ED. Magazine

Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with My Homework

By Michael Blanding

A new study by alum finds social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have more educational potential than you might think.

networking.jpgWhat is more important to a high school student than being popular? Anyone who’s ever attended high school or at least seen a John Hughes movie knows the answer to that one. When Theresa Sommers first discovered MySpace three years ago, the teen from Minneapolis/St. Paul thought she’d found the ultimate high school popularity contest. She could spend hours a day creating an online profile, finding cool backgrounds and music to decorate her page, and signing up interesting looking people to be her online “friends.” And along the way, she could compete with her friends (and enemies) for all to see who had the most friends or most-visited page.

The more she used the online social networking site (SNS), however, the more bored she became with merely being popular; she started using her time for more heartfelt conversations with friends and delved more deeply into her personal interests. A budding photographer, she posted her best shots to the site and searched forums of professional photographers for encouragement and advice. She began, as well, to seek out students at colleges she was interested in attending, even opening up a new account on Facebook, a site more heavily used by college students, to network. And she even began to post some of her creative writing and would solicit advice on homework essays from her circle of friends, asking them “How long did you take on your essay?” or “How’d you write it?” Often she’d post her homework online. “Everybody does it,” she says.

That’s news to most teachers and parents who have never used social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook — and even to some of us who have. If we hear about them at all in the press, it’s usually to illustrate their dangers, with stories of online sexual predators, cyber bullying, or a job application faux pas when a potential employer rescinds a job offer based on embarrassing online photos or comments. At best, these sites seem like a frivolous distraction — the telephone on steroids — tolerated along with text messaging and Wii as the latest technologies to help kids procrastinate from their schoolwork.

“We read a lot in the media about how young people are using social networking sites with harmful results,” agrees Christine Greenhow, ’06, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota who has done a new study looking into how students really use them. “The question is, can we harness this interest and passion in their online lives for educational purposes?” In stemming from her doctoral thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Greenhow not only found an increasing awareness by Sommers and other students of the potential of these sites to express their creativity and explore their interests, but also the potential to complement lessons in more formal educational settings — if teachers can just figure out how to use them.

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  • Sharon Couto

    This is one of the most intriguing articles I’ve read about online social networking. As a retired high school teacher (30 years – English & Reading – economically disadvantaged kids), but now in the “world” of social media, I have spent countless hours thinking of how I could have used this phenomenon in my classroom; perhaps the “new” pen-pal, where kids could correspond online with people from other countries, generations, cultures… gaining first-hand access to anecdotal history that would otherwise be, in all probability, inaccessible. Or as mentioned in the text of the article, creating a large, universal circle that would include the disadvantaged/immigrant student with just, literally, the tips of fingers and a keyboard. I will go back and re-read the article many, many times… internalize it all… and then go on my perpetual campaign to bring the world to each student. A beautiful read…
    Sharon Couto

  • Casey Cheung

    Fascinating, as I recently joined Facebook myself. I’ve been a hold out for the longest time, trying to limit my online footprint. I just posted this article to share with my network.

  • Dan Maas

    Fascinating! I just checked out LinkedIn and I found over 50 employees of my district already in there! Social networking has been morphing into professional networking and we had better figure this one out.

  • Jennifer W. R. Schauffler

    Finally, an article about the potentially positive aspects of social networking sites for teens! I get so tired of adults assuming the worst about technology and teens. Every parent discussion on the topic attempts to scare us into believing that the postitive attributes of technology are few and far between. Connecting with people via writing is a great skill to have–who says my 15 year old daughter Moyra shouldn’t hone that skill in her spare time? Additionally, the focus on low-income teens in the study was great info for me, as I work for a foundation that provides scholarships to low-income teens at independent high schools around the US.

  • Dean

    I’ve never doubted that Social Networking sites and other “Cloud Apps” could be used by participants in a positive way. What I find disturbing is that discussion and criticism of these tools rarely goes further than user to user privacy. Yes, you can you can set your “Keg Party Photo Album” to “private” in Facebook. What I question is the wisdom of subjecting ourselves and our children to the data mining and analysis that these companies are employing. Text and click analysis can tell behavioral science folks all sorts of things about us. This to me is infinitely more private than beer bong pics, or even sexual escapades. I worry about how this much more passively transferred information could be used now and in the future. As an end user, you can manipulate all sorts of privacy settings in these applications. However, none of them allow you block data/text mining software from forming all sorts of conclusions about you. It’s a great business model, Facebook and Google want to help vendors sell us and our kids stuff. But they can do whatever they want with our profile data. As I am type this, I just saw a news story about how Facebook just changed their TOS to allow for more liberal use of your profile data, even after you have cancelled your account. A great deal of information is being collected about us, and we have no say in how it can be used.

  • Ruth Vega

    As an Ecuadorian citizen I think facebook is an outstanding Networking site, but the more popular site, the best opportunity for human traffickers and pornography.

  • Harry E. Pence

    These results are very similar to those obtained by danah boyd, reported in articles such as http://www.danah.org/papers/WhyYouthHeart.pdf. Boyd calls people who gain recognition by emphasizing the dangers of social networking “social entrepreneurs.” Unfortunately, these people are much more likely to drive the discussion of social networking in the general public than are saner voices. As a result, many high schools and even companies just block everything that sounds like a social network. I suppose that next we will try to block what people read. Whoops! We already try to do that. And after all,prohibition works so well, doesn’t it?

  • Shelley Joan Weiss

    Thank you for this insightful article. Minutes ago I walked out of a stimulating school district meeting where we were discussing this topic. What a nice surprise to have this article from our district technology director in my e-mail when I returned to my office. We are eager to harness the power of student creativity, interests, and technology to stimulate new thinking and learning. Your article supports my belief that combining the interests and passions of students and teachers through technology will provide us the tools to tackle the most challenging issues of our time and lead the way into a promising future. Thank you.


    I’m a Brazilian teacher and I’m really interested on this subject thus I m writing a paper to PUC University in RS – Brazil. I do agree computers can give to our digital natives more motivation for learning, and I do believe the students can develop the 4 skills of the EFL in class as they used to learn at the audio-oral time. The difference is the students are having a digital learning now, but they’re developing as well as the old times, but now with more motivation, interconnection, and interrelation in the world. It’s time to digital immigrants start updating to be tied to the students.If possible, I’d like the EFL of PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL teachers could give me their opinion in order to help me in my search with my paper.

  • Kim Farris-Berg

    With the Citizens League (Twin Cities) I’ve been working for the past to years to explore how social networking Web sites can be used to engage young people (middle- and high-school age) in defining public problems for themselves and in co-creating solutions. Check them out at StudentsSpeakOut.org and Milwaukee.StudentsSpeakOut.org
    We’ve encountered nearly everything written here, and more. Initially there was a lot of concern that students would use the sites as “hate” sites–places where students would complain about schools and teachers. Instead, they are constructive and respectful, and they often take on part of the responsibility for solving the problems. Of course this is beyond simply posting a site (we use Ning). There are processes and skills we’ve refined over time. Now we are getting inquiries from districts who are interested in bringing SSO into their schools to improve curriculum as well as school climate. The first thing we say to clients is that adult participation online (to interact with the students–challenging them and cultivating new thinking) and willingness to hear what the students are saying is what matters most for success. And, yes, over time writing skills seem to improve. Students’ civic skills do as well.

  • mom volunteer

    I am volunteering at a Charter school in a low income area, Lawrence, MA. I’m working to help make quality education attainable for our youth. I will be helping with secondary school placement and advisement. Would you be willing to share more info regarding the the scholarship availability and requirements? Thanks.

  • Razna

    It has been my experience that if one wants to be successful in reaching students, one must begin one’s teaching where the student actually is, not where one thinks the student ought to be. Students are using social networking sites, whether we think they ought to be, or not. So we ought to meet them there. If we don’t like what we see, we can always teach them a better way, be it language skills or social skills. But there’s little point in getting hysterical about it. If you tell a student that using these sites is going to make the sky fall, the student just won’t believe you because he or she is already using the site and the sky isn’t falling.
    I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s when drug abuse was rampant. The teachers used to tell us that one whiff of marijuana smoke and BZOOM! Off we’d go into a drug-induced craze, never to resume normal lives. We already knew it wasn’t true, even if we hadn’t tried anything yet. We all knew somebody who had, and they hadn’t gone into that drug-induced craze, never to return. That’s an object lesson, by the way. So, try to remain sane, even if you don’t wanna approach SNS yourself.
    By the way, I’m on Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace (with my real name) and none has yet destroyed my brain.

  • lelis

    what meant create a bar graph using my own data is a homework for my daughter? she is only 6 years old.

  • Likhon

    Nice writing. I like it. It will help me for my work. Can I get more information to my mail?

  • http://www.mightymattresses.com/mattress-brands/icomfort.html iComfort

    I agree that social media maybe used by students as a tool in doing their assignments. I just wish that they will use this resources responsibly and with the consent of their parents.

  • http://www.ramatalks.com/lakshmi-series/samadhi-and-the-supraconscious-states.html Samadhi

    Discussion is one way that we can make it easier to understand the lessons delivered by teachers. I think events like this can be done anywhere and certainly could be a very good thing to be done by the students.

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