While there are several alternatives to Social Networking sites (Edmodo, Twiducate, etc.), these are often reduced or "dumbed down" versions of the actual Social Network sites. It appears that the impetus that drives blocks on Social Networks is both Fear and Ignorance.
Fear historically causes people to lash out at things that they do not understand. I understand that there is fear of lawsuits for students bullying, intimidating, and disrespecting others. I understand that there is fear of inappropriate social connections between adults and children. At the same time, I also believe that it is the responsibility of educators to teach Social Networking skills and etiquette (netiquette) to students so they know how to use those tools appropriately. Betty Ray makes that point apparent in her blog Making the Case for Social Media in Education. She emphasizes that educators must model appropriate behavior regarding Social Networking:
"It is quickly becoming our duty as educators in the 21st century to guide our students towards responsible use of social media. We teach sex ed, we teach healthy living, we teach about drugs, we teach character ed., and on and on. We do these things each and every day, yet we are ignoring the aspect of our students' lives that is larger than all of these things (and completely interconnected with them as well). It is our duty to our students to start modeling responsible use of social media and encouraging them to follow our lead. We can no longer afford the veil."
People who are not taught Social Networking etiquette run the risk of making the mistakes that we often hear of in the news. People do not consider that information (text, photos, videos) posted online shape the impression others have of them. By teaching netiquette in elementary schools (and reinforcing netiquette values throughout the educational system) as soon as students begin using computers and the internet, Integrity will be instilled.
Ignorance (not knowing how Social Networking can be used in the classroom) is a further factor that promotes reluctance to allow Social Networking in the classroom. My personality demands that there must be a purpose for a tool before I use it in my classroom. I have found countless ways to utilize Twitter, Facebook, etc. with my students. As with any classroom tools, expectations/rules must be discussed so students use the tools properly, safely, and respectfully. My yearbook class has a private Facebook group and a public wiki. My photography classes have online digital portfolios. My speech class and English classes have public blogs. With each of these technology tools, the risk of bullying, harrassment, intimidation, etc. is present. Students are expected to adhere to Mr. Langley's Digital Classroom Expectations. Social Networking expectations would be no different.
Recently, educators collaboratively came up with The 30 Newest Ways To Use Twitter In The Classroom. I am continuously amazed at the amount of advise and information that I glean from other educators at the #edchat and #edtech Twitter hashtags (the #edtech link goes to a live feed using Tweetgrid). I have learned, collaborated, exchanged ideas more this past summer using Twitter than I have in any workshop in the past ten years elsewhere. With that said, I would love to bring that same experience into the classroom with my students. Again, as educators, we are used to improvising and adapting to create experiences that will emulate the real world. I challenge educators and legislatures to accept that the time has come that we need to stop shielding our students from the real world - we need to functionally prepare them for the real world with real experiences.
The next real challenge is to educators themselves: are you teaching students the same way every year? Are you allowing yourself to become comfortable? If so, Why? We got into education to make a positive impact on students lives and education. It is our responsibility to stay up-to-date with not only learning styles of students, but also with the tools of the real world. It is our responsibility to create a safe learning environment for students by teaching them the proper etiquette/netiquette of new technology/tools available.
With the dilemma that I am currently in, I will concede to adapt and use technology that simulates the "real thing," but I will also continue to educate educators, administrators, parents, legislatures, etc. about the need to prepare students for the "real world" by using tools that the "real world" is currently using. I challenge educators, administrators, legislators, and parents to work together to find a realistic solution to prepare students for the real world.
You don't remove all of the electrical outlets in your house because you are afraid your child will be electrocuted; you instead teach your child about safety regarding electricity and the importance of using electric devices responsibly. Instead of sheltering our students from "real world" tools, let's teach our students the responsible, ethical way to use Social Networking and 21st Century Skills so they are truly prepared for the next level of their lives.