The Year in Ed-Tech, Part 4: Social Learning, Social Networks

Much like the move to mobile, 2010 saw an increase in the adoption of social networking -- across the board (clearly) with Facebook gaining its 500 millionth user this year, but also specifically in education, where social networking has been viewed with some suspicion by those who associate it with security and privacy risks.

While sites like Facebook may be blocked at some schools, it doesn't stop students from using it off-campus to chat about homework assignments. But several companies, such as Schoology and Edmodo have taken some of the functionality of a Facebook-like site and applied it to the learning management system, providing a way for schools to build social networks more geared towards the academic setting.

In no small part because of the ongoing privacy concerns surrounding Facebook, many educators had turned to Ning as an alternative site in which to build their own private social networks. However, Ning announced in April that it would be changing its business model and ending its "freemium" offerings. Following an outcry from many educators, Ning announced that it would continue to offer some free version of the new "Ning Mini" to teachers, subsidized by the publisher Pearson.

And while a study of undergraduates' use of technology found that very few students utilized Twitter, the microblogging platform has become an important site nonetheless for many educators (and some students) in the development of real-time personal learning networks. A report released today by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that 8% of Americans use Twitter, with those between the ages of 18 and 29 significantly more likely to do so.

While one study has argued that Twitter helps improve students' grades and engagement, that argument could probably be made about any number of new technologies that work to connect students and teachers with real-time collaboration and communication.

But against the move towards more adoption of social networks has come a backlash about the way in which the Internet may also facilitate "cyberbullying." Particularly following a string of suicides of gay youth, many decried the ways in which these technologies make it easier for threats and violence to occur. As Anil Dash, danah boyd, and others argue, it's unwise to blame the technology and not examine closely the societal and cultural beliefs that actually lead to that sort of bullying.

Indeed, both the spread of social networking and the fears it elicits have made the teaching about digital citizenship the more important, and many schools are working to re-examine not just their "acceptable use" policies in terms of new devices and new connectivity, but also to help students understand how to live and learn in a digital world.


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