Web 2.0 tools can help students develop critical 21st century skills.

Web 2.0 tools can help students develop critical 21st century skills, many say.

Many school systems have discovered that Web 2.0 tools such as blogging, social networking, and collaborative authoring software can help create participatory learning environments—but the gap between schools that have embraced these tools and those that have not is still large.

A new monograph from the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) profiles six school districts—Birdville Independent School District in Texas, New Canaan Public Schools in Connecticut, Michigan’s Westwood Cyber High School, Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools, Barrington 220 in Illinois, and White Oak Independent School District in Texas—and examines how those districts are using Web 2.0 tools to align school policies and practices with global education goals.

Web 2.0 as a Force for School Transformation: A Tale of Six Districts,” part of the 2010 CoSN Compendium, contains profiles of each district, an overview of some of the Web 2.0 tools that each uses, and a librarian’s perspective on the role that school media centers play in adopting Web 2.0 strategies. The profiles also address filtering policies as they relate to Web 2.0 content.

Web 2.0 tools can transform learning by helping students connect with classrooms across the country or around the globe, CoSN says. They can enhance collaboration, help educators and students discover new research methods, stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving, and link teachers with valuable professional development opportunities. CoSN hopes these six profiles inspire other districts to investigate Web 2.0’s potential as an education technology tool.

“We do have some school districts that are really moving forward and that have managed to dispel some of the fears and the bad information [about Web 2.0 tools],” said James Bosco, principal investigator for the CoSN project. “They’re here to stay. Yes, there are problems, there are issues that come with social networking, but it’s really critical not to have a ‘rule it out’ mentality.”

Bosco said each district included in the monograph demonstrated a commitment to bringing Web 2.0 integration to scale throughout the district and not simply allowing teachers to use Web 2.0 tools, but developing a district culture around them.

The extent to which Web 2.0 tools can affect district and classroom practice depends on how district leaders implement the tools, Bosco said.

“That’s probably the toughest issue, because it’s one thing to say, ‘We’ll use Web 2.0 and new digital media so long as it conforms to what we have been doing in the past,’” he said. “It’s another thing to recognize that the real message is that we have to think differently about learning, and about the roles of teachers and students—that’s the big challenge.”

Developing a mindset in which teachers are willing to cede some control and let students explore their own learning is essential if Web 2.0 tools are to make a difference in the classroom, he explained.

The six districts represent the changing face of education, Bosco said, which gradually is starting to position students more successfully for life in a global workforce.

“Five years from now, there will still be districts looking like they’re in the 1950s,” he said. “It won’t be a smooth progression, but I really do believe we’re seeing something start here, and that gives cause for optimism. At least in some places, kids will be receiving the kind of education and schooling they really need—and that is in tune with the world in which they live.”

New research released Sept. 9 suggests that the six districts profiled in the CoSN monograph are part of what is still a small minority in U.S. education.

The survey, which took an extended look at school principals’ use of social networking, found the majority of responding principals said they believe social networking sites can provide value in education. But, despite what they viewed as the promise of social networking, most of the principals reported that students aren’t allowed to access social networks at school—although respondents acknowledged that students can bypass these restrictions with their mobile phones.

The report, “School Principals and Social Networking in Education: Practices, Policies, and Realities in 2010,” combines results from an online survey of 1,200 educators, including principals, librarians, and teachers, and an in-depth online discussion with 12 school principals who have used social networking professionally.

Of the 12 principals who participated in the in-depth online discussion, several thought use of social networking and online collaboration tools would help make school more relevant to students—that is, these tools would help “reach students where they’re at.”

Survey respondents also said they believe social networking tools provide a way for educators to share information and resources with an extended community of their peers, create professional learning communities, and improve school-wide communications with students and staff. About half of those who responded rated social networking as “very valuable” in these pursuits.

Yet none of the 12 principals in the discussion group had school or district social networking policies in place that were deemed adequate, suggesting the need for conversations and collaboration to establish policies that can facilitate appropriate use of social networking in schools for educational purposes.

Principals in the discussion group mentioned a variety of barriers to the integration of social networking into classroom instruction, including legal concerns, concerns about inappropriate use and the need for proper monitoring, and lack of time (to set up the system and for professional development and practice).

The research was conducted by edWeb.net, Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc., MMS Education, and MCH Strategic Data.