21st-Century Learning: New Technology in Schools

Web-based group projects. Teachers assigning homework via Twitter. The chance to cyber-connect with kids halfway around the world. No doubt about it. School is definitely better than it used to be.

Looking back, we refer to it as the Facebook War.

It started when my wife and I finally caved to my then-13-year-old son's incessant demands for a Facebook account. It made sense. He's a tech-savvy kid—what's known as a "digital native," meaning, he's grown up surrounded by computers and the Internet. Learning the ropes of social networking is an important survival skill for the 21st century.

But first we sat him down and went over the rules. Number one: We have to be friends, to make sure he's not being harassed by schoolmates or "friended" by creepy strangers. Number two: He shouldn't put anything on there he wouldn't want his grandmother (also a Facebook friend) to read. Simple, right?

Everything went fine at first. Then my very sarcastic son (he gets it from his mother) posted something rude on his Facebook wall. I knew he was kidding. However, anyone who didn't know him well could consider it offensive. So I told him to take it down. On Facebook. In front of all his eighth grade friends.

Oh boy.

Huge tactical error. He immediately unfriended me, my wife and every other adult in his Facebook network. We insisted he refriend us. With great reluctance, he agreed. A week later he unfriended us again. We threatened to delete his profile altogether and he put us back on. Two weeks later he told us his account had been corrupted and he needed to set up a new one and refriend us. Okay, we said. I was proud he'd volunteered to friend us without us having to nag him. He was finally getting it.

Things seemed to be going well until I sat down at my computer after my son had used it to print a school paper and Facebook popped up. Not my account, his. His old account. The one that had supposedly been "corrupted." And on it I found a note he posted to one of his friends, saying "Don't message me at my other account. I set that one up to fool my idiot parents."

Wow. Twenty-first-century survival skills indeed. For our moms and dads, television and the telephone were the enemies of good grades. Today's battles are over cell phones, social networks and YouTube. The issues are not all that different; these things are distracting, addictive and easily abused. But they're also unavoidable—your kids will need to navigate them in order to succeed, just as you had to with the phone and TV.

Here's the key difference: Unlike the boob tube or landline, Web tools can help your children do well in school, if they use them creatively and avoid the pitfalls.

It won't be easy. You'll have to learn to master these tools too, to keep your kids safe and to manage their time. You may need to act as an advocate for these technologies and push teachers and school administrators to play along. But the payoff will be well worth it.

Fearless Excuse Killers

"I left my assignment at school." "The dog ate my homework." "Nobody told me that project was due tomorrow."

Like all parents, we've heard these excuses (and more) from our kids. But we stopped getting them so often after the kids started using Google Apps and Google Calendar for their schoolwork. For example, recently, my 11-year-old daughter needed to write a paper on sea turtles for a fifth grade project. She simply logged on to Google Docs, a free, full-featured, Web-based word processor. When she needed help, I could log on too, and we could work together on the report, even though she was home and I was at my office. The next day, at school, her paper was online and she just had to print it out.

For my extremely absent-minded son, now 14, Google Calendar has been a godsend. To make big projects less daunting, we set up calendar events that will generate plenty of reminders sent to his e-mail account and cell phone. It's not a total solution—we still have to get him to do the work—but it helps with time management and cuts down on our nagging.

We're not alone. More than 7 million students use Google Apps, a figure that's more than doubling each year, says Ken Norton, senior product manager for the popular application. Raju Vegesna, spokesperson for Zoho, a competing suite of online software, says about 25% of its 3 million users are students or teachers.

It helps that our school has a Wi-Fi network and lets kids bring in their own computers and log on. (We had to persuade them a netbook would actually help our son stay focused; now several middle schoolers bring theirs to class.) When Cole comes home and doesn't know what the homework assignment is, he logs on to Facebook and asks his friends (at least that's what he says he's doing). Our son's algebra teacher even uses Twitter to remind students which problems they need to solve each week.

In fact, many Web tools can be used to help kids do their schoolwork, says Candace Lindemann, founder of the educational consulting company Naturally Educational (naturallyeducational.com) in New York. They can use Twitter to get instant access to experts, create their own social networks on sites like Ning.com or launch a blog to connect with students throughout the world. Even a notorious time waster like YouTube can be used productively.

"Say your kids are studying the issues surrounding pollution or human rights violations," Lindemann says. "In the past students would put together a presentation and stand up in front of their friends and maybe their parents. Today they can capture it with a webcam and upload it to YouTube. It impresses upon students why it's important to really know their stuff and be able to communicate it clearly. The kids understand if they get their message right, thousands of people can hear what they have to say, and they can make a difference."

Too Cool for School?

We were fortunate to find a school willing to explore new technologies. But not everyone is so lucky. Many shun Web tools because they often lack safeguards to protect against cheating, cyberbullying, inappropriate content, encounters with strangers and other abuses.

"Most social media tools are just that—for socializing," says Mary McCaffrey, CEO of TH(i)NQ Ed, which provides strategic online solutions for the education market. "Schools are excited about these options, but they have legitimate worries," she says. "Twitter, Facebook and other current options don't work well in an environment where concern for security and safety is paramount. We have an obligation to build engaging tools for students that connect them to the rest of the world, and to teach them the boundaries of appropriate conduct."

That's why many schools are turning to school-centric platforms that let students collaborate safely and securely. This year TH(i)NQ Ed (thinqed.com) plans to introduce what it calls a "learning networking tool" that lets teachers and students work together on projects in a secure environment. Another tool, ePals (epals.com), is already helping 25 million K-12 students share e-mail, blogs, videos, book recommendations and discussions with other kids around the globe.

High school students studying Chinese in the U.S. are collaborating with Chinese students learning English in Beijing via ePals, says company president Ed Fish. Middle schoolers in Missouri who are investigating the effects of natural disasters on people's lives are regularly communicating with survivors of earthquakes and tsunamis in classrooms in Turkey and the Philippines, respectively.

Your Homework Assignment

You don't have to convince your kids to try these Web tools—they're living online anyway. But you might have to persuade school administrators that social media tools can be safe and have real learning applications. The best way to get schools to adopt this technology is to use it yourself, says Fish, whose company offers free ePals accounts to individual parents, students and teachers.

"The greatest push will come from moms and dads saying, 'This is what my kids are doing at home—shouldn't they be able to do it at school too?'" says Fish. "If parents can say what their kids are doing is safe, effective and nonthreatening, and makes them want to continue learning when the school day is over, that can really work."

Unfortunately, many adults are overwhelmed by technology, says Tracey Mooney, chief cyber security mom for McAfee Security, and mother of three kids, ages 6, 13 and 19. "The parents don't understand technology and withhold it from their children," she says. "Then they freak out when they see their kid on someone else's computer. Or they just give in and allow access to everything without finding out what they should know." Instead, moms and dads need to be able to talk intelligently to their kids about technology, says Mooney. Sticking your head in the sand or leaving it up to your kids to learn the rules themselves is a recipe for disaster. "Parents would be smart to embrace any tool that might help their kids in school," says Lindemann. "Let's face it. Social media is here to stay."

Taming the Beast

Social media tools can be a huge time suck, for one thing—worse, they can provide great access for bullies or predators. To keep your kids safe:

1. Establish an ongoing conversation about appropriate behavior online. Sites like MySecureCyberspace (mysecurecyberspace.com) and iSafe (isafe.org) offer some good pointers. Then take the same approach governments apply to controlling nuclear weapons: trust but verify.

2. Be a silent friend on Facebook and other social networks. This allows you to see how your children are interacting without being in their business.

3. Use the social network's privacy settings to limit who can see what they post online. Facebook's newly revamped Safety Center (facebook.com/help/?safety) has helpful advice.

4. Try services like Online Family Norton (onlinefamily.norton.com, free) or software like McAfee Family Protection (mcafee.com, $40) or Net Nanny (netnanny.com, $40) to monitor which sites your kids visit, block the nasty ones and limit how much time they spend surfing.

5. Set up a Google Alert (google.com/alerts) to tell you when your children's names are mentioned on the Web, suggests Ian Lurie, author of The Unfun Parent. This can help let you know if they are being bullied or if nasty rumors are being spread about them.

Surf and Learn: Four Great Sites

Quizlet.com: Kids can create their own online flash cards for studying vocabulary or math drills, then share them with friends via Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. Started in 2005 by then-15-year-old Andrew Sutherland, the site now boasts nearly a million registered users. A basic version is free; a premium platform that lets users add their own images or record audio costs $10 a year.

Shmoop.com: A Cliff Notes for the iPod generation, Shmoop offers quick synopses of literary classics, history, art and more, filled with clever pop cultural references. Study guides can be viewed on a PC, an Apple iPod or an e-book reader like Amazon's Kindle for fees ranging up to $5.

Ning.com & Grou.ps: Teachers can easily create social networks specific to their classrooms where they're able to control who joins and monitor group activities. These sites are very popular with tech-savvy educators, says Greg Limperis, CEO of the Professional Learning Network.

Storybird.com: Lets students build beautifully illustrated storybooks by dragging and dropping artwork and adding text. Users can even invite others to collaborate. Creating electronic stories is free; print options (still being developed at press time) will cost money.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.