Within the wide expanse of social networking, educators appear to be gravitating to more protected and exclusive spaces.
While teachers often use such popular mainstream social networks as Facebook, they are more likely to seek out and return to less-established networks that offer the privacy, peer-to-peer connections, and resource sharing that meets their specific professional needs, according to a recent survey and interviews with educators.
"A lot of teachers are on Facebook as general-population consumers," said Jessie Arora, the founder of Teacher Square, an organization that helps teachers share information around educational technology. "[But] they aren't on Facebook with their teacher hats on."
Educators' use of popular networks like Facebook and Twitter has increased overall, but those sites are often blocked in schools and fraught with ethical concerns because so many students use them. As a result, educators--with their particular schedules and Internet habits--are moving toward social networks designed specifically for them, according to data from a survey conducted by MMS Education, a marketing company based in Newtown, Pa.
Sponsored by edWeb, a professional social network for teachers and administrators, and MCH Strategic Data, an education marketing firm in Sweet Springs, Mo., the survey was sent to educators around the country based on email lists maintained by the marketing firm.
On the surface, educators' social-network membership mirrors that of the general population, the survey shows. Overall, such membership among educators increased from 61 percent to 82 percent between 2009 and 2012, with female educators showing slightly more online activity than males, and younger educators tending to use social networks more than their older colleagues. The most popular network among the 694 survey respondents was Facebook, with 85 percent usage. LinkedIn (41 percent) and Twitter (39 percent) were runners-up.
But the survey revealed interesting data on less common social-network use among educators. For instance, 27 percent of respondents use Edmodo, the social learning site that is as much a classroom-management tool as it is a network. That's up from 3 percent in 2007 and equal to membership on Google+, the search giant's much-ballyhooed social endeavor. Ranking second behind Edmodo was edWeb, with usage by 15 percent of respondents.
"There's a lot of fear with using something like" Facebook, said Andrea Gardner, an instructional technology specialist at John A. Crisafulli Elementary School in Westford, Mass.
'They Feel Safer'
Companies that provide classroom tools and content are also creating their own social networks. In the survey's biggest surprise, 52 percent of respondents who use a social network were also members of Discovery Education Network, an online forum created by the international media company. Other notable organizations and companies such as PBS and Scholastic offer online educator forums with decent levels of usership.
"When we first launched, it was like trying to sell something that's free," Lance Rougeux, the vice president of instructional implementation and learning community at Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery, said of initial attempts at getting teachers to join a community run by a corporation. "It was like, 'What do you want out of me?'?"
But over time, the Discovery Education Network established itself as a community for educators looking for live and virtual collaboration, information, and professional development around education technology. The company offers access to some Discovery products and services to its most engaged users, but doesn't require any kind of payment for, or promotion of, Discovery products, Mr. Rougeux said.
It should not come as a surprise that a medium used for personal networking is catering more and more to professional uses. But it is worth noting how much headway sites tailored to the teaching profession are making against general social networks, which are often blocked in schools and prohibited for student-educator connections.
On an average monthly basis, the survey indicates members of education-specific networks use them more frequently than most general social networks; 26 percent of teachers said they would join a new social network tailored to educators in the next year, while only 5 percent said they would join a new network for personal use.
Eighty-four percent of respondents said general social networks like Facebook and Twitter brought privacy concerns, while only 45 percent held that concern for education-specific networks.
"Connecting with students" ranked last among social-network uses, suggesting a wariness of overstepping boundaries in popular online forums for youths. Tellingly, 60 percent of educators using mainstream social networks have separate professional and personal accounts on Facebook.
"There's a sense they feel safer in the education sites," Susan Meell, the chief executive officer of MMS Education, said in an interview.
Kris Anderson, a social studies teacher at Immaculate Heart High School and Middle School, a private Catholic school in Los Angeles, said he used Twitter in his previous job to let students know about lessons, but his current school does not allow teachers and students to connect over social networks. As a result, he now uses Google Apps, which operates on a closed network, in the classroom, and he uses Twitter mostly for socializing with friends.
Social-media policies at schools and districts can vary widely, as they did for Mr. Anderson, who noted the difficult balance in informing students about social networks and not improperly invading their social territory.
Edmodo is perhaps the best-known byproduct of teachers' desire for social networks designed for the classroom. The site looks and feels like Facebook, but the user experience is geared to teachers. Educators can manage classrooms and deliver assessments, but teachers can also share lessons with each other and discover technology tools in Edmodo's new app store. With the help of $40 million in venture capital funding, the site now counts 15 million users and is offered for free.
That is good news for a recent slew of startup companies looking to provide educator-specific online forums.
Tioki brands itself as the LinkedIn for educators and often points to what it sees as that site's shortcomings for the educator audience. SmarterCookie and EdThena use variations of a social-network framework to facilitate professional development and teacher coaching.
"On LinkedIn, you are in the bucket of 'teachers' or 'professors,'?" said Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, a co-founder of Tioki, based in Oakland, Calif. "On Tioki, you are a '6th grade teacher that specializes in digital storybooks.'?"
The top activity for educators on social networks is connecting with friends and family, in line with that of the population at large. But the second-biggest use, at 82 percent, is to share information and resources, according to the MMS Education survey.
Ms. Gardner, the instructional technology specialist from Massachusetts, said that instead of having her morning coffee over a newspaper, she checks Twitter for hashtags related to education technology, elementary education, and 1-to-1 computing initiatives featuring iPads, which her district is considering for students. Because most of the teachers in her school are not active on the network, Ms. Gardner considers Twitter her gateway to classrooms outside of her building.
"It's my way of professional development," she said.
Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. ___