Posted by: schooleducator | April 12, 2009

Schools and Facebook: Moving Too Fast or Not Fast Enough?

Last year, when I purchased my iPhone, I braced myself for the 4-hour online tutorial to learn how to navigate the device. However, just as I was sitting down to begin the tutorial, my 8 year-old son told me not to waste my time. He could teach me in 20 minutes, he stated boldly. All he needed was a little time to “play” with the phone. Sure enough, he proved to be a better and more entertaining teacher than the online tutorial and I fast learned the basics of iPhone use. He continues to be my iPhone navigator, updating the phone, looking for “cool” apps to add and explaining the phone to me in clear, easy to understand language. Technology has flipped our roles. It used to be that parents and teachers taught children. Now, the reverse is true and the quicker we can grasp this concept, the better equipped we will all be to live in the 21st century. President Obama knows this. He has retooled government’s approach to communication. Each week, he uploads his weekly address to YouTube, the White House web site invites viewer interaction and he even found a way to hold onto his BlackBerry. And, the President has enlisted a chief technology officer to rewire the government’s whole technology apparatus.

Schools need to do the same. Students are fast growing disenchanted with the snail’s pace of change going on in classrooms regarding teaching with technology. Thankfully, some teachers have grabbed the mantle and are taking steps to meet students where they are in the online world. One talented teacher cooked up an entire 20th century China project on Facebook. Students adopted the personalities of Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong and Chang Kai-shek and created and updated Facebook pages and profiles, replete with photos and wall postings. In the words of the teacher: “This project changed the classroom. Students were so motivated and put far more hours into their research than they would have done with a traditional project.” The best part about this project was the organic way it developed in the hands of a teacher who listens to her students. As the class brainstormed the beginning stages of the unit, one of the students simply suggested that the class create Facebook pages for the three leaders and be required to chat, post and debate online. Instead of balking at this potentially outlandish idea, this teacher jumped at the opportunity. This is exactly the kind of collaborative learning that the 21st century demands, but it does mean surrendering a bit of curricular control to the students. For many teachers, letting students “run” the show poses a challenge to the traditional “sage on the stage” model, even in the most progressive of teaching environments. The time has come to turn the reins over to the students.

What if there was a school where every teacher was required to run their courses on Facebook? Many schools have pushed teachers to have their own websites, with syllabi, unit samples and topical web links. But the missing piece with this type of design is the lack of interaction for the user. Facebook forces interaction and active learning. It has speed and multi-tasking wrapped into one page. One teacher with whom I have spoken says just this: “Students multi-task and we need to create classrooms that multi-task.”
This particular teacher has given her classroom a facelift and she teaches the class essentially online. YouTube, Google images, and iTunes songs plaster her Power Point lectures and she daily posts to a class blog and includes interactive features in her homework assignments. Students love her class and they rarely get sidetracked, as they take notes on their laptops and input data during hands-on labs. This teacher’s premise is to make the classroom mirror the online lives of the students so that students will not be distracted from educational goals. She has never had a technology related discipline issue in her class. Imagine this teacher with a school sanctioned Facebook page. Her already innovative approach would increase exponentially.

Urs Gasser and John Palfrey, co-authors of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, ask the critical question for schools regarding multitasking:

“Should we expend all our effort in trying to prevent digital natives from multitasking? The answer is no […] What we suggest, therefore, is engaging in a structured conversation with digital natives about multitasking as one strategy that can help them cope with the sea of information. An understanding of the way multitasking challenges learning can even help students practice intentional learning and thus improve the performance of their working memory.” (Mastering Multitasking, by Urs Gasser and John Palfrey in Educational Leadership, March 2009, Vol. 66 No. 6, p. 18)

The virtue of the online classroom is that it does not require classroom walls. Learning goes on 24/7 and with the right design students will want to spend their time outside of school collaborating and adding content to class Facebook pages, for example. The teacher who created the 20th century China assignment shared that her students added to their class created Facebook pages at every hour of the day and night.
Motivation skyrocketed and learning grew more authentic with real time audience.

Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of Make Magazine, has likened schools of the future to a wild ecosystem. Students are growing up in a jungle, he argues, and schools need to figure out how to make sense of the “wild.” One productive way to do this is to develop a giant smart grid to disseminate information and facilitate communication through student developed Facebook pages, where key educational interests and accomplishments are posted and shared. Current project work can then grow more quickly and deeply with collaboration across states, countries, and continents, Dale explains. One key question schools need to begin to ask is what is the enrollment at school beyond school walls.

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do, poses the ultimate challenge for schools:

“Perhaps we need to separate youth from education. Education lasts forever. Youth is the time for exploration, maturation, socialization […] What if we told students that, like Google engineers, they should take one day a week or one course a term or one year in college to create something: a company, a book, a song, a sculpture, an invention? School could act as an incubator, advising, pushing, an nurturing their ideas and effort. What would come of it? Great things and mediocre things. But it would force students to take greater responsibility for what they do and to break out of the straitjacket of uniformity.” (Jarvis, p. 212)

Schools can offer programming electives to interested students and channel their energies to produce authentic products. One 8th grade student devoted a year of study to develop an iPhone application. He worked with his father, a programmer, and when he hit a bump, he sought out advice from some of Apple’s finest and linked up with mentors in the programming field. Far more hours were spent tinkering on this project than the regular course of study, and the more schools can unleash this type of creative energy in its students, the faster and more productive these students become in a rapidly changing work culture. As The New York Times reported, the “iPhone Gold Rush is on.” Last fall, Stanford University offered an undergraduate course called iPhone Application Programming that attracted 150 students for only 50 spots.

We live in a “flat” world as Thomas Friedman has argued. This “flatness” must extend into the field of education. The old hierarchical model of education needs to be dismantled in favor of cross platform teaching and learning. President Obama has rewired government and schools need to seize the moment. We can’t wait and more importantly, kids can’t wait. A provocative video on the progression of information technology, “Did You Know?” states: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” Now is the time for full-scale reconsideration of instructional delivery with the latest technology tools. As the recently released MacArthur Foundation study on digital youth stated: “they (kids) are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults […] to stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.” You can also watch a video interview with the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Mizuko Ito.

Of course, social networking and Facebook do not come without certain caveats. Schools are increasingly trapped in a Gordian knot with the onslaught of the Facebook age. The boundaries between home and school are so twisted that school administrators, parents, and students find themselves caught in the crosshairs. To untangle this knot, all three groups need to come together and communicate about fair use. The recent news of Katherine Evans and her lawsuit against Pembroke Pines Charter High School (New York Times, February 8, 2009) highlight the challenges of untying this knot. Suspended from school for creating a Facebook page aimed at venting frustration at the actions of her high school English teacher, the student, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have cried foul at perceived first amendment violations. The school, on the other hand, crouches under the desk of its legal counsel. This problem will only grow worse, unless all parties can create an agreement for fair play at home and in school. Kids will not cease posting on Facebook and the faster schools and parents can grasp that reality, the healthier the lives of students will be.

The question centers on how to build a bridge for students, parents, and schools. The Common Sense Media schools program can serve as a starting point. Founded five years ago as a non-partisan organization committed to media safety for kids and families, CSM has recently launched its schools program, with over 1000 participating schools. Endorsed by President Obama, CSM has national reach and is one of the few organizations committed to wrestling online living to the ground for kids, families, and now schools. CSM offers practical resources and lesson ideas for educators and conducts workshops, presentations, and focus groups with students and teachers for schools. They even have a family media agreement, but have not yet crafted a more encompassing agreement to connect home and school. Urs Gasser and John Palfrey write:

“Young people – especially those who are Digital Natives – are themselves setting the norms for how they share information, and these norms may or may not turn out to be a positive influence or to protect them sufficiently from harm. Since parents and teachers have not yet figured out how to deal with these same issues, it could be time for a dialogue. There is an enormous opportunity for Digital Natives and their parents to listen to one another and to establish shared, positive norms regarding privacy issues as we move forward in the digital age” (Gasser and Palfrey, Born Digital, pp. 63-64).

Parent education evenings can serve as a starting point and can underscore for parents the need to reach out for guidance and support from a community. Oftentimes, parents feel they are alone as they figure out how to create boundaries at home. One parent wrote: “When my son has “homework time,” unless I am actually looking at his computer screen to make sure he is working on homework, he is either IM-ing or playing an internet war game. This is a very frustrating and concerning situation for me as a parent. I need the tools to monitor his use effectively. At home, much of his computer time for schoolwork is spent off task.” Schools can bring together parents to develop mutually beneficial and reinforcing terms of use and brainstorm strategies for effective monitoring at home. Some schools have even gone so far as to create a list of acceptable behaviors on Facebook and on the Internet in general. Parents do not want to feel alone, and they should not have to if schools can figure out with them how to balance the exciting features of social networking with the need for safe structures for teens.

My sister offers an excellent case in point. She asked me to friend her sixteen-year old son on Facebook last year because she was worried about what he was doing. She figured, correctly, that her son would be more inclined to “friend” his uncle than his own mother. Sure enough, I became one of my nephew’s friends and I periodically check his page to make sure his postings do not sink into the pit of locker room language. Of course, what a sixteen year old deems inappropriate is quite different from my own sensibilities as a school administrator. However, I did teach high school students for seven years, so I have a pretty good idea of the line between cool and out of bounds.

School administrators struggle with transgressions after school hours and outside of school networks. While unhealthy online activity takes place in homes and on weekends, the after effects often ripple through schools and affect peer relationships on a daily basis. Schools can raise parental awareness through conversations and information sharing, but the trickier issue is whether to impose discipline on students for inappropriate and unsafe cyber actions outside of school. Now, with lawsuits looming, even more schools will cower at the prospect of disciplining student actions on Facebook and other social networking sites, for fear of reprisal.

Schools can put their heads in the sand and ignore the problem. They can draw a line in the sand, with zero tolerance rules written into school handbooks, or they can shift with the changing sands of social networking and seek solutions to incorporate social networking and utilize it as part of the educational program for students. We have reached the tipping point here and schools must address and embrace the prolific energy surrounding the Facebook age.

If schools block Facebook use on campus, students have no opportunity to integrate social networking into their learning environment, and are instead left to swim alone in what can be treacherous waters. When problems arise, often after hours and even late into the night, schools face the fallout in the hallways. Students carry the burdens of unhealthy Facebook exchanges with them throughout the school day.

It is time to unravel the knot of conflict between students and schools and disentangle the web of lawsuits that could easily overtake the better measure of capitalizing on the cooperation and communication that the Facebook age brings to educational settings.

Parents are aching for guidance and the more home and school can partner, the better off communities will be. One parent commented:

“With a son in high school, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about Facebook and the issues it presents, which are certainly complex. Although I continue to have mixed feelings about the whole phenomenon, Facebook is — for all intents and purposes – unavoidable in high school. However, I really don’t think it’s unavoidable in middle school. Because we believe that part of what students learn in middle school is to organize themselves and be responsible and independent about their work, we don’t allow our daughter to have a Facebook page. It’s just too tempting and too
time-consuming, and there is so much other stuff on which we would like to see her spending time. Furthermore, the issues about privacy, sensitivity and good judgment are complicated, and somewhat challenging for a middle schooler to navigate gracefully.”

This parent is begging for guidance from the school. Clear boundaries exist at home, but the concern over how much and how soon a student should enter the Facebook age has this parent searching for answers. She goes on to ask the school to take a stance on Facebook accounts in middle school:

“Anyway, I know that the school is not — nor should it be — in a position to tell families what to permit in their homes. However, I wonder if parents would be at all receptive to a strong recommendation from the school that kids hold off on having Facebook pages until they leave middle school. Maybe the horse has already left the barn on this one — or maybe you don’t agree with me! — but I think that if you do share my concerns, it might be worth considering whether whether wants to take an official stance on this.”

What is interesting about this parent’s comment is that she is not alone in her request. She is not abdicating responsibility for managing her child at home. She is just asking for a unified voice between home and school. This is not unreasonable.

However, students are not ready for this to happen, and in fact, putting a full-scale ban on Facebook runs counter to all of the current research that highlights the meteoric rise of Facebook use among teens. Project Tomorrow, the Irvine, California-based organization that sponsors an annual survey of students, teachers, parents, and administrators, saw a 150 percent increase between 2007 and 2008 “in the proportion of students using Facebook and other social-networking sites to work with their peers on group projects for school (Schools Seen as Inhibiting Student Tech. Use, Education Week, March 24, 2009).”

Beyond the widespread use among teens, there is a vast gulf separating students and adults, in terms of understanding the culture of social networking. Grown ups (ages 30 and over), are often appalled at the colorful language students use on Facebook, and are unable to wrap their heads around how flippant students can be on their Facebook walls, which are open to public view. When asked about this behavior, students look at the adults as if they have three heads. One student responded: “I know I swear on Facebook, but everyone I know swears on Facebook. My friends are not offended by my posts.” Schools are not obligated to censor student use of Facebook, especially when Facebook is not accessible on many campuses, but schools do have a responsibility to alert parents, when the school becomes aware of student mis-steps on Facebook.

A recent article in The New York Times asks “Is Facebook Growing Up Too Fast?” (New York Times, 3/29/09). The more appropriate question to ask is whether schools are evolving too slowly with Facebook and social networking. The pedagogical possibilities are profound, and the opportunity to provide social and emotional guidance to students (and their families) in their use of Facebook must be broached. There exists a unique moment to better align students and adults, especially with the mushrooming of Facebook use by the “older” generation. Facebook has just eclipsed the 200 million-user mark and the longer we all wait to engage, and not spurn, Facebook in school communities, the worse off students, families, and educators will be. And, I don’t want my son to miss out on the “iPhone Gold Rush.”



  1. Thank you for the wonderful article

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