Before school officials prohibit teachers and students from accessing certain web sites, they should think about the positive impact those sites might have on education: That was the message of “Think Before You Ban: How Classrooms Become Communities with Web 2.0 Technology,” a recent webcast sponsored by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

The Jan. 16 program, moderated by ed-tech consultant Karen Greenwood Henke, focused on how schools can use Web 2.0 tools to foster collaboration and innovation in classrooms.

“We cannot ignore this phenomenon,” said Susan Brooks-Young, a Web 2.0 consultant who works with schools on technology programs and integration. Educators should “look at the instructionally sound ways to bring [Web 2.0 tools] in, and help both teachers and kids make the best use of this technology.”

Web 2.0 technologies “lend themselves very well to teaching 21st-century learning skills, and our job is to prepare kids for the workforce they’ll be facing when they leave school,” Brooks-Young added.

The use of Web 2.0 technologies is all about information, she said. These online communication tools extend learning beyond the regular school day and let users share ideas for group projects and other tasks; for example, students and teachers can have anytime, anywhere access to projects or assignments with Google’s free Documents tool.

Although online video sites are among the fastest-growing destinations on the internet, Brooks-Young noted that inappropriate content can be a deterrent for school use.

“Take advantage of sites like SchoolTube, which support collaboration but also teach responsible use of sharing,” she recommended.

Another site, called VoiceThread, allows users to post files, such as images or documents, and make verbal or text comments about each posted file.

Jing Project is a web site that lets users incorporate certain things into a live narration, by creating still and video tutorials or by capturing and annotating screen shots. Another classroom-friendly site is AirSet, which lets users become organized and stay in touch using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis, and photo and file sharing.

Such collaborative web sites often are banned in schools, webcast participants said, because administrators aren’t familiar with Web 2.0 trends and tend to overblock sites out of caution. To avoid this problem, educators can view a series of eight three- to five-minute videos, called In Plain English, by CommonCraft, which explain basic Web 2.0 concepts.

“It’s not just about the ‘stuff’ of technology, it’s about the opportunities for learning that the technology provides,” said Connie Sitterley, the director of instructional technology at Penncrest School District, a combination of four independent Pennsylvania school districts that merged. The consolidated district serves about 3,800 K-12 students.

Penncrest’s technology plan includes goals for the collaborative use of technology by staff and students. The district does not provide computers for every student, and many students still use dial-up connections to access the internet, but because its technology department has a collaborative relationship with curriculum coordinators, technology experiences are ensured for all students, Sitterley said.

“We agree that our role is to support learning, and obviously we have to maintain the technology and the machines, but our first role is to support learning,” she said.

The district uses a variety of Web 2.0 tools in its classrooms, including WordPress for building web sites, Moodle for course management, and other sites for cross-curricular projects.

The district introduced Google Apps for Education in grades 7-12, with all students receiving an eMail address. Through a partnership with the district, Google has provided a Google account for each student, which is locally managed under the district’s domain.

“When we started thinking that we wanted to provide this, we talked with administrators and even had it reviewed by [district officials] to make sure we were able to live within Google’s terms and conditions,” Sitterley said.

Using Google Apps for Education, students are able to work on a Word document in school, put it into Google Docs, and then retrieve it at home or at a local library.

“We have involved all the facets of the learning community–administrators, teachers, and students,” Sitterley said. “Different needs guide the production. The same applications won’t work for everyone, and we know that. Some [users] really like Moodle, others like VoiceThread–[but] we need to move everyone into being involved.”

The skills that students take away from these experiences will help them throughout their lives, she added: “It’s [about] learning to use tools that translate to life after school, and understanding the process and knowing how to adapt.”

When educators want to use new web sites or Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom, the key to gaining administrators’ support is communication, said Kevin Jarrett, a technology facilitator for grades K-4 and a district webmaster for New Jersey’s Northfield Community School.

“To me, the answer is communication–talk to each other and identify the ways in which districts can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of decision-support systems surrounding access to and use of Web 2.0 tools,” he said.

Another necessary step is finding the balance between what Jarrett identified as “doing things right” and “doing the right things”–essentially, the balance between fostering creativity and exploration on the one hand and making sure online activities are safe for students and relevant to the curriculum on the other.

To create an ed-tech environment that will support the kind of academic success that districts are looking for, it’s important to identify expectations clearly and rely on teacher-leaders, Jarrett said.

“Administrative expectations are the single greatest variable impacting the use and adoption of technology [to support] innovation in education,” he said. Also, get teachers “excited for the potential of Web 2.0 tools. Teacher-leaders exist at every district–how are you leveraging them, and how can you assist them?”

Administrative support is critical when trying to gain approval for using certain web sites, and by knowing this approval process, educators can be prepared to supply the information necessary to speed that process along.

“All of these pieces of the puzzle come together to create an optimal environment for innovation and safety,” Jarrett said.

“Public education is social networking–[so] why not [help students] learn how to properly socially network within the digital world?” concluded Henke, the moderator, adding that Web 2.0 tools are part of an increasingly important 21st-century skill set. “As [chief technology officers] and district policy leaders, when bringing Web 2.0 into schools, we want to focus on the innovation that can happen.”

Links:

Consortium for School Networking

VoiceThread

Jing Project

AirSet

Google Docs

In Plain English by CommonCraft