Can spending time on sites like Facebook actually help kids in school?
That's what new research from the University of Maryland suggests. Professor Christine Greenhow has found that students build important bonds when they connect with school friends on social networking sites.
"When kids feel connected and have a strong sense of belonging to the school community, they do better in school," said Greenhow, an education professor. "They persist in school at higher rates and achieve at higher rates. ... It's pretty promising that engaging in social networking sites could help them to develop and deepen their bonds over time."
Greenhow surveyed about 600 low-income high school students and concluded that in addition to deepening friendships, some students use the sites to get tips about college and career options. Greenhow said she focused on low-income students because research on this group is lacking but necessary for creating more equal learning opportunities. Her paper will be published in the winter.
There is still considerable debate over whether teachers should use social-networking sites in the classroom. The dangers and abuses of social media - sexual predators, cyberbullying and harassment, and the posting of inappropriate photos and other material - have made some educators skittish. Many are not convinced that the sites improve communication, and some fear students simply use the sites to procrastinate and catch up with friends.
Greenhow acknowledges there are potential pitfalls, but says it's shortsighted to ignore the positive aspects. She has studied adolescent Internet habits since 2007, and found that high school students are boosting their creativity and technical skills through the sites.
Greenhow says educators who incorporate social media into the classroom can make lessons more relevant and meaningful.
Susan Domanico, a high school science teacher, experimented with a few social networking sites and created networks by invitation only for her students last year. In her neuroscience class, Domanico asked students to make PowerPoint presentations about neurotransmitters. She recorded the presentations and posted them on social networks for students to refer back to as a study guide.
"The big advantage is kids can be authors, they can add links and pictures and comments and it's very familiar to them," said Domanico, who teaches at La Jolla Country Day School, a private nursery-12th grade school in San Diego County. "It gave them more resources and made it a little more interesting."
The difficult part, many teachers say, is finding time to experiment with new technological tools and create meaningful assignments.
Educators are using sites like Facebook and Ning to add new dimensions to their lessons. Many sites allow teachers to set up free social networks by invitation only, which helps ease privacy and safety concerns.
Teachers use Ning to provide a digital forum for students, upload and distribute homework assignments, network with other teachers, and share information with parents and the community. Educators make up the largest category of users at Ning, said Christina Lee, the company's director of marketing.
Facebook has published a guide for educators on how to use the social network to enhance learning. It recommends that teachers not accept friend requests from students, but rather create groups and pages. Those features allow teachers to share content with students with varying degrees of privacy.
Proponents of using social networking for instruction say there's an added incentive. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released its National Education Technology Plan, which includes a proposal to use social networking as a platform for learning.
The plan urges educators to "leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures."
Eleanor Yang Su