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Social learning networks promote student engagement, global awareness

When students engage with other classrooms around the world, their effort is ‘through the roof.’

Think about it … what do kids want? What do you want? How about the chance to be masters of tasks, have lives with purpose, and have the choice of when, where, and how when it comes to engagement in learning and teaching?

The classroom is no longer a physical place. Perhaps it never has been. Learning is experiential and it occurs, usually not on schedule, but 24 hours a day. What does this mean in an age of Common Core standards and high-stakes testing? The Common Core standards seem to fit well with students’ need for critical thinking and higher-order thinking skills. I doubt that the high-stakes testing philosophy fits well at all. As a teacher, I can’t help but ask if it even fits anywhere!

One of the goals of a social studies curriculum is to ensure that students are aware of different cultures and geographies—including how these are similar to or different from their own. Social learning communities make this easy. They offer a window to the world.

I connect my students to classrooms and learning experiences all over the world. Like-minded teachers exist, and they also seek global collaboration. Social learning platforms are the perfect place for collaborating in real time through online workspaces. For instance, ePals offers internal blogs and links students with numerous entities, such as the Smithsonian.

Through the years, I have found that when my students use ePals to reach out to and engage with other classrooms, the level of excitement and effort is literally through the roof. Students tell me they actually care about what is going on in the classroom. They value the relationships they create with students across the globe. Students’ writing improves dramatically, because they know their global peers will be reading their assignments.

Speaking of the Smithsonian, we have just completed a project called the Extinction Project. It is a collaborative effort between my classroom and a set of classrooms in Singapore. Rose Manuel, the teacher leader of the Extinction Project, will join me and personnel from the Smithsonian in a Skype call that will span two continents and affect hundreds of students.

With the Extinction Project coming to full fruition, we now see our opportunity to launch the iSOLVE Project. This project, also housed in ePals, takes responsibility and good choices regarding conservation and endangered species to a new level. The iSOLVE Project actually lets students engage in conversations about how they cope and survive in their own daily lives, and additionally, how they save and protect each other through life’s trials and difficult times. We hope that this project is as powerful and helpful as we think it can be.

Try using educational networking platforms in your own classroom, especially in tandem with Skype. Perhaps the only thing that can hinder you will be your imagination.

I have used ePals to connect with students from Iceland down to southern France. We discussed language and volcanoes and haunting landscapes. We’ve shared candy and patriotic haikus. We’ve exchanged packages with schools in Singapore and spoken with people from the Youth Olympic Games about community responsibility. We’ve engaged experts from the Smithsonian as well as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London. My students have discussed penguin adaptations with researchers at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. We’ve even worked with 2,000-year-old ancient Roman coins with a classroom in New York. Truly, the sky is the limit, and this is the way to go if you want to add a global dimension to your classroom experience.

The world truly comes into focus, and the students actually notice!

Troy Tenhet is a sixth grade teacher in central California. His students work on collaborative projects with peers and experts all over the world.

Other social learning networks

Gaggle Apps are online tools for students to communicate and collaborate in a safe, filtered, and controlled environment. Tools include eMail, digital lockers, discussion boards, chat rooms, blogs, assignment drop boxes, and more.

“This year, the Gaggle App will be used in iPad classrooms throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Students will be sharing devices, so having the ability to log in and out of eMail was a necessity,” said Instructional Technology Specialist Jenny Grabiec. “Student-created photo slide shows and movies can be uploaded easily from the camera roll and synced to the students’ digital lockers for easy viewing at home or on any school computer. One of my favorite features of the Gaggle app is ‘Mark it up,’ which allows teachers to review, grade and return assignments to students, saving paper and time in the process.”

eChalk offers a flexible framework and easy-to-use tools to meet the emerging needs of teachers and students. Through eChalk, schools can create and maintain school websites and class pages, help teachers apply safe social networking experiences to curriculum lessons, and provide parents with a window into their children’s education. eChalk users also have mobile access to the platform through an app for Android and iOS devices.

eChalk partnered with Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools to help the district create school and teacher websites. The online platform will enable teachers, students, and parents in Jefferson County schools to connect, communicate, and collaborate anytime, anywhere, to support effective, personalized learning.

Edmodo gives teachers and students a secure place to connect and collaborate, share content and educational applications, and access homework, grades, class discussions, and notifications. Teachers can post messages, discuss classroom topics, assign and grade classwork, share content and materials, and network and exchange ideas with their peers.

The social learning network is accessible online or using any mobile device, including Android devices and iPhones, and has special institutional features for schools and districts that can be accessed free of charge by administrators.

Students do not need to provide eMail addresses to sign up. Teachers give students access codes, and students can either put their first and last names into the system or go by student identification numbers instead.

Remix Learning provides a customizable cloud-based social learning network for primary and secondary education. It can be implemented quickly in schools and after-school programs. Subscriptions are available to schools, nonprofit organizations, museums, libraries, and cultural institutions—anywhere that youth are engaged.

The iRemix platform, currently in beta testing, is a hosted, cloud-based customizable social learning platform affordably available to schools, institutions, and organizations seeking to safely and securely connect children and adolescents with curriculum, extended learning, and mentorship opportunities.

Sophia is a free social teaching and learning platform that offers academic content to anyone, anywhere free of charge. The website, which has been described as a mashup of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube focused solely on education, also lets educators supplement their teaching methods with tools to create a customized learning environment in a private or public setting.

Sophia uses Web 2.0 tools and methods to create a credible, crowd-sourced platform where information is organized in “learning packets”—bite-sized tutorials tagged to specific academic subjects or topics, including standards-aligned objectives. The packets can be created by anyone, anywhere using text, images, presentations, video, audio, and more. Packets are rated for quality and evaluated for academic soundness by users and experts within the community. Educators can use these packets to supplement instruction, and they can create an invitation-only environment where members can share content and ideas, ask questions, and get answers within their own learning community.

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