In The Beginning: Web 1.0
When I was a teenager, back in the roaring 1990s, education and the internet weren’t concepts that went comfortably together. The internet had then progressed from a hobby reserved for rocket scientists and ham-radio enthusiasts, into a disreputable underworld of blond-jokes and conspiracy theorists.
Many of my teachers actively loathed the concept of their students logging onto “The Information Superhighway,“ as we then called it, and surfing a dangerous sea of newsgroups and forums- all of it anonymous, none of it trustworthy. And parents worried for their children’s safety online. They were sure we would learn things from the internet, but they were also sure that we would learn things we shouldn’t know.
Then came the pioneers. A few of my teachers had Geocities websites. It was a big step forward, but communication was always one way. Teachers could post assignments, and required reading, but they couldn’t interact with us directly. It was very Web 1.0. Teachers started allowing students to research online, but usually demanded that projects include: “real citations,” from actual books in the school library.
Web 2.0: The Internet is your Best Friend, and your Worst Enemy
Today everything is different. The explosion of social networking has meant the web’s acceptance as a daily, even hourly and minutely aspect of our lives. When I became a high school teacher myself, I saw the hold that services like Facebook and Twitter had over my own students.
And I wished that I could use social networking and the internet to engage my students- students who seemed incapable of reading anything if it wasn’t compressed into 160 characters on the screen of a smartphone, and displayed for all the world to see- in a safe and constructive way.
Today, studies show that Twitter has become the favorite medium for online communication between teachers and students in primary and secondary education, eclipsing even e-mail. While universities often have the resources and IT support necessary to support the use of secure, private servers and Sakai based information networks, institutions of primary and secondary education rarely have the means to implement and maintain safe and complex private networks. In came a pre-packaged solution, in the form of publicly accessible social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter’s disadvantages lie in its format, which involves only short tweets and links, and in its noise to content ratio: when the whole world is posting about millions of things at once, it’s not easy to use Twitter to grab the attention of your students, nor to develop a meaningful thread of communication with them.
But there are a lot of advantages to services like Twitter. Not only are students signed onto the service in their millions, but it is also efficient, allowing teachers to send information to many students at once, and to receive feedback equally conveniently.
The Price of Social Media
But that convenience comes at a price.The default security settings for a Twitter account are completely open, meaning that anyone can read and retweet anything a student or teacher happens to say, and send him or her messages, unless his or her account has been switched to the more secure: “By invitation only,” setting.
Many students don’t know about the security settings Twitter provides, nor do they realize that their writings and notes back and forth can be and often are read by anyone with an internet connection. And young learners, with that unconscious sense of invincibility that young drivers have, don’t quickly grasp the basic tenets of safe behavior, nor do they have clear notions of what dangers may await them online.
And social networking is a gold-mine for advertisers, who would like to use the musings and likes of millions of the world’s youth to shape the way they think, and more importantly, the way they spend their money. Advertisers and content providers have pushed to make services like Facebook progressively more open, and more accessible for data-mining and, potentially, for abuse.
Recently, for example, a website was discovered to be selling a list of email addresses with their real names attached, all gleaned, against the rules, from a facebook app. The million-name list was on sale to spammers and whomever wished to buy it for $5. Using the list, fraudsters could easily target young Facebook users with personalized attacks.
Engage with Students Online, or Shut the Internet Out?
Connecting is easy, but developing meaningful connections, and keeping those connections secure, is not. Teachers wishing to engage their students in the online arena find themselves in competition with an impassable minefield of distractions and potential dangers.
Youtube, Pinterest, StumbleUpon, NineGag, or Cracked.com, all lure the web-surfer in with the promise of inexhaustible, ad-supported free content. And social networks offer unlimited opportunities to converse, but little control over who can be a part of that conversation. This has led many schools to ban the use of social networks at school, along with many other online services, in an attempt to keep students engaged in person, and to keep out the influences of advertisers and data-miners on student life.
Schools need not necessarily banish computers or the concept of online integration from classrooms. In the past few years, an array of services have popped up to serve schools with secure, education focused online environments. Services like Glogster EDU function as all-in-one packages, allowing schools to integrate online learning seamlessly into their curricula.
These services include classroom management, messaging, grading, and many other features perfect for a classroom setting. Within a closed system, teachers and administrators can monitor all student activity online, while still reaping all the benefits of online integration: better access to information, a mode of learning more relevant to younger learners, and a better way of keeping track of assignments, projects, and students’ study habits.
Web entrepreneurs have proven that if there exists a niche online, it can and will be exploited. Despite talk decades ago about “The Information Superhighway,” and ideas about the internet radically changing teaching methods and the education system, education has found its place online surprisingly slowly.
The internet grew quite a bit before it started to get smarter, and the learning process for private business, as well as school systems, has been a long one. But today the tools exist to build and maintain safe havens for students online- the only question is whether schools will be willing to give them a try.