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Social Networking in Schools – do the benefits outweigh the risks? March 29, 2010

Posted by teachandreflect in Uncategorized.
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The following is an assignment submitted for my Enhanced Learning in Professional Contexts (ELPC) unit. Previous posts demonstrating the development of my thinking on this topic are tagged “ELPC Summary 2”. I welcome any feedback – particularly of the constructive variety 🙂

The past two-to-three years have seen an increasing volume of independent and government-commissioned studies lauding the educational benefits of online social networking sites. In almost every report or article of this nature, there has been an accompanying call for governments to remove internet content restrictions in schools. The need to develop students’ critical and independent decision-making skills is often cited as the rationale for such action, in line with modern, social constructivist philosophies of learning. Meanwhile, government policy makers often maintain that blocking access to popular social networking sites is consistent with educational ‘duty of care’ requirements. Both arguments are persuasive and, it would seem, are genuinely formulated with the best interests of students in mind. But the question remains: should the risks identified with unrestricted online social networking warrant a government veto against a potentially rich source of student interaction and education?

In recent years, a growing scholarly lobby in Anglophone countries has been calling for governments to embrace the educational benefits of unrestricted student participation on social networking sites (For example, Byron, 2008; Cook et al. 2008; Notley, 2008; Moyle, 2010; Ofsted, 2010). These appeals are generally couched in the vocabulary of social constructivist learning theory, which sees social and cultural processes as integral to learning (Krause et al. 2010, p.188-189). Notley (2008, p.23) argues that the information sharing, bonding and network expanding that occurs on social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace can help students build the type of ‘social capital’ that leads to higher educational achievement and better health, among other things. This accords with most descriptions of the educational benefits of Web2.0 technologies (For example Byron, 2008; Cook et al. 2008), although Moyle also reminds us of the need for educators to make learning activities more relevant and meaningful to students personally (2010, p.5). Elliot (2009) goes yet another step, calling for a new pedagogy altogether, that of “connectivism”.      

The stance of such scholars is often in tension with a tendency on the part of governments to block school internet access to publicly available social networking sites. Only in the past few weeks, this issue has come to a head in Australia, following the handing out of some 66,000 laptops to Year 9 students in NSW as part of the government’s $2.2billion Digital Education Revolution (Pauli, 2010). Students from across the State, and even some of their parents, have claimed the laptops are of little educational use given the heavy online access restrictions put in place by education authorities (Shaw, 2010). Many of the scholars noted above would support the students position, arguing that it makes far more sense to educate students in media literacy, equipping them to make independent and critically reasoned choices regarding their online usage (Byron 2008; Notely 2008, p.22; Ofsted 2010).

Governments, on the other hand, often cite the requirement of their schools to provide ‘duty of care’ in  arguments for the restriction of social networking access. It is a relatively easy argument to support, with an abundance of research available linking dangers such as pedophilia and cyber-bullying to youth engagement with Web2.0 technologies. Even though understandings of student online use in some of these studies may be misconstrued, the findings are still concerning to naturally cautious parents and educators (Byron, 2008; Notely, 2008, p.21; Crook et al. 2008, p.22). To offer the benefits of social networking without the ‘dangers’ of open interaction, some Australian State and Territory governments have commissioned the development of private, teacher monitored educational sites with social networking capacities. These include Queensland’s ‘Learning Net’ (Notely, 2008, p.25) and the Victorian government’s recently released $77million Ultranet (Tomazin, 2010). At the same time, Education authorities in NSW have responded to the recent laptop controversy by undertaking to renegotiate content blocking policies in consultation with student representatives and parents and citizens associations (Crozier, 2010; Head, 2010). Despite this apparent flexibility, however, the State has reserved the right to monitor, check and filter access to certain materials and sites on the new laptops under ‘duty of care’ auspices (“Students’ learning”, 2010; Notley, 2008, p.24 [in the case of QLD]).

While both parties in this debate have built strong and persuasive cases in support of their respective stances, both are lacking the empirical evidence to gain any real ascendency over the other. Almost without exception, Scholars supporting open access to social networking sites have acknowledged a lack of substantive research pointing to definite learning benefits for students (Byron 2008; Notley 2008; Crook et al 2008). But the same lack of evidence, they argue, leads to misconceptions about student online behaviours in a way that prompts conservative and overly cautious government policies. Education authorities, by contrast, can support ‘duty of care’ arguments by drawing on the many available case studies identifying the risks of unfiltered access to social networking. However, many would argue that this is an approach based on a ‘fear’ mentality, or even outmoded interventionist approaches to student behaviour management. It does not help students develop the capacity to make independent and critically reasoned choices about their online use, and may even, Notley contends, cause social disadvantage to students without access to social networking sites at home (2008, p. 25-26). Furthermore, there is insufficient evidence at this stage for governments to rule out the potential positive impact that training in ICT literacies and responsible online usage might have on the risks they wish to avoid exposing children to. One wonders what kind of impact Victoria’s $77million contribution to the Ultranet might have had were it channelled into this kind of training, whilst at the same time embracing cost-free usage of ‘open’ Web2.0 technologies, as advocated by Moyle (2010, p.55-59).

Ultimately though, it may be more helpful not to frame this discourse in combative terms. It is sometimes easy to criticise governments and, to an extent, parents in instances where conservative and cautious approaches to new technologies appear to impede potentially huge benefits to education. However, the recent NSW example demonstrates that governments are willing to be flexible on such issues. The United Kingdom government’s full endorsement of Byron’s 2008 study, which emphasises the need for student and teacher training in new technology literacies, is also promising (Ofsted, 2010). As long as both sides in the debate continue to foreground student welfare in their approaches, the prospects look bright for increased and more educationally beneficial use of social networking sites in the future.   

Reference List

Byron, T. (2008).  Safer children in a digital world: The report of the Byron Review, Department for Children, Schools and Families, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, United Kingdom.

Crozier, R., & Kotadia, M. (2010, March 16). NSW to relax content blocking on school networks. Endpoint Security. Retrieved from http://www.securecomputing.net.au

Crook, C., Cummings, J., Fisher, T., Graber, R., Harrison, C., Lewin, D., Logan, K., Luckin,R., Oliver,R., & Sharples, M. (2008).  Web2.0 Technologies For Learning: Current Landscape – Opportunities, Challenges and tensions. BECTA, United Kingdom.

Elliott, B. (2009). E-Pedagogy. Does e-learning require a new approach to teaching and learning? Accessed on 16 March from   http://www.scribd.com/doc/932164/E-Pedagogy

Head, B. (2010, March 15). School students may win social networking reprieve. iTWire. Retrieved from http://www.itwire.com

Krause K.L. Bochner, S, Duchesne, S. (2010). Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition) Cengage: Melbourne, Australia.

Moyle, K. (2010). Building Innovation: Learning with Technologies. Australian Council for Educational Research: Victoria, Australia.

Notley, T. (2008). ‘Online network use in schools: social and educational opportunities’. Youth Studies Australia 27(3):20-29.

Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [Ofsted]. (2010).  The safe use of new Technologies. Ofsted: Manchester, United Kingdom.

Pauli, D. (2010, March 16). NSW gets world’s largest Wi-Fi network. Network World. Retreived from http://www.networkworld.com

Shaw, E. (2010, March 10). Cyber daft: Student laptops rendered ‘useless’. Illawarra Mercury. Retreived from http://www.illawarramercury.com.au   

Students’ learning goes digital. (2010, February 25) The Ridge News. Retrieved from http://www.theridgenews.com.au  

Tomazin, F. (2010, March 16). Online schools portal goes live. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au


1. Andy Powell - March 31, 2010

It seems to be worth noting that age restrictions typically preclude the use of social networking sites for the majority of school-age children (all children in UK primary schools for example). You don’t mention this even though, it seems to me, it would seem to have a potentially significant practical consequence for managing the school’s duty of care for those pupils technically (though not practically) barred from access on age grounds?

teachandreflect - April 1, 2010

Thanks Andy, you’re absolutely right to point this out. One of the things I’ve been critical of myself when reading some of the literature on this subject is that some supporters of social networking use in schools tend to ‘blanket’ students of all ages when articulating their positions. In a discussion with my uni tute group a few weeks ago I argued for a year-level determined, phased lifting of content restrictions to faciliate gradual introduction to the benefits of social networking sites. This seems to me to be an appropriate approach on both duty-of-care and ‘scaffolding’ grounds. But I’ve probably been guilty here of the same kind of generalisation. In the process, I’ve glossed over the practical considerations that you’ve quite rightly highlighted. Cheers.

2. trisha - February 23, 2011

maybe the limits should be placed on sexually inappropriate sites rather than social networking sites, and even at that these should be monitored by teachers/authorities and parents, regardless of age, once the child is under the parents’ roof.
good work. hats off to you.

3. Jose Blucher - May 5, 2011

I agree with Trisha, the problem isn’t with the social networking itself its the unsavory and inappropriate content that could be exposed to the students.

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