Facebook, Twitter, email and other online social networks play a major part in the lives of today’s youth. Students as young as kindergarten have cell phones that can access the Internet and students expect to have access to this online world at all times. Technology, especially social network sites, can distract students from classroom activities. However, they can alsoserve educational purposes.
Finding the right balance between acceptable use and what is unacceptable use in schools can be a difficult task for school administrators. However, technologies designed for network security can help schools take advantage of these technologies while ensuring students aren’t districted while in class.
Educators across the country have done their best to both curb the use of distracting technologies while in class and to find ways to integrate the Internet into their curriculum all while shielding students from the more unsavory aspects of this technology. Nowhere is this delicate balancing act tested and more difficult than with social media sites. These sites do have value in the classroom, but they can also be a forum for inappropriate discussions and a classroom distraction. The question is, how can school administrators walk the line between using these tools for education and making sure students aren’t using them inappropriately?
It is clear social media sites like Facebook and MySpace should be blocked at school during class hours. But what about after and before school hours? Should teachers and administrative staff be allowed to access these sites while students are blocked? The answers to these questions are less clear. Perhaps educators have a legitimate educational use for Facebook or MySpace. Teachers can post new assignments and educational information on their pages for students to reference when they are home. Administrative staff can post school closings and events on their school Facebook group page. These are both reasons why staff should have access to social networking sites while on campus.
Engaging students has always been a challenge, but in today’s world where students crave constant stimulation it has become even more difficult. Since most students have access to social networking sites at home, using social networking sites can help engage students by using a medium they already trust and want to use. However, these sites can be distracting to students when they are in computer labs or using computers in the classroom. For this reason it is wise to block student access to social networking sites on campus, while allowing faculty and staff to use these tools. If a school does not feel comfortable using social networks in this way, that is fine. The most important thing a school can do is set up clear policies and make sure everyone, students and faculty alike, are aware of what is considered acceptable use.
In addition to acting as a potential distraction, social networking sites also have the potential to harm a school’s network. Reports show that most network breaches originate from social networks. As human beings we are programmed to trust others and children are the most trusting people of all. Over the years we have learned that unsolicited emails may contain viruses or phishing attempts so we are less likely to fall for these scams than we once were. But social networking is relatively new compared to email. Additionally, the concept behind these sites—free information, creating a worldwide community of people interested in similar topics, connecting to friends—means we are more likely to let our guard down. We will click on links about “making money from home” if it is posted on our friend’s profile. Thus, allowing access to these useful and fun sites can put a school’s network at risk, while restricting access can limit opportunities to connect with students.
So what is the answer? Using content filtering technologies schools can create user groups and allow access to these sites based on what is appropriate for each group. For example, schools can ensure that student access to these sites is limited to acceptable times of day, such as before or after school hours. At the same time, schools can provide teachers and administrative staff with access based on their needs as educators so they can utilize these tools for educational purposes. To combat the threat of malicious content on these sites, these same content filtering technologies can block access to URLs that users may try to access that have suspicious code or are known to have malware.
Content filtering technology will prevent access to social networking sites when it isn’t appropriate and help prevent network breaches. But schools shouldn’t end their preventative measures there. With the ubiquity of the Internet it is in schools best interests, and perhaps partially their responsibility, to teach students Internet safety. Technology or science classes should include Internet safety into their curriculum or schools should invite experts to speak to students, and teachers, about how to avoid the types of threats they may encounter online. Because students are often more technology savvy than even their teachers, administrators and faculty at schools should also have periodic updates about the latest threats and trends on these sites.
The combination of content filtering and education will help schools and students use social media to increase their educational opportunities while continuing to protect students, teachers and the network from the dangers of the Internet.