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Winter 2009

Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with My Homework

A new study by alum Christine Greenhow 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, Ed.D.'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 research 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.

Greenhow and her fellow researchers interviewed some 1,200 students in 13 high schools in Minneapolis/St. Paul, connecting with them through a Twin Cities social-service organization called Admission Possible that Greenhow and her husband cofounded seven years ago to prepare low-income students for college. Their first finding was just how popular these sites are among teens. Even though students came from families with incomes at or below $25,000 a year, 94 percent of them used the Internet, with 82 percent logging on from home. Of these, 77 percent had profiles on social networking sites, with 65 percent on MySpace, a significant minority on Facebook, and a smattering of others on sites such as Xanga and Gaiaonline. While Greenhow cautions that the study wasn't intended to be nationally representative, it is only slightly higher than national studies by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which found that 82 percent of teens with a family median income of $30,000 or less were online, and that among all teens, 58 percent had a profile on a SNS.

Greenhow and her colleagues started asking targeted questions about what students themselves thought they actually learned from these sites, finding that more than half of them recognized they were getting some kind of education along with hanging with their friends. The highest percentage identified technical skills (65 percent), followed by creativity (61 percent), appreciation for diversity (46 percent), and communication skills (43 percent). Not ready to take their word for it, the researchers then did a more detailed content analysis of the home pages of several dozen students, followed by a rigorous "talkabout" with 11 students, in which researchers watched as students logged on and navigated their sites. The anecdotal findings mirrored the more quantitative data with actual examples.

The student who throws her hands up at math, for example, might go home and spend hours searching for computer code to embed into her MySpace page to create a new background. "People who keep their background really cool earn points," says Greenhow. Other students learn how to upload media files, use software to edit and arrange content, and even "mess with" HTML code to change the look and functionality of their site. Often, says Greenhow, the technical skills stem from those learned in a school technology class that were expanded at home.

Those skills, while useful, may just be the tip of the iceberg, says Professor Joe Blatt, Ed.M.'77, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program, whose work focuses on the impact of various forms of media on child development. "Every time a new device or apparatus comes out, the first thing people say is, maybe there will be some kind of hands-on technical skills it will give young users," he says. When video games appeared, for example, everyone looked for benefits in hand-eye coordination, even though studies later showed those benefits to be modest. On the other hand, there were motivational benefits that educators found to be much more interesting and profound as they watched students working as hard as they could to get to the next level. "Any educator would love to see the same thing happen in math class." Blatt warns about getting too caught up in the technical benefits of SNSs, even as he applauds Greenhow for focusing on other elements, such as creativity and digital citizenship that might ultimately be more profound lessons to draw from the medium.

As national magazines and newspapers debate what it means to be literate in a computer age in which students butcher language in text messages and open books less and less outside the classroom, Greenhow has found a virtual creative writing boom among students spending long hours writing stories and poetry to paste on their blogs for feedback from friends, or creating videos on social issues to bring awareness to a cause. Far from media stories about cyber bullying, meanwhile, she found that most students use the medium to reach out to their peers for emotional support and as a way to develop self-esteem. One student created a video of his intramural soccer team to entice his friends to come to his games. Another created an online radio show to express his opinions, then used Facebook to promote a URL where friends could stream it live, and then used one of Facebook's add-in applications to create a fan site for the show.

Outside interests aren't the only topics that found their way to student homepages and
Sommers wasn't the only student to regularly compare notes on school assignments. "If I am stuck on a project, I might send a chat message to a friend, and he might provide an answer or say, 'Take a deep breath; you can do this,'" says Greenhow, summing up what students often say. "Students are always diving in and out of these social networks." In fact, the way they mix social interaction and schoolwork mirrors the way that office workers dive in and out of work and personal e-mail on the job -- perhaps preparing students for the real world in ways they don't even realize.

The kind of skills students are developing on social networking sites, says Greenhow, are the very same 21st century skills that educators have identified as important for the next generation of knowledge workers -- empathy, appreciation for diversity of viewpoints, and an ability to multitask and collaborate with peers on complex projects. In fact, despite cautionary tales of employers trolling social networking sites to find inappropriate Halloween pictures or drug slang laced in discussion forums, many employers are increasingly using these sites as a way to find talent. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited this spring in The New York Times found that more than half of employers now use SNSs to network with job candidates. The website CareerBuilder.com even added an application to allow employers to search Facebook for candidates. "Savvy users say the sites can be effective tools for promoting one's job skills and all-around business networking," says the Times.

Despite the potential of social networking sites in developing marketable skills, however, Greenhow has been frustrated by the lack of attention paid to them -- or to the Internet in general -- in the classroom. For her doctoral thesis, "From Blackboard to Browser," Greenhow looked at how teachers' expectations and assumptions about teaching affected the way they used (or didn't use) the Internet in the classroom. "She did a very systematic and well-reasoned study about quite a practical matter," says Lecturer Stone Wiske, Ed.D.'83, Greenhow's thesis advisor who has studied the use of technology in schools. Greenhow found that the teachers who were most effective in integrating the Internet into the classroom were those who subscribed to constructivism -- the theory that effective teaching allows students to construct new ideas from the expertise they already have.

What was more surprising to her, however, is how few teachers were using the Internet at all -- and even fewer were aware of, much less using, social networking sites, despite their heavy usage by students. "It is the kids who are leading the way on this," she says. "They are forming networks with people they meet every day as well as people they have barely met. If we can't understand what kids are doing and integrate these tools into a classroom, what kind of message are we sending them? I think we'll see an even bigger disconnect than already exists."

Greenhow's interest in the connective power of the technology stems from her childhood growing up outside of Boston, when her father worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and would take her into the city for demonstrations of technologies such as one in which computers were used to simulate the human voice. Studying creative writing and government relations at Dartmouth College, she continued to follow technological developments like Blitzmail, the precursor to e-mail used on campus. Entering the Ed School to pursue her doctorate in 1998, however, she had her most formative experience in the power of the Internet when she met her future husband, a Kennedy School student, through a Harvard-sponsored online matchmaking survey. "We had our first conversation through e-mail, met on Church Street, and were married two years later," she says. "So the Internet worked for me."

She continued to make it work for her when she moved with her husband in 2000 to his home state of Minnesota. At a time when most grad students didn't have a photo online, Greenhow used the Internet to create an online study group to communicate with fellow doctoral students. One of her thesis advisors, in fact, wasn't even working at the Ed School yet when she left Cambridge; she eventually used the Internet to send ideas and drafts back and forth. "It's been a mediated interaction," says that advisor, Professor Chris Dede, who studies the potential of cutting-edge technological innovations. "She has never taken a course from me, and we have not spent a lot of time together face-to-face." Even so, Dede admired her persistence in finishing her doctorate long distance. "It is harder for students in the doctoral program to finish if they leave. She was very dedicated."

For Greenhow, part of that dedication comes from the potential of social networking sites to increase opportunities to students who come from lower-income or immigrant backgrounds. "If you come from a family of college-educated parents, you have a lot of people you can turn to help you make decisions. If you don't have that, if you just came to this country and are bright and hardworking, this can level the playing field." As her study has shown, the so-called "digital divide" that has separated higher and lower-income students, has narrowed, with nearly all students now able to access the Internet (even though they may not all be able to access the Internet for the same amount of time).

Even so, with the exceptions like Theresa Sommers, few students were actually using these sites for the purpose they were ostensibly created for -- namely, networking with strangers in their intended college or career field. "The networking aspects weren't even on their radars," says Greenhow, who argues for a role in educators and guidance counselors in nudging students to take advantage of these opportunities. "Kids are conceiving of reaching out to others outside of school, they are getting there. What teachers can bring from their mindset is the added value of networking."

If that is going to be possible, however, first teachers must learn from the students' mindsets -- that is, rolling up their sleeves and creating Facebook profile themselves. "As teachers who may be digital immigrants, we need to go native," says Greenhow. "It doesn't cost anything, you don't have to download anything. We need to get on these sites and understand not only some of the harm, but also the potential." Demographics are working in teachers' favor, as the fastest-growing group of Facebook users, for example, is 25 and older. In between reconnecting with high school friends and uploading their own vacation photos, a teacher might begin to understand why students find these sites so attractive -- and perhaps come up organically with ideas for using them in class.

Already, there is some indication this is happening with the next generation of teachers. In a recent survey of one of his graduate classes, Blatt found that 100 percent of these future educators were enrolled on Facebook -- and 30 percent of them even checked their profile more than once a day. Just becoming familiar with social networking sites, however, doesn't mean that teachers will be able to directly use them as a tool for formal class discussion or collaboration. In one of Wiske's classes, in fact, students experimented with doing just that, using Facebook as a forum to "coconstruct" meanings of readings. "It didn't feel like the place to have that conversation," says Wiske. "The structure of the tools wasn't as conducive to that discussion, and the pictures and other stuff on the screen were kind of distractions from that work."

On the other hand, there are other social networking tools that may be more directly appropriate for use in class. Some teachers are already using wikis, technology that allows students to take turns editing group projects to facilitate the often-difficult task of working together as a group, as well as to provide a trail of who does what on a project. Another new social networking site called Ning.com allows organizations to create their own closed networking sites that can be adapted for a school or even a course.

A more likely use of SNSs within the educational context, however, is to use them as supplements to the formal in-class learning, building upon the spontaneous sharing that students are already doing. "I can imagine teachers saying, 'I know a lot of you are on Facebook; I'd love to encourage you to share your draft work with friends, do whatever revisions are warranted, and then post your first draft on the class website,'" says Wiske. "That would be a design that took advantage of some affordances and patterns of behavior Christine is noticing without trying to commandeer these social networks as a location for structured class work."

In addition to being a supplement to a particular class, Greenhow says that these sites can be used for a whole school to help facilitate social interaction and create bonds among students. Some schools -- mostly at the college level -- are beginning to take steps to foster this interaction. The State University of New York in Plattsville, for example, recently created a Facebook application that allows new and current students to interact through a trivia game about the school. Harvard just produced a Facebook application called H-Link that allows users to find students online who are taking the same courses, so they can network and form study groups. Meanwhile, the Ed School has created an alumni group on another site, LinkedIn, and is exploring use of Facebook to foster additional connections. Perhaps even more important than the impact of social networking on the classroom, however is the impact that the classroom can have on social networking, by teaching students how to be responsible "digital citizens" online. At their most basic level, these sites can be launching points to discussions on Internet ethics. "If we want kids to be digital citizens, we must model that behavior for them," says Greenhow. As it stands now, however, most schools do the exact opposite, actively discouraging student use of social networking sites by blocking them on school computers -- sending the message that they are dangerous or inappropriate. As Wiske says, "A lot of people can do a lot of damage driving cars, but we shouldn't tell kids not to drive cars."

It's not ethics that can be taught on the web, however. Educators studying social networking sites are just beginning to develop ways to use them to teach social issues. Indeed, the biggest gift of social networking sites is the same thing that makes them such a danger -- the immediate ability to interact with so many strangers so different from themselves. "A lot of social justice depends on acknowledging the legitimacy of someone else having the same rights as you do," says Dede. "If it turns out that, gee, people very different than me are also very like me in some ways, that doesn't automatically lead to a respect for others, but it can help with that and with a skilled teacher building those connections."

If teachers are going to successfully build those connections, Greenhow suggests, they must take a page from social networking sites themselves and allow student to take an active part in the discussion. "The more we understand about what motivates and engages youth to use these technologies in their everyday lives," she says, "the more we will be able to build on what they are learning in school, so they are developing the 21st century competencies that we value, and colearning or coconstructing their own educational experience."

-- To access Greenhow's study, go to www.cgreenhow.org.

-- Michael Blanding is a freelance writer whose last piece in Ed. looked at race in the classroom.