An expert panel said social networking can help boost student engagement.

Social networking and educational gaming ignite spirited debates regarding their practicality in the classroom: Some educators say those technologies can engage students in new ways, while others question their actual effectiveness.

How Blogs, Social Media, and Video Games Improve Education,” a new paper from Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, seeks to examine how collaboration tools can improve teaching and learning, and it identifies some of the key challenges that such tools must overcome.

At an April 24 Brookings Institution forum, a panel of experts discussed the impact that collaboration tools can have on education and key aspects of integrating collaborative technologies into curriculum.

Educators in classrooms across the nation are experimenting with social networking to see how it might expand curriculum and encourage collaboration, West said.

“We need to identify the ways to make the most effective use of technology—what students, teachers, and administrators can do to harness the power of social networking to improve educational outcomes,” he said.

There exists much interest around video games as a means of teaching and learning for a variety of reasons, but mainly because games offer students of all ages simulated worlds and designed experiences through which they can move and communicate with one another, said Constance Steinkuehler Squire, senior policy analyst in the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Obama administration.

“Games give you this ability for design and experience … and the data that you can get from a student interacting with a game is compelling,” Squire said.

Video games help learners share roles—one student playing a video game could teach his or her peer, who is playing the same game, important facts or skills. The next time those same two students play a game together, they could act out a different scenario, and the student who was previously the “teacher” could become the learner.

While video games are certainly engaging—part of the reason for their broad market penetration—using them in classrooms presents a bigger challenge, because classrooms are not necessarily set up to embrace video gaming, partly because video games touch some domains not necessarily identified in formal education settings, such as team leadership and civic engagement.

“Games are not always easy to fit into your standard curriculum,” Squire explained.

“Any tool or resource that we make available to people is going to be as valuable and effective as its use,” said Janet Kolodner, a program officer in the National Science Foundation’s Information and Intelligent Systems division. “We’re going to have to do a really good job of designing experiences for learners so that they can learn using those different tools.”

A resource’s effectiveness, and what students learn from it, depend on many things, including students’ curiosity, their self-motivation, what goals students have as they enter into the activity, their imagination, the help they receive in using it effectively and how they obtain that help, and the follow-up they receive after using the resource, Kolodner said.

Collaboration with peers, experts, and mentors opens up a variety of new learning opportunities, “but it depends on how it is used,” she noted.

Students must have the disposition to use social media effectively, and someone should model that proper use so that students have an example. Students and teachers also need the right interfaces, and helping educators to prepare lessons that incorporate the technologies is important, because teachers do not necessarily have the time to identify and create these new experiences from scratch.

As an online provider, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) uses social media in a variety of ways, said Holly Sagues, the school’s chief policy officer.

“Students want a very close relationship with their teachers, so the more communication [methods], the better,” Sagues said. “Building that relationship is one of the key components to a successful online virtual program with K-12 students.”

Sagues said that students have used resources including web conferencing, internet forums, and YouTube to communicate and work on class assignments, and they also are beginning to engage in a series of mobile apps that FLVS recently developed.

FLVS launched two full-course games—one in American history and one in intensive reading—a few years ago and saw great results, Sagues said. But that technology is now aging, and Sagues said the school is focusing on shorter games to engage students. FLVS also is developing more mobile learning, gaming, and test-prep apps for its students.

Policy has a broad impact on how teachers and students use social media, and the school is fine-tuning its social media policy.

“It is not to restrict social media, but [covers] how to use it intelligently with our students and with other folks on our staff,” Sagues said.

FLVS also is developing a social media course, whose aim will be to “teach students the proper ways to use social media,” she added.

“Incorporating technology into K-12 instruction is critical,” said Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, assistant to the president for educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. “Quality teaching and learning has to drive decision-making.”

But differentiating and personalizing instruction can prove a big challenge for teachers, especially if they do not have the proper support to use technology to enhance instruction.

“Digital learning can have tremendous potential for extending teachers’ reach … but that potential can only be realized if the technology decisions are made based on sound educational policies. They can’t be based on ill-informed choices or fed by marketing,” she said.

In fact, the effective integration of technology into instruction requires more, and not less, of teachers, including more time and more support.

“Decisions about implementing digital learning technologies ought to be done with teachers, and not to them,” Ucelli-Kashyap said. “Teachers are integral to efforts to use technology to reach students.”

Equity remains an ever-present challenge to technology initiatives, and ensuring that low-income students and high-need schools have access to digital resources is key.

“Digital learning opportunities must enhance equity, rather than exacerbate equity,” she said. While the digital divide is narrowing, schools that serve high-poverty populations often have less access to high-speed internet and other tools that those students need. “We want to provide, for all kids, the kinds of exciting opportunities we’ve been hearing about this afternoon.”

And while mobile technologies generate some of the most buzz, there is not yet a complete replacement for wired access—therefore, equity remains a big issue.

Ensuring that schools understand social networking’s potential in education is important, too.

“There’s really a fine balance to strike between safety and access,” Ucelli-Kashyap said. “Districts have a responsibility to prevent access to inappropriate content, so sometimes it’s just easier to prevent any access at all.”

Stakeholders should promote better education about how to use technologies, including social networking technologies, more effectively.

“Technology is not a panacea, but it sure can be a terrific tool,” Ucelli-Kashyap said.