed skeptical. Sites like MySpace and Facebook are blocked by our district's proxy's, and our students are well aware of this. How could a social network be used for learning? At their core, social networks are a platform for individuals to form communities of interest. I explained that we would be creating a social network to discuss the book we'd be reading in our summer school class. After the students logged on for the first time, and realized they could create their own username and photo, their interest was piqued.
After researching several options, my co-teacher and I decided to use Ning (http://www.ning.com) as our tool to support student learning and engagement. Ning allows users to create their own networks around a particular topic. (Click here to read about practical uses for innovative educators.) Its even available without ads for education. We created a private Ning site (similar to the more commercial MySpace and Facebook) for our students to discuss the book we were studying, “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” After reading certain chapters students logged onto the site and participated in discussion forums designed to support them in reflecting upon what they read and deepen their understanding of the content.
Soon some exciting things began to happen. First, timestamps indicated that students were accessing the site out of school, and completing assignments. This is an exciting observation for teachers to witness with any student, but seeing these students in particular, who so often seemed disengaged and not invested in school, get excited enough to work from home on an assignment was incredible!
Next students starting going beyond the request of me, their teacher and began contributing to the site independently. Students figured out that the site was similar to other social networks they were already a part of, and something clicked inside - they wanted to contribute. The next thing I knew, my co-teacher and I weren’t the only ones leading the learning. Unprompted, the students eagerly began posting their own questions and reactions. If they had finished a part of the book early, they wanted to know if others had. Students began friending each other, and even the principal.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected benefits of using the Ning was the ability for teachers to give individual feedback to students. The messaging system in Ning allowed my co-teacher and me to send words of encouragement, reminders about assignments, and updates about classwork. There's even a feature that allows users to invite students to events. We invited all of our students to attend a Vocabulary Quiz last week, and they all RSVPed yes!
All in all, our Ning site proved a great way to engage students in work I have found them reluctant to do otherwise.
There were also some challenges to using the site that I would want to address for the next iteration. The quality of blog postings varied greatly. As we added more content to the site, it became increasingly difficult to navigate. In future versions of this project, lessons on quality blog posts would be essential to establish an expectation for student contributions. While students began to comment on each others posts organically, I would allot more class time and instruction on how to provide feedback.
There were also some inappropriate uses of the site. Fortunately these were easy for me to identify since all recent activity appears on the site. As a result, I realized I needed to have a conversation with my students regarding appropriate use. I was thrilled to have such an authentic opportunity to begin engaging students in this conversation. As a result of the conversation students agreed to delete their inappropriate comments. It was at this point that I realized how powerful it was to be able to teach in these environments and help them engage in meaningful conversations about an appropriate online presence.
Creating an online social network meets students half way. Many students are already using the internet and technology to communicate with their peers ,and are consequently quite fluent with the nuances of adding friends, replying to messages, and checking for updates. Educators will love the engagement of students, their independent drive, and the unexpected conversations and reflections that occur even away from school. Educators will also enjoy the different types of data they're able to collect from their students and different avenues with which to provide feedback, either messages to the whole class or just to an individuals. Overall, I have found social networking to be a powerful tool for educators both in terms of the different communication features it offers, and also the level of engagement it provides for students.
To read how Ning is used in an ELL classroom read: Using Ning in an ELL Classroom