The best costume I saw this year at Halloween was, hands down, a Facebook page. Yup, it wasn’t that fancy to look at, but it was a lot of fun for everyone at the party. A young man was dressed in laminated white Bristol board sheets, with a hole cut out for his head, where one’s profile picture is normally found. Underneath was his hometown, his birth date and his status (single, of course). He had included photos of his friends below that and had reserved the right side of the page as his ‘wall’. He keep updating his ‘status’ as the evening went on with a whiteboard marker that was hanging by a string, and partygoers were having fun writing messages all over his ‘wall’ with it as well. The costume kept changing and evolving all evening. Periodically, he would reach into the costume and pull out a stuffed sheep, or other miscellaneous item to throw at someone, or walk around ‘poking’ people. It was by far the best costume at the party, not because it was elaborate or aesthetically pleasing to look at, but because it was interactive and had, by the end of the evening, reached everyone in the room. He had very effectively created a large group of new friends and acquaintances by the end of the evening and that is the true purpose of social networking.
Reflection on the process of learning about the tool
I have long been an avid user of Facebook since I signed up 2 ½ years ago in June 2007. I was invited by two friends via email to join, and did so, not really understanding what Facebook was all about or what I was getting into. The idea of being able to ‘chat’ informally and the ability to post pictures easily were the two deciding factors in joining this social network. Over the past few years, I have slowly gone through various stages and emotions with this particular tool. In the beginning, I readily accepted any and all ‘friend requests’ that I got. However, my daily updates became so ridiculously long, I had to do some serious ‘culling’ a year ago. Honestly, I had no interest in keeping in touch with old grade school friends that I hadn’t talked to in 20 years, let alone be aware of every time they frequently updated their status with “I’m going to pour another cup of coffee” or “I have to change a diaper”. The old school pictures that they posted were a giggle at first, but I can easily do without those reminders of my ‘awkward’ years. I have tried to limit my number of friends to those people who are most important in my life and whom I would happily meet for a cup of coffee given the opportunity. I have also tried to limit the number of applications that I have on Facebook, since I went through a phase early on that I fondly refer to as the ‘crackbook’ phase. When I was playing ‘scrabulous’, I became so addicted that I suspect my real-life friends were about to stage an intervention. I am now at the stage where I check it once a day, along with my email. I think I have found a happy (and healthier!) balance.
The other social networking that I was introduced to last year was the “Ning”. It is also an online social network platform, but it’s different from Facebook in that it gives members the ability to customize the features to meet the needs of a specific group of people (Gardner). The teachers in my school district (Sea to Sky) started a Ning (http://seatoskytl.ning.com/) to provide better opportunities for us to discuss issues, and share resources. I have created my profile page, shared photos and taken part in a few discussions, but I must admit that I haven’t yet used it to its full potential, as I took a leave of absence shortly after joining to begin my Masters. The other Ning that I just joined this semester is Joyce Valenza’s Teacher Librarian Ning (http://teacherlibrarian.ning.com/) which looks like an amazing place to share resources, read interesting and informative blogs, converse about ideas in the discussion forum, and keep updated on relevant events taking place. I just joined the group for High School Teacher-Librarians that was started by Joyce Valenza herself, and am excited to be a part of and learn from this knowledgeable community of colleagues over the next few months.
Social Networking as a tool for my own personal learning
Using Facebook and Nings as a platform to connect with friends and colleagues, has been incredibly useful and helpful to me both personally and professionally. In fact, Facebook has now replaced email as my preferred method of communication with friends and family members. I like the ‘Live News Feed’ that makes it easy for me to see what my friends are doing at a glance, and the reminders that I get to keep me informed of friends’ birthdays and upcoming events. I have used the ‘groups’ function on several occasions to plan and invite students and community members to fundraising events for our school and on a smaller scale, plan birthday parties and potluck dinners. It has given me the ability to easily share photos, videos and embed other interesting links as well as view my friends’ and to learn from their interests and musical tastes.
The two Nings that I have joined have helped me professionally as well. As the sole librarian at our school, with limited time allotted for my position, I was really feeling like I was working in isolation and didn’t have any colleagues to collaborate with regularly. These two social network ‘Nings’ have now given me a community to connect with. There are over 3, 800 members in Valenza’s Ning, and 45 different ‘groups’ to join, representing various interests such as: advocacy, Web 2.0 in the library world, visiting authors and promoting Young Adult literacy in schools. There are 319 members in the ‘High School’ group that I’ve signed up for, and so far some of the topics being talked about on the discussion forum include: discipline, online reviews, data tracking, organizational structure, support for new Teacher-Librarians and “Battle of the Books” competitions. I now have a huge support network of colleagues with whom I can ask questions, discuss topics of interest and share resources with. What a wonderful feeling that is!
In one of our group discussions, earlier in this course, we talked about teachers, the public’s perception of our profession and our public online ‘personas’. Through that discussion, I came to realize that we work in a profession that keeps us constantly in the public eye, and are often held to a higher standard of behaviour than the general public whether we are on or off the job. One thing that became apparent to me in our discussion is that since I don’t yet have a family or children to protect, I may be a little less reserved than some of my colleagues about what I post on social networking sites. I am also not in a position of administrative authority and don’t need to make disciplinary decisions that may be controversial or contentious to the general public. I also live and work in a very small town and it is unavoidable running into students and/or parents frequently and most often, at inconvenient times and it is difficult to avoid public scrutiny. Living where I do, I actually don’t feel like there is a big difference between my public and private lives. However, this discussion was a lesson, and ‘reminder’ to me to always remember to think critically about what we add to ‘personalize’ our spaces and whether or not it will be interpreted in the same manner as we intended when we placed it there, knowing that once added, it is part of the public domain.
Social Networking as a tool for teaching and learning
As terrific as social networking sites are for professional development for teachers, there are quite a few challenges presented by social networking sites, which have prompted many schools to block them. In addition to them being an, addictive ‘time suck’ as I found it to be on ‘scrabulous’, more serious issues have arisen. Cyberbullying of other students and of teachers has been the most high profile of the problems (Kuehn). In his article Renegotiating School Boundaries in the Age of Social Networking Kuehn summarizes the dilemma that is facing school administrators and officials when it comes to these social networking sites:
“The world of online social networking has developed so rapidly that conventions and boundaries have not evolved quickly enough to help everyone, but especially students and teachers, find the zone that provides both comfort and self-protection. School officials have a difficult time, in the new communications environment, knowing what tools they have to deal with conflicts that arise from social networking.”
As a result, many school boards have simply blocked all social sites. However, Stephen Abram makes a good point when he states that the “schools that block social sites rather than taking advantage of a teachable moment are missing something”. Doug Johnson agrees with this sentiment, stating in his ‘Blue Skunk Blog’ that “schools DO need to teach safety and privacy with all social networking tools. If we don’t, who will?” He has a very valid point here. Blocking Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites is not going to stop students from using them on their own time. WHEN they use them is not as crucial as HOW they use them, as this will have an impact on the school environment and students’ relationships regardless of when they access these sites. This is especially true if they are using it as a means to ruin a peer’s reputation or for cyberbullying. These events will undoubtedly affect the school regardless if they are posted from home. Teaching students how to be safe, respectful, and using good ‘ol fashioned manners in a contemporary format is extremely important. I would encourage every teacher to show the following humorous YouTube video called Facebook manners and you!
The other serious security concern that I have with using Social Networks in the school environment is the manner that data is collected and shared about you, often without your knowledge. It is a bit daunting to know that the information we post about ourselves is part of a public domain that can be viewed by virtually anyone, is shared widely and without our being totally aware of who has access to it and can be retrieved even after it’s been modified or removed (Stoddart). However, I think that this presents another “teachable moment” with students about safety and respect. I believe it’s critically important to make them more aware of what happens to the information that they ‘put out there’ for the world to see. Here is another video, developed by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada that I would recommend teachers show their students as well regarding this issue.
As much as I love using Facebook, I became more aware of security and personal image issues related to using online social networks in our profession when I received my TC magazine from the BC College of Teachers last winter. In it was an article called ‘Facebook 101’ advising teachers and administrators to avoid using social networking sites. I was quite offended by this pronouncement not only because I felt that it undermined my professional autonomy to make my own qualified decisions regulating what I post, but I felt its blanket statement was not educationally sound. In Kyröläinen’s master’s thesis, he found the “existence of [a] sense of community in the Web environment, that it is not that far from the sense of community in real social environments”. When I had a discussion last year with one of my classes on why I would not add them as ‘Facebook friends’, it became apparent that many of them just wanted to see pictures of my twin sister and family members and I was more than happy to share selected photos with them. This made me realize the importance for students to be connected to their teachers as well as their peers whether it’s part of a virtual or real community. I truly believe that having a personal connection and building relationships with my students helps me be a much more effective teacher.
I agree wholeheartedly with Kuehn’s standpoint that there are too many educational benefits to using social networking sites and other web spaces to ignore or abandon them. Instead a “balance is key” (Kuehn). But what is that balance? For me the “Ning’s the thing” (Gardner). It allows for the same formation of an online, social network, but can be closely monitored by the teacher. Unlike Facebook, it allows for better control and management by the teacher. As Gardner outlined in her blog, Nings have the following safety features:
The teacher has the control to
• setup the Ning as private and open only to invited members;
• approve people before they join;
• approve all photos or videos before they are posted;
• delete any inappropriate groups or discussions
• ban members if necessary
• reverse any decisions with a simple click
So what are the potential uses and benefits of a school-developed Ning? Some of the ideas that are suggested by (Gardner) are:
• Set up discussion forums on literature circles or peer writing groups
• Create groups based on student interests like book clubs, mountain biking clubs or chess clubs etc.
• Use it as an upload alternative for podcasts, videos or photos
• Set up online journals or reading logs
• Post information for students and their families in a shared space
As contentious as social networking sites can be in the school environment, I think it’s important to teach our students how to use them safely, respectfully and for their intended purpose of communicating ideas and making connections with others. As Lee Lefever commented in his Common Craft video (http://www.commoncraft.com/video-social-networking “networks get things done”. It allows you to see the connections network that is hidden in the real world. It is a new means to find jobs, new friends and even partners. As for the fellow in the Facebook costume? His was the ultimate in socially interactive costumes. He not only made a whole new group of friends and acquaintances- his status was no longer ‘single’ by the end of the evening! Mission accomplished.
BC College of Teachers. (2007). “Facebook 101.” TC Magazine. Retrieved from
Kuehn, Larry. “Renegotiating School Boundaries in the Age of Social Networking.” Our Schools / Ourselves. Retrieved from
Kyröläinen, Satu Suvikki. (2001) Sense of Community in Web Environments. Master’s Thesis. Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki. Retrieved from
Lefever, Lee. Social Networking in Plain English. Common Craft. Retrieved from: http://www.commoncraft.com/video-social-networking
Stoddart, Jennifer. (2007) “Privacy and Social Networks”. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7gWEgHeXcA
Gardner, Traci. (September 3, 2008). Social Networking: The Ning’s the Thing. National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Inbox Blog. Retrieved from: