In this digital world, opportunities for education are available like never before. Though teachers using online tools are empowering students take part in their education, they may also expose them to inappropriate material, sexual predators, and bullying and harassment by peers.
Teachers who are not careful with their use of the sites can fall into inappropriate relationships with students or publicize photos and information they believed were kept private. For these reasons, critics are calling for regulation and for removing social networking from classrooms -- despite the positive affects they have on students and the essential tools they provide for education in today's digital climate.
The positive effects of social networking sites in education are profound. According to a study conducted by the University of Minnesota on student use of social media, students who are already engaging in social networking could benefit from incorporating it into curriculum.
Christine Greenhow, who was the principal investigator in a study, elaborated on the impact social networking could have on education.
"By understanding how students may be positively using these networking technologies in their daily lives and where the as-yet-unrecognized educational opportunities are, we can help make schools even more relevant, connected, and meaningful to kids."
Through utilizing teaching techniques that incorporate social media, teachers are able to increase students' engagement in their education, increase technological proficiency, contribute to a greater sense of collaboration in the classroom, and build better communication skills.
A Mashable article titled, The Case For Social Media in Schools, also details several reasons for advocating the use of social networking in the classroom and provides a real example of how it is affecting education in a positive way.
"A year after seventh grade teacher Elizabeth Delmatoff started a pilot social media program in her Portland, Oregon classroom, 20 percent of students school-wide were completing extra assignments for no credit, grades had gone up more than 50 percent, and chronic absenteeism was reduced by more than a third."
Karen Cator, from the U.S. Dept. of Education, in an online question and answer series featured on edutopia.org also commented on the potential of social networking to improve the American education system.
"Think about not only incorporating technology into your lessons, but creating more and more compelling assignments so that 21st century skills, the kinds of things students will have to develop in terms of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, global participation -- that these are incorporated into assignments. The best spaces will incorporate social media, and interacting with others. "
Another study, which analyzed how students performed when asked to use twitter to do assignments, found that students who were asked to "contribute to class discussions and complete assignments using Twitter increased their engagement over a semester more than twice as much as a control group."
Use of social networking not only benefits students, but also provides new opportunities for communication amongst teachers and administrators. According to a report featured in The Journal of Educational Technology Systems:,
"Tech savvy administrators are using blogs as a tool to keep parents, teachers, and students informed of the things going on in their schools."
As calls for education reform resonate across the country and looming budget cuts indicate a grim future for many public schools, online tools are becoming valuable resources. Some say, however, they come with too great a risk. Reports of sexual predators have raised the alarm and prompted parents and legislators to question the potential of using social media for education.
Though sexual predators are often cited a the primary concern, Amanda Lenhart with the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, explained, in an article for the Houston Chronicle, that this is less of risk than it is made out to be.
"Mostly kids at risk already have a bunch of social and emotional problems in their lives. These kids are the ones who might engage in risky behaviors, seek out sex talk online and knowingly meet people who are older."
According to the article, "Peer-to-peer harassment and bullying are much more common threats to online youngsters," which is a concern both online and off.
Both Federal and state legislation has been proposed to curb the use of social networking in schools, which has incited controversy over the legality of such legislation. Critics believe that regulating online activity is a violation of first amendment rights.
In lieu of the controversy, networks have stepped up their efforts to create safer online communities for students. Facebook, which currently has over 900 million users making it the largest social networking site, partnered with the National PTA "to promote responsible and safe Internet use to kids, parents and teachers."
According to a report about the collaboration, "National PTA and Facebook will establish a comprehensive program that will provide information, support and news to encourage citizenship online, reduce cyberbullying and advance Internet safety and security." Facebook went on to create both safety and education tabs that provide information and resources for educators and concerned parents.
Myspace also established a partnership with the Attorney General, created a safety task force, and released a list of strategies for online safety.
There have also been several student-oriented sites and programs created to provide safety without sacrificing social networking opportunities. According to a report issued June 2010 in the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching "Educational Networking" is a new erupting trend utilizing "social networking technologies for educational purposes."
The report emphasizes that these new "social networking sites aim to capitalize on the enormous popularity of online social networking while simultaneously providing a more secure and regulated platform for social networking activities."
As the debate over the role technology and social networking play in the classroom continues, proponents on both sides are fighting to find a balance between the importance of innovation and the safety of students. Though there are risks associated with encouraging students to use social networking sites, proponents argue the potential for opportunity outweigh the costs. As solutions that satisfy both sides continue to develop, online education resources may pave the way for growth in America's schools.