What prevents educators from exploring and, where appropriate, using social networking services?
Educators' confidence and experience
Educators' enthusiasm for social networking services varies, but the UK, along with other countries, is still in the process of embedding technology within education to support personalised learning, engagement, inclusion, creativity and innovation . However, much is being done to support the widespread adoption of mobile and Internet technologies to support effective blended learning delivery and equip educators to evaluate which technologies might best support specific learning and teaching objectives. Some uses of ICT are now commonplace within schools and colleges.
Professional development programmes, advice and information for teachers have not necessarily kept pace with the emergence of new technologies and practices, particularly those that have become widespread and commonplace among learners . Educators may well be using social networking services themselves, but may not recognise the educational potential and opportunities for their learners, or understand the potential risks, both for themselves and their learners. Many educators do not use the Internet in the same way as many young people – as a ubiquitous, always-on extension of their physical space which, for young people, has always been around.
Negative views of social networking services
Parents and educators alike are understandably concerned about illegal and anti-social behaviour online. Recent media coverage of social networking services has tended to focus on the negative aspects of services, for example the presence of predatory adults who want to use services to contact and groom young people . Illegal and inappropriate behaviour is an unfortunate fact of human societies, whether it takes place online or offline. However, over-emphasising these types of activity is not useful in supporting young people to recognise, manage and negotiate risk for themselves. Just as in the real world, we need to approach risk in an even-handed and realistic way in order to best manage it. Most responsible social networking services employ people to post-moderate anti-social activity, although it should be noted that the amount of information published means that services are reliant on users making reports.
This year the British monarchy launched its own YouTube channel, and the Queen broadcast her Christmas message online , which might suggest that social networking services are regarded by the establishment as a legitimate and effective way to reach a national and international audience, as television was when the Queen's speech was first broadcast in 1957.
Blocking and filtering procedures within UK education
Almost all state schools within the UK subscribe to a broadband connection and services through their local regional broadband consortia (RBC) . Filtering and blocking policies are determined and varied by the RBC in consultation with their partner local authorities; educators and institutions can request that sites should be blocked or unblocked.
Colleges and some schools may also have internal procedures for requesting site blocking or unblocking. Many schools block social networking services, viewing them as either housing inappropriate content or being a waste of time, not recognising the ways in which social networking services can be valuable to students. This can make it difficult for staff to explore or experiment with sites, or to respond to reports of cyberbullying or other inappropriate activity by their learners taking place on such services.
Young people visit social networking services from home and other out-of-school locations. Many young people are also adept at finding ways around blocking and filtering software in order to visit the sites they find meaningful and useful.
Digital media literacy policy
Digital media literacy is not taught across all UK schools. While the new QCA secondary curriculum introduces e-safety as a compulsory topic in Key Stages 3 and 4 , many other aspects of media literacy which cover issues of relevance to current uses of mobile and Internet technologies are absent or taught according to the interest of the individual teacher. In particular, there is currently no UK-wide agenda for technology, citizenship and social participation, or around data protection and data management issues, including those relating to copyright and file sharing.
Lack of straightforward risk evaluation and management tools
Many schools understand the value of activities that take place outside the classroom. Taking learners outside the school premises requires risk evaluation and management. In a similar way, teachers and schools need straightforward risk-evaluation tools that they can apply to social networking sites and web-based services if they plan to use them with learners.
UKOLN's Risk Assessment For Use Of Third Party Web 2.0 Services briefing document highlights some of the technical issues which need to be addressed, but the issues are not contextualised for use in a teaching environment.
Using social networking services – the risks
The following list of risks is not exhaustive. The risks of using social networking services often overlap with issues that have been well addressed by existing e-safety advice and guidance, for example Childnet's award-winning Know IT All series of resources (http://www.childnet.com/kia).This list looks at risks that are specific or pertinent to social networking services. Educators should, however, have a general understanding of the benefits and risks of using technology.
Misunderstanding the nature of the environment
Many users believe that they are writing for a closed group of friends, unaware that the information they have posted may be publicly available and able to be searched for and read by a much wider audience. Acquisti & Gross (2006) characterise social networking services as “imagined communities” in recognition of the gap between users' perceptions of a private, closed network and the reality of who can access their information.
Additionally, it may not occur to young people that their public arguments or “flame wars”, their overly enthusiastic critiques of their teachers, or the risqué pictures of themselves that seemed quite funny at the time may still be around in a few years when they are applying for a job or trying to get into university, for example.
We don't yet know the full consequences for a generation that has grown up online, or the future implications of new types of search, for example social searches, which aggregate information from across a range of social networking sites by your name or email address, or of the development of facial-recognition search software.