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

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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

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Learning through social networking. ‘Social Capital’ vs Mitigating Risk March 28, 2010

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As I approach the end of my reading on this issue I’m concluding that both sides of the debate have very strong and quite persuasive arguments. But both sides also seem to be lacking the kind of empirical evidence needed land the knockout punch. To grossly oversimplify matters, in the one corner we have ‘the education authorities’, implementing measures (i.e. content blocking, restricting access to popular social networking sites, creating closed artificial ones) that they believe will protect our children from harm whilst operating within the physical or virtual school grounds.  We as parents and citizens expect and pay our government to provide this level of protection when our children are in its care. There is plenty of evidence available to support the view that strangers and bullies can and do seek to cause harm to children when using social network sites. As Notley and others have argued, sometimes the actual location of such harmful encounters is misunderstood or misconstrued, and not at all linked to activity on popular networking sites. However, instances have occurred, and are likely to occur again, and I feel it is right for governments to exercise a healthy degree of caution when determining these types of policies. Even one or two children harmed in circumstances where such harm could have been prevented is a cause for government and societal concern.

However, Notley, Byron, Moyle and Co. suggest a philosophical approach which would empower students to make the appropriate, independent choices about their online activities. After all, the minute they graduate college or high school, these folks need to be able to take care of themselves, right? How are they going to do that if they have been equipped with the critical thinking skills and literacy to operate in the now obiquitous online world? Unfortunately for scholars holding these quite defensible views, there may not yet be sufficienct empirical evidence to support a case for building ‘social capital’ in a way that justifies the full removal of safeguards to our children’s psychological welfare.

Perhaps, in the end, there is a danger in seeing this as one of the many dichotomous debates in education, for there is some degree of compromise and flexibility on both sides of the coin. As noted in my earlier post on the NSW government response to the laptop controversy, and as seen in the UK government’s endorsement of Byron’s report, governments do appear to be exhibiting more flexibility in these realms. Likewise, sensible advocates of the educational utility of social networking like Kathryn Moyle have not thrown the policy baby out with the bath water. While Moyle argues that we should embrace openly available online technologies in our teaching, she still acknowledges that these activities should be ‘secure, with appropriate access to the content being held as required by the respective members of the school community’ (2010, p.5) .

Provided everyone in this debate continues to have the interests of the child at heart, a collaborative approach is best. And we would all be better at doing that if we had been networking socially from an early age, no!?

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.

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.

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

Notely, 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.

Social networking technologies in schools – every child’s right? March 27, 2010

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Tanya Notley’s article Online Network use in schools:social and educational opportunities has been a topic of discussion in our tutes this week, which is advantageous because it ties in with the new direction I have taken in my next assignment. Notley is strongly in favour of the educational use of popular Web2.0 social networking sites, arguing 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 benefits of the Web2.0 technologies (For example Byron 2008, whom Notley cites heavily; and Cook et al 2008). Some of Kathryn Moyle’s recent work could be considered in the same light, although Moyle also makes explicit the need for educators to make learning activities more relevant and meangingful to students personally if they are going to be of any benefit (2010, p.5). I would argue that most of these scholars are applying a form of social constructivist learning theory to their arguments, or at least couching their ideas within that framework and vocabulary. Elliot (2009), who we covered last week, goes one step further, calling for a new pedagogy altogether, that of “connectivism”.

There are some aspects of Notley’s “Building Innovation” that could be challenged on critical grounds. For example, Byron’s report into the online safety of children in the UK is compared to QLD State education policy on content blocking as if the documents were of the same categorisation. Byron’s less heavy handed approach, with its focus on educating children and parents in ICT literacies and minimally disruptive government access restrictions, is offered up as a new paradigm for Australian educators. But the context in which it was drafted is entirely different to that of the QLD education policies. Byron was investigating the safety of children in general, that is, in the outside world – a realm in which the government can only suggest and promote home-based content blocking. But not necessarily enforce it. Applying controls over content within schools and on school laptops is a different matter entirely, it is easy to effect and often justified on duty of care grounds. As in QLD, it would appear that the practise of content blocking, or ‘management’ remains widespread in UK schools (Ofsted, 2010).

cyberbullying2_05

Having said that, the positive educational and personal development aspects of social networking, as posited by the scholars in the reference list below, would seem to flow logically from greater involvement on the sites in school settings. The problem for those on this side of the argument is the lack of evidence offering clear links between higher educational performance and the use of social networking tools. Given that the other side of the debate – ‘the authorities’ – are drawing upon assessments of risk and danger to children (i.e. from paedophiles, cyber-bullies etc), it would need to be some hefty empirical data to challenge the current status quo.    

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.

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

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

Notely, 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.

A change of tack – investigating content blocking on Australia’s new school laptops March 23, 2010

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Having looked over some of the recent media reporting on the government’s laptop rollout in NSW schools, I’ve decided I might change tack with my forthcoming ELPC assignment. A seemingly healthy public debate has emerged over the online access restrictions placed on the new laptops.

KRudd's Toolbox

Students from across the State, and even some of their parents, have claimed the laptops are of little educational use given the students’ inability to access social networking sites on them (Shaw, 2010). It’s refreshing to see some examples of progressive parents rolled out in relation to ICT literacy. But it’s also refreshing to see that the government response to these calls has not been (entirely) heavy handed but instead flexible and open to negotiation (Crozier, 2010; Head, 2010). At face value, State Education and Training Minister Verity Firth’s comments – that some restrictions could be relaxed in consultation with parents and teachers associations on a rewards basis – sounded entirely reasonable to me.   

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

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

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

A revolution by the government???? March 20, 2010

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By way of orientation, a quick and broadbrushed run down on the Australian Government’s so-called Digital Education Revolution (DER), a term coined by Labour Party leader and now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during his successful 2007 election campaign

Goals

According to the DER website, which is administered by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEER), the Digital Education Revolution is

“to contribute sustainable and meaningful change to teaching and learning in Australian schools that will prepare students for further education, training and to live and work in a digital world.” 

$$$$$

Now that I’ve convinced myself that ICT is here to stay and is something that as a teacher I should learn to embrace, I’m happy that our government is spending our tax-payer money on such a vision, some $2.2 billion over six years to be exact. But it does sound like a HUGE amount when you put it like that – this is something I’ll have to revisit. Anyway, here’s where the money’s going. It should:

  • “provide for new information and communication technology (ICT) equipment for all secondary schools with students in years 9 to12 through the National Secondary School Computer Fund
  • support the deployment of high speed broadband connections to Australian schools
  • collaborate with states and territories and Deans of Education to ensure new and continuing teachers have access to training in the use of ICT that enables them to enrich student learning
  • provide for online curriculum tools and resources that support the national curriculum and specialist subjects such as languages
  • enable parents to participate in their child’s education through online learning and access
  • support mechanisms to provide vital assistance for schools in the deployment of ICT”

 Partnerships and Planning

The DER is implemented in educational institutions under two types of different partnership arrangements. Government schools come under the “Digital Revolution National Partnership with the State and Territories”, while private and independent institutions are governed by “Digital Education Revolution Funding Agreements”. All of this is guided by the DER Strategic Plan and Roadmap and a series of associated guidelines. The agreements, plans and guidelines are all available on the DER website.

Priorities and Timeframes

Inside the DER Strategic Plan there is a good visual representation of the government’s DER Priorities and Timeframes:

(Source: DEEWR, 2008:10)

It’s noteworthy that quite a few milestones were planned to have been achieved by and around now (March 2010). That’s enough of this (very dry) orientation for the moment, but I’m sure we’ll be able to get a good sense of how the government is tracking with these milestones after my next blog, which will deal with hot DER issues in the contemporary Australian media. Stay tuned!!!  

What’s hot right now in Australia’s “Digital Education Revolution”? March 20, 2010

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For my next ELPC assignment I’m looking at “current issues in ICT”, but with a view to adding a decidedly Australian and educational flavour to my discussion, I’m going to hone in critically on the Australian Government’s “Digital Education Revolution” (DER). It’s a very topical media issue here in Australia, with the New South Wales government’s ongoing rollout of individual laptops to all students drawing media attention to the broader issue of ICT in education, and specifically the Australian government’s policies in the realm.

I’ll be adopting somewhat of an inverted pyramid approach to this investigation. I’ll begin by summarising the government’s take on its DER policy, before capturing a snapshot of the last month of Australian media reporting on it. If possible, I want to get a real sense of the key debates on DER that are exercising the minds of journalists and the public right now.

From there I’ll examine previous political and scholarly commentary on these debates with a view to setting them in Australia’s recent socio-political context, before relating them to the global discourse on ICT and education.

Hopefully the effect will be an analysis that moves beyond viewing these issues in their localised and politicised contexts towards understanding them from a more critical and holistic perspective. We can only hope!