Social Networking Tool and Virtual Schooling

| June 3, 2010

Barbour, M. K. & Plough, C. (2009). Social networking in cyberschooling: Helping to make online learning less isolating. Tech Trends, 53(4), 56-60.

Article Review

The authors present a case study of an online charter school (Odyssey Charter High School, Las Vagas, NV) to discuss the social aspect of their students’ experience using social networking tools for both academic and nonacademic purposes. The study starts with a description of the growth trends in cyber charter schools in the U.S., and then focuses on the process of developing a social networking online space for the school. The school used a blended learning model, with students attending one face-to-face school day (four hours) per week while taking online courses. Teachers communicate with students via emails and phone calls on a regular basis. However, teachers at the school cannot meet the communication needs of all the students during their face-to-face sessions. In addition, students lack the opportunity of interacting with their peers outside of their online classrooms. Thus, the school started to use Facebook and Ning to form students’ online groups as an initial experiment. While the use of Facebook triggered privacy concerns of disclosing students’ profile information, the use of Ning was a success, which allowed for a relaxed but safer social environment for both students and teachers. As reported, via Ning, students not only participated in teachers’ lesson planning but also communicated considerably with peers beyond their online classrooms. The school formally launched a Ning space in 2008 named “Odyssey of the Mind” to complement its online courses and face-to-face mentoring sessions. Students experienced “communities of practice” on the Ning site, with 119 student groups created based on their interests (e.g., young vidders and comic book collectors) in addition to their academic interests. Blogging and discussion forums were included as part of the group pages. In conclusion, the authors suggest distance educators to 1) provide students with a similar experience instead of the same experience from a brick-and-mortar education; and 2) consider student safety in providing an online space.

This study adds to a limited literature body of the use of social networking tools in a K-12 distance learning environment. since the journal is aimed at professional practitioners, the theoretical framework and methodology of the study are not explicitly discussed. The positive feedback toward the Ning site in forming students’ online communities, engagement, and teacher-student communication provides encouraging implications not only for K-12 online learning but also for the design of distance learning platform in higher education. Future research might be conducted regarding 1) how students initiate conversations and help each other on their academic work in the online community; 2) how students discuss popular culture in their online community; and/or 3) doing digital ethnography by following one student group in the community.

EdLab Connection

In designing the Teachers College Teaching and Learning Network, a few questions can be further asked: How could the site secure members’ online privacy and provide flexible navigation and creation choices? What web 2.0 design factors should be considered? How would the network be different from the current TC Moodle site? How to blend blogging (i.e., Pressible), social networking (i.e., NetPosse) and discussion forum into the network? Maybe the development team can take a deep look at Ning and build on it while considering the possible teaching and learning needs at TC.