Thursday, July 23, 2009

How I Use Social Networking to Keep My Students Engaged All Summer Long

Editor’s Note: This post was written by a candidate who responded to my call for interns. To follow you will have an opportunity to read her account of the innovative practices in which she engages with her students. Dana Lawit is a special education teacher at a new and growing public high school in Brooklyn, New York. She is passionate about finding meaningful ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning.

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 ( 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


  1. Great post! I think using a private ning is a very innovative way of getting students involved in learning tasks. Most students I have taught all have Facebook or Myspace pages they interact on daily. Directing some of this energy and excitement for learning is a great use of their time. Moreover, they will know how to do this for their future careers. Every important professional these days has a LinkedIn profile and knows how to network on Ning like sites!

  2. @Shelly Terrell, Thanks for your comment! Some kids experience online social networks as a place they want to be known and contribute to (spruce up their profile, post something public). I wonder if they bring the same enthusiasm to the classroom? So do, but some definitely don't.

  3. Wow, what a great experience! I just started a Ning for technology teachers in my district and I am so excited about the possibilities there. The adults, however, are more reluctant to use the tool. I can imagine how quickly your students picked it up.

    Please keep us updated on your experiences in the future. Congrats on a wonderful project!

    Just a side note: Even Nings are blocked by my district (Philadelphia)! I'm going to petition to get our teachers' Ning unblocked.

    Mary Beth

  4. Great Post!! I love your idea on using Ning to expand your communication and connection with your students (especially after school ends).

    I just recently set up a Facebook Alumni group for all my former students. In one week, there are over 200 former students (who are now working). They are using it in a professional manner; posting jobs, networking, sharing resumes, and experiences. So much power in the social network.

  5. I was wondering if you had a problem with the message feature on Ning? We used Ning - and I would continue to do so - but I couldn't control the message feature and at the time (last winter) I could not turn it off. We had students who would spend a lot of time messaging each other, sometimes inappropriatly - and it became quite an issue for me. I liked using the Ning otherwise, especially since it has a format allowing the students to design - and redesign their own page (althought that too can be a distraction).

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  7. @Karli, I can see how the messaging feature would become an issue. To be honest, we didn't give our students a lot of time to log on and get their work done. I also disabled the customize page feature, I figured tweaking their profile photo would be enough. We didn't have any issues with inappropriate emails, that I know of. I imagine if we had they would have to be dealt with the same way our administration handles harassment through MySpace or AIM.

  8. Check out this new site. it appears to be a protected social networking site designed just for learning.

  9. This certainly hits close to home for me. I have students, past and present, on my Facebook friends list. Since the account started as a personal account, these middle school students are jumbled in with my more personal Facebooking. I think I've done a reasonable job of keeping all things professional or at least appropriate, but it makes me uncomfortable at best and concerned about professional and legal issues at worst. Thank you for the word on Ning. I had not heard of it before this, and it looks like it might just be a fine solution to keeping student connectivity at a high while keeping the focus comfortably on learning.

  10. Thank you for sharing this information...

  11. Great post about the Ning. tried offering blogs to members for a while, but switched to the Ning form last January. MyEC is going very well and we have a good balance of teachers and students. Our main concern is that students need to be reminded to create their own content. It is too easy for them to copy and paste text and photos from the web. Many don't realize it is wrong. We created "How to Avoid Plagiarism" to help them out. It explains how, what, and why to cite and has an audio intro:
    I hope other teachers will share it with their Ning students. Best of luck with your Nings!
    Tara Benwell

  12. Thanks for sharing your experience. It's always interesting to know the way in which teachers engage students in the process of learning.

  13. Good way to provide individual feedback. Excellent way to motivate the students to complete assignments.

  14. I have had a very similar experience using Ning with my students, which I did this past year. What I liked most about it was that in addition to students being familiar with the social network format, it gave students a place to post their work for others to see and comment on.

    I began the school year using a Ning site for social networking, a Weebly site as a class homepage, and a Wikispaces site as a class wiki. By the end of the year, the Ning site was about the only one we used because of how much we could do with it. Without question, I will keep social networking as part of my class......but....

    With Ning switching to pay for use, I began looking at other sites to replace it. I liked both and better than Ning. Recently I got an email from Ning saying that Pearson would sponsor educators still looking to use it, but I think that I will probobally change over to because I like its format better.

  15. One thing I would love to share with you guys is a great teacher networking site called:

    Meet Teachers
    Share Lessons
    Improve Education