Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

New social services


Social networking and Web 2.0 tools have huge potential to benefit learners but this new way of working needs to be carefully managed, says Paul Haigh. He looks at some sensible precautions to safeguard staff and students.

Social network websites are a huge part of the lives of most young people and many adults, and they can be great fun and really useful. They can also present schools with problems.

Most schools have blocked social networking websites and mobile phones are at least frowned upon, so social networking is something young people mostly do in their free time.

However, we know that ICT is a huge power for good and we have long seen its potential in terms of learning. I believe new technologies have the biggest potential, out of any of the tools we have, to personalise learning. Many people sum this up as giving students access to 'anytime, anywhere' learning, but while this is important it over-simplifies the potential.

Early examples of e-learning were too passive to have a big impact; digital folders of worksheets and PowerPoint presentations might have reinforced learning for the diligent student but, for e-learning to have real potential, tasks need to be interactive, engaging and personalised to the individual's needs.

Web 2.0 - which is shorthand for social networking tools and they way people use the internet to share and create content - can enable this.

There are great benefits in using social networking technologies in learning - peer assessment, instant feedback and time management to name a few - but there are some important things to consider before launching this in your school.

Nowhere to hide

The biggest issue is authentication. To make sure students and staff don't hide behind aliases (which can enable mocking, bullying, ridicule and plagiarism) real names must be attached to everything they contribute. This is done by hosting all chosen Web 2.0 tools within the school's learning platform thereby linking them to the network user name and password.

Some children, especially younger ones, do not keep their passwords secret - either writing them down or sharing them with friends - and they need to be trained out of this from the first day they are issued with one. That way if someone writes on a forum, sends an email, enters a chat room or makes a blog post, their real name is attached.

Students can be encouraged to keep their passwords secret by telling them they are responsible for anything done in their name on the network and informing them of the sanctions to be applied in the case of misbehaviour or misuse, including failure to keep their password secure. Schools should make it straightforward for students to request a new password if they think their old one has been compromised.

All other social network and Web 2.0 sites should then be blocked to prevent people in the school moving their communities to unmoderated tools; the policy being if staff or students need to use such technology it is available on the school system.

The second consideration is archiving. All the user generated content, not just major documents and files but every line of chat and posting on a blog or forum, needs to be archived - even if the user thinks, and sees from their point of view, that they have deleted it.

This is a huge amount of data, so it is essential to make it searchable in case an incident needs investigating. The school must have full access to everything. Digital storage is cheap so everything can be saved long after students leave school; some schools have been sued over abuse and bullying allegations many years after the incidents took place.

Student privilege

An Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) should make clear that the students are guests on the school's network and the school retains the right to access their files, keep copies and make them available to outside agencies, such as the police, should this be necessary. This might mean supplying emails they have written or read on the school system, or websites they have visited and files they have created, to be examined as part of an investigation.

Students' personal data on the school's management information system, including names, addresses, medical and academic information, needs to be handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 but the hosting of a student's work and emails on the school system should be seen as a privilege to enhance their learning and remains in the domain of the school.

Security can be set up so that students click to agree to abide by the AUP each time they log on to the school system - whether they are in school, at home or elsewhere. Breach of the AUP should result in sanctions that would include the removal of the privilege of access to the ICT system.

Where the school is using web-based services provided by a managed ICT service the school needs to be clear about how long data is to be kept (for example at the end of a managed ICT service contract), how easily the school can access it, who owns the data and what will happen to the data at the end of the contract.

While managed ICT services can remove a huge burden, they should be specified with e-safety in mind and the school should ensure it is able to manage student behaviour and investigate incidents quickly without having to resort to phone calls to off-site IT support desks.

Professional distance

Anecdotal evidence suggests staff who use social networking in their personal lives, including younger staff who have grown up as 'digital natives', can risk getting themselves into trouble when their role as a teacher and the power of social networking collide.

A teacher who enjoys 'banter' with students online increases the risk of becoming a victim - it is about maintaining a professional distance. My advice is that staff not be permitted to add current students to their online social networks, other than systems set up by the school for teaching and learning with built-in user authentication and archiving.

Neither should school staff accept invitations to join a student's social network. Students who make such invitations should be spoken to by pastoral staff about the inappropriateness of their actions. Staff should also be wary of adding students who have recently left the school as they may provide an indirect link to current students.

Finally don't underestimate the importance of staff CPD, especially for those who aren't digital natives. Hopefully the tools are intuitive and mimic what teachers and students use in their personal lives but the skills of the e-teacher are new. Facilitating online learning is very different to didactic 'chalk and talk'.

Equally, induction for NQTs and other new staff need to be carefully planned to include the risks and benefits of new technology and how to maintain professional standards when communicating with young people online. Young staff who come from the local community might need the most guidance.

All staff members need guidance through acceptable use policies explaining how they should conduct themselves when collaborating with students online.

Previous big developments of ICT in school - such as the interactive whiteboard - only added new dimensions to the traditional role of the teacher. Old ideas about contact hours and the working day restrict how much of a teacher's time can be dedicated to online facilitation but that doesn't mean large portions of the job can't change.

For example, hours spent marking can be replaced by automatic, self- or peer assessment, freeing up time for teachers to generate content and interact with users online. Flexible working will impact on the traditional idea of both teachers and students 'coming to school'.

School leaders who personally engage with the technology understand the landscape, enjoy the personal and professional benefits, and lead by example in terms of revolutionising learning and how teachers collaborate with one another.

School leaders can make use of the ICT Register (www.ict-register.net) and thinkuknow (www.thinkuknow.co.uk) to develop good practice and access support from other schools.

The overall message to schools is to take care when using Web 2.0 tools but also to enjoy the vast benefits the technology offers.

Paul Haigh is assistant head for specialisms and innovation at Notre Dame High School in Sheffield.

Further reading...

This article is taken from Paul Haigh's book Social Network Websites: Their Benefits and Risks - A guide for school leaders which is available from www.optimus-education.com Follow Paul on Twitter at www.twitter.com/paulhaigh

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