In The Beginning: Web 1.0
When I was a teenager, back in the roaring 90’s, education and the internet weren’t concepts that went comfortably together. The internet had then progressed from a hobby reserved for rocket scientists and ham-radio enthusiasts, into a disreputable underworld of blond-jokes and conspiracy theorists. Many of my teachers actively loathed the concept of their students logging onto “The Information Superhighway,“ as we then called it, and surfing a dangerous sea of newsgroups and forums- all of it anonymous, none of it trustworthy. And parents worried for their children’s safety online. They were sure we would learn things from the internet, but they were also sure that we would learn things we shouldn’t know.
Then came the pioneers. A few of my teachers had Geocities websites. It was a big step forward, but communication was always one way. Teachers could post assignments, and required reading, but they couldn’t interact with us directly. It was very Web 1.0. Teachers started allowing students to research online, but usually demanded that projects include: “real citations,” from actual books in the school library.
Web 2.0: The Internet is your Best Friend, and your Worst Enemy
Today everything is different. The explosion of social networking has meant the web’s acceptance as a daily, even hourly and minutely aspect of our lives. When I became a high school teacher myself, I saw the hold that services like Facebook and Twitter had over my own students. And I wished that I could use social networking and the internet to engage my students- students who seemed incapable of reading anything if it wasn’t compressed into 160 characters on the screen of a smartphone, and displayed for all the world to see- in a safe and constructive way.
Today, studies show that Twitter has become the favorite medium for online communication between teachers and students in primary and secondary education, eclipsing even e-mail. While universities often have the resources and IT support necessary to support the use of secure, private servers and Sakai based information networks, institutions of primary and secondary education rarely have the means to implement and maintain safe and complex private networks. In came a pre-packaged solution, in the form of publically accessible social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter’s disadvantages lie in its format, which involves only short tweets and links, and in its noise to content ratio: when the whole world is posting about millions of things at once, it’s not easy to use Twitter to grab the attention of your students, nor to develop a meaningful thread of communication with them. But there are a lot of advantages to services like Twitter. Not only are students signed onto the service in their millions, but it is also efficient, allowing teachers to send information to many students at once, and to receive feedback equally conveniently.
But that convenience comes at a price.The default security settings for a Twitter account are completely open, meaning that anyone can read and retweet anything a student or teacher happens to say, and send him or her messages, unless his or her account has been switched to the more secure: “By invitation only,” setting. Many students don’t know about the security settings Twitter provides, nor do they realize that their writings and notes back and forth can be and often are read by anyone with an internet connection. And young learners, with that unconscious sense of invincibility that young drivers have, don’t quickly grasp the basic tenets of safe behavior, nor do they have clear notions of what dangers may await them online.
And social networking is a gold-mine for advertisers, who would like to use the musings and likes of millions of the world’s youth to shape the way they think, and more importantly, the way they spend their money. Advertisers and content providers have pushed to make services like Facebook progressively more open, and more accessible for data-mining and, potentially, for abuse. Recently, for example, a website was discovered to be selling a list of email addresses with their real names attached, all gleaned, against the rules, from a facebook app. The million-name list was on sale to spammers and whomever wished to buy it for $5. Using the list, fraudsters could easily target young Facebook users with personalized attacks.
Engage with Students Online, or Shut the Internet Out?
So students and educators face similar challenges to education taking place online. Information is plentiful, but teachers and students cannot navigate it all together. Connecting is easy, but developing meaningful connections, and keeping those connections secure, is not. Teachers wishing to engage their students in the online arena find themselves in competition with an impassable minefield of distractions and potential dangers. Youtube, Pinterest, StumbleUpon, NineGag, or Cracked.com, all lure the web-surfer in with the promise of inexhaustible, ad-supported free content. And social networks offer unlimited opportunities to converse, but little control over who can be a part of that conversation. This has led many schools to ban the use of social networks at school, along with many other online services, in an attempt to keep students engaged in person, and to keep out the influences of advertisers and data-miners on student life.
A Different kind of Solution
But there is a middle ground online. A middle ground represented by services like Glogster EDU.
Glogster EDU is a secure, education focused environment for learning and offers all the best advantages of online learning: tools for creating, discovering, and sharing information, and secure and convenient communication, with all the advantages of expensive, hard to maintain private networks.
And like social networks, Glogster EDU is fun to use, and can be exciting and relevant to students of all ages.
And Glogster EDU’s educational environment is secure. There is no advertising, and there is no data mining. It’s a service that connects educators and learners, and allows them to work together online through a simple interface, secure in the knowledge that this interaction, and access to all of the vast resources for learning that Glogster EDU provides, is safe for students and always under the supervision and direction of teachers.