Social Networking Behaviours – when to begin? And who can help?

Two of my grade four students (both 10 years old) have started using Instagram for sharing some of the photos they are taking at home with their own iPod Touch. They told me about it this week. One student said that she had found my username whilst doing a search within the app too.  Both students are allowed some controlled time at home with their devices connected to the family’s WiFi so that they can take a photo and upload it to their account. They are following one another and simply sharing some photos together. Most of the snaps are of their respective pet dogs, incidental items in and around their house such as balls, food and furniture. Yet they have attempted to present some of these everyday items from an interesting perspective; close-up or looking up from below. None of the photographs have their face or anyone else’s in them. It appears they are utilising some positive online etiquette strategies almost as second nature. One parent spoke to me this week about it. She commented on how much they are loving the easiness of snapping a shot and sharing it with just two screen touches. What I found most interesting about this parent’s comments were that they were not negative towards the technology and the experience. They were interested and well aware with what their daughter was actually doing. Often I hear a parent decrying the fact that their son or daughter wants to access learning experiences on the WWW outside of school hours.

So…this little experience got me thinking about social networking and the slightly different guises it comes in. It got me pondering about my students. I had this triumphant feeling that these students were making a statement about young people and the internet. Here I will attempt to articulate what I mean…

I have an Instagram account but am yet to use it regularly. In fact, when my student looked me up this week there were no photos to peruse at all. I am currently completing a ‘365 (366) photo a day’ challenge using the Posterous app on my iPhone. I have shared some of my photography and musings with my students to get them thinking in a lesson, whether it is making inferred meanings about a text or discussing how certain colours in a  photograph make us feel something. I truly believe now that if we want our students to learn how to be a positive digital citizen, they need to see us doing it. They need to see how we conduct ourselves online, not just on a school-oriented website or blog. Students need to see how we behave in other social networking spaces . Thus, my students know that I have a Twitter account and we have watched other teachers and learners respond in a Twitter feed to me and to them. They have seen my Posterous blog and glanced at my professional blog. Finally, they know that I hold a Facebook account although they have not seen it. But I have discussed it with them…I have told them about the strict privacy rules I apply to it and why, they know the main reasons why I have an active account (friendship etc.) and we have discussed the various ways that people should behave and act in a social networking environment.

One of my main passions in guiding primary-aged children with their learning is allowing them to have experiences with social networking in a safe, online learning environment. Edmodo has been the perfect avenue for this. I have written about it in past posts and talked about it at conferences. Edmodo is designed for schools and always just…works! It looks a bit like Facebook in its interface. The buttons are user-friendly and easy to understand. I find that most of its basic use does not require long-winded explanations for young students. They just get it or they learn from their classmate next to them. Students learn how to post appropriately to a space, how to reply to another and to seek replies, how to attach content to a post and share their learning with other students and teachers. Edmodo has been the base where my students have begun their foray into leaving a positive digital footprint. Let’s be honest…regardless what we think or parents think…students are going to be leaving an indelible footprint out there…some have probably even started.

A colleague once delivered a presentation to staff about cyber-safety after attending an in-depth PD. Much of the content and ideas projected back to us were valid and worthy of discussion. One comment stuck with me though and it went something like this… “Why should any of us (teachers) be having any sort of contact with a student on the internet? When you think about it, emailing a student after hours, even about school-related matters, is just weird isn’t it?”  SO…at first I questioned myself. I started to feel ‘weird’ for a small second. Let me clarify: I am NOT emailing my students at night like I would a family member or friend. But my students and I were using Edmodo. They were handing in homework assignments via this platform at 7pm or later on weeknights. Some of them were leaving reminders in our class space for the other students to ‘not forget their runners for P.E. tomorrow’ and some were sending their teacher a direct message to ask if it was OK if they brought in something from home to share with the class in the morning. Most teachers take work home with them. They sit on the couch after dinner and complete jobs; correcting work or planning a lesson for the following day. What is the difference if they respond to a piece of work submitted by a student after hours or respond to a post? What is it telling our students if we flatly say ‘NO, you are not to have any communication with me outside these walls.’ To me this is, again, reiterating how to be a responsible online citizen.

Back to the photography…a group of my students have started to work on telling stories through photography using iPads and the ‘Posterous’ app at school. Our goal is to make the ordinary item look interesting and to explain why we think so. Some of their work from this term can be found HERE . We have discussed how it is easy to simply take a traditional photograph of a person smiling or holding an item. So why not leave the person out of the shot altogether! I don’t expect this strategy to rule my students’ behaviour online forever but it does give them a sense of how to be safe and still make it interesting.

The reason why I include these photography projects in the social networking category takes us back to my opening paragraph. Social networking is about creating a community and/or being a member of a community. It is about seeking an audience. Therefore, my students take their photographs, edit  and write about them with an audience in mind. They know that their work is being created for someone else to look at and read. This is the expectation of anything they produce for posting.

My experiences over the past few years have taught me one important fact. The early years is the age to begin immersing students in these types of experiences. Get them used to it, break down the misconceptions, discuss the positives and negatives out there, invite them to teach their parents about it. Let them see you using it! We have to start now; not when they are fifteen years old. The skills and values that they acquire now will, at least, give them a steady chance to survive and prosper in the ever expanding world of social media and social networking.

What are your experiences with social networking in school? What are the positives and negatives? What are your thoughts? What is missing? What might the future hold?