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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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August142007

New NSBA Report on Social Networking

The National School Boards Association has released a new report on student use of social media tools. The report contains a multitude of findings that have already started an online debate about the role of social networking in the classroom.

The report, Creating & Connecting (PDF), examined student use and attitudes towards social networking by surveying 1,277 students, just over 1,000 parents and 250 school district personnel involved in setting on-campus Internet policy. The research documents a significant percentage of students using social networking tools, with 81 percent of students saying they’ve visited a social networking site in the last three months, and 71 percent saying they use these sites at least weekly.

Students aren’t just passive users of social media tools, either. One in five stated they post online comments on a daily basis, with 41 percent doing it at least weekly. Similarly, 22 percent of students admitted to uploading videos at some point, with nine percent claiming they do so on a weekly basis. And a whopping 30 percent of them publish their own blogs, with 17 percent of them updating them weekly.

The study also claims that inappropriate behavior online is less than conventional wisdom might suggest. For example, Only 18 percent of students claimed they’d seen inappropriate language on social networking sites, while only seven percent said they had experienced cyberbullying. Similarly, only four percent acknowledged having conversations on social network that made them uncomfortable. In contrast, the survey also suggested that district leaders felt these incidents happened more commonly than reported by the students.

The report, which officially came out today, leaked out several days early, leading to much discussion on various websites (naturally) social networking sites, with users questioning some of the findings and other aspects of the study. Prior to today’s release, I had the chance to ask some questions via email to Ann Flynn, NSBA director of education technology, and Peter Grunwald of Grunwald Associates, who carried out the study.

I asked Peter about the fact that students and parents were surveyed solely online, rather than using offline methods such telephone or in-person interviews. Might relying solely on online interviews skew some of the findings towards heavier percentage of social media use?

“We’ve found that differences between online and more conventional surveys have been disappearing,” Peter replied. “In fact, we use exactly the same online methodology (and original sample source) for PBS’s annual survey on teacher media use, which we’ve conducted for 4-5 years running.”

Among the findings, I was somewhat surprised by the students’ relatively low reporting of online predation or inappropriate use of the Net. Might that actually be caused by students not wanting to be open about these incidents, rather than accurate reporting? Neither Flynn nor Grunwald felt so.

“Some of the differences with other survey findings may be attributable to the fact that we asked about incidence in last 3 months and last 6 months, while they asked about ‘ever,” Grunwald explained.

“Although not specifically documented through this research, it’s my sense that efforts to provide Internet safety information, both in formal and informal ways, are starting to pay off,” Flynn added. “With the anonymity of the survey, I have no reason to believe students would have been less likely to share their negative experiences. Various national surveys have included a broad range of troubling behaviors or experiences which makes it a bit more difficult to compare.”

“Clearly, even one child who becomes involved in an inappropriate situation is one too many,” she continued. “One interpretation for this survey data could suggest that students are learning to recognize various levels of potential threat and deal with them accordingly. In casual discussions with students this past Spring, several mentioned changing their public sites to private to have more control over their online presence.”

I was also struck by the report’s suggestion that parents have a higher expectation about the potential benefits of social media than educators. Flynn suggested this might be due to the amount of time parents witness their kids using these tools, in contrast to educators.

Though not documented in the study, my assumption is that many parents see the amount of time their students are spending online and involved in various activities like posting photos, blogging, or updating their personal web sites and hope there is a way to translate their child’s enthusiasm for those activities into a similar enthusiasm for their educational endeavors. In addition, some parents may be experiencing the educational benefits of their own social media activities through online courses, posting pictures on family photo sites, seeking expert advice in forums, building their own professional networks on sites like Linked-In. On the other hand, many educators may feel that time spent on social media activities are currently detracting from time that could be spent on studies and feel less optimistic about the positive outcomes they could deliver. However, we are seeing other educators who have embraced these social media tools as a way to engage their students to make core content more relevant.

The report also suggests that 94 percent of disadvantaged districts had at least some teachers who were assigning Internet-related homework. Did any of the interview subjects express concern about how students on the wrong side of the digital divide might be impacted by this?

“We did not ask about this, and had to limit open-ended responses due to cost,” Grunwald said. Flynn continued:

I think this figure documents the degree to which teachers are making Internet-related assignments and should encourage districts to stop and think about their own policies that address student access to the Internet. Perhaps it’s reviewing the hours the school library remains open, building closer partnerships with community centers or local libraries, or considering a program to refurbish or loan computers to low income students along with a negotiating a discounted fee with areas ISPs. Districts should do their own studies to determine the number of students that have access and where and how they are connecting. District demographics are ever-changing so it’s important to be vigilant about updating this data to ensure students are not being placed at a disadvantage. There are a number of proactive approaches a district can take to address access and I hope this study will spark those conversations.

Speaking of district policies towards social networking, the findings of this study would appear to run counter to the thinking of many in Congress, given the wide support for pro-filtering legislation last summer in the House. What lessons should policymakers take away from this research, including specific policy recommendations?
“This study’s findings are consistent with previous studies conducted by Grunwald Associates LLC in that they’ve all pointed at families having a more balanced view of threats vs. benefits of technology than is reflected in much Washington debate,” Grunwald said.

Flynn:

While blocking, filtering, and legislation may be quick, “feel good” fixes by politicians to address this real issue, ultimately, education is the answer. The Internet and social networks are a reality in the lives of our students and will likely play an increasingly important role in their future. They will not always be online in protected environments so they must develop the tools they need to interact safely and responsibly online. Learning what’s appropriate to say or post in a public forum, how to discern truth from fiction, and how to evaluate potential threats are lessons that are critical for today’s cyber-citizens. What better way to learn these skills than by working with educationally, age-appropriate tools? Simply ignoring the issue inside the schoolhouse will not make our students safer in the real world. Some of the legislative options that have been suggested could have had the potential of blocking tools and sites that could help teach these lessons. As the Internet continues to evolve, educators must keep pace with the latest tools and threats to develop policies that strike a balance between safety while still allowing teachers to use the tools that are a part of everyday life for our students. And of course, many of these same doubts were raised about the Internet itself in its early days.

Lastly, much of the debate about the report taking place online has to do with the fact that News Corp was a funder of the project. News Corp, of course, owns MySpace. Were they involved at all in formulating questions, conducting interviews, analyzing data or affecting editorial decisions? Might not people might be skeptical about the report’s findings given this connection to News Corp?

Flynn’s response:

For more than 20 years, NSBA’s Technology Leadership Network has been a leader in identifying emerging education technology policy issues and providing guidance to district leaders. Grunwald Associates LLC has a long history of producing reports that focus on the ways children are using technology and that have been supported by a variety of underwriters. This recent study follows a model similar to that of the past two NSBA-Grunwald collaborations on technology use.The NSBA staff approached Grunwald Associates LLC about conducting this survey after noting the explosive growth of social networking sites but recognized we would need the support of underwriters to make the study a reality. I was pleased that Microsoft, Verizon, and News Corp. also felt this was a topic that needed further research. News Corp was no more influential than the other two underwriters. NSBA and Grunwald Associates LLC jointly developed the questions and editorial while the surveys, interviews, and data analysis were conducted entirely by Grunwald Associates LLC. The underwriters were given an opportunity to review the questions and see a draft of the final report, but their involvement did not in any way direct the study or alter the results. The companies were interested in being responsible corporate partners to help those of us in education create a solid baseline of data about this emerging trend on which we could offer suggestions and guidance to school leaders. Quality research is expensive to conduct and without the support of underwriters, we would not have been able to pursue this topic in this depth.

No doubt, the results of this report will continue to spark more debate in the coming days and weeks. What’s your take on the study? -andy

Filed under : Policy, Research, Social Networking

Responses

For years, I’ve been saying that the media has been presenting a distorted view of student online activities. Our informal surveys of thousands of students around the world, though not scientific or statistically valid, supported my view. It’s encouraging to see a study from a partnership of NSBA and Grunwald coming to the same conclusions.

The fact that it was underwritten partially by News Corp. doesn’t bother me much. Even if they profoundly influenced the study, which I doubt, that would mean that the real picture lies in between the media’s portrayal and that of the study.

The key to online safety has and always will be eduction, not legislation. Let’s hope this survey gets the message across to our law makers and they see fit to fund professional development and effective education.

If all adults who have anything to do with kids (teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, employers, advisors, counselors, recommenders) had their own “myspace” or “facebook” pages, and linked to the kids in their sphere of influence, the social networks would become much more healthy and useful for kids.

Kids need to know that while they must do what they can to secure their own privacy (to protect against predators and cyberscum) they also need to be aware that the content they post about themselves can fairly easily become available to others, and many colleges and employers surf and google to check out the kids they are considering admitting or hiring. Personal safety, appropriate and self-respecting disclosure and overall integrity should be a priority for anyone posting personal information on the web.

Don’t you think that we can not measure inappropriate behavior correctly since many communities have profanity filters etc?

I am encouraged by the survey results report and I hope they are accurate. My fear of cyber problems have kept me out of social networks and other uses of the internet besides one way research. I agree with the very valid point you make that ignoring the fact that kids are on the internet does help them be safer. It is time to educate our students on the positive uses of the internet. For me, that step first must be to educate myself.

I am still not sure of the validity of weaving social networking with academics. I believe a motivated student will excel with or without the internet. The unmotivated will have to develop great discipline to stay on track while using the internet. The real allure of social networking sites is fun. It is recreational.

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