Sunday, June 04, 2006

Educational Blogging vs. Social Networking

Most people (OK, most adults) don't know the difference between "blogs" and "social networking" sites.

Blogging is the posting of journal-like pages to a website. While these pages can contain photos or media, they are primarily focused on the easy ability to post written thoughts to a website. The postings are organized chronologically. Typically, a blog "post" can be "commented" on by others, allowing for a dialogue on a the topic of the post. Teachers and educators have used blogs to allow for what is commonly called "peer review," meaning that students can post writings or assignments to the web, and other students can respond or encourage through the comment feature.

Social networking sites, while they include the ability to post written material to the web, revolve much more around the ability of an individual to build a web "presence" and to create visible links with others in the network. What writing there is on a social networking site is often in computer slang, intended to be "different." These sites often allow the ability to place music, photo, and video content on the site, allowing the individual to showcase their likes and dislikes. A form of text messaging is often included as well, with a history of the messages appearing on the site. Again, all of the features of social networking sites are intended to create social interactions with others.

Many parents understand the appeal of social networking sites, as they are used to the lengths that youth will go to receive attention--whether positive or negative. Our individual needs to be acknowleged, to be valued, and to be part of a group are heightened during teenage years. Social networking sites provide a fast and effective way to give and receive attention, and not all of it appropriate. Because technology often provides a perceived buffer from regular consequences, people will say and do things through technology that they would not do face-to-face. If this is apparent with text messaging on cell phones, it seems even more glaring on social networking sites. Youth who do not have any real understanding of the dangers or consequences of certain behavior will often talk openly about sexual issues or post provocative pictures online. While this may sometimes reflect their actual behavior, it is believe that more youth are being provocative in order to gain attention--not realizing how dangerous this actually is.

Educational blogging takes advantage of the desire to express oneself and to receive feedback, but within the confines of the technology and the educational environment it is implemented in. And when done as part of a teacher- or parent-initiated program, educational blogging starts with the assumption that the teacher or parent will be actively watching the content and the dialogue. The ability to contribute, through posting content and comments to the web, in an academic discipline accomplishes something of significance: it gives youth a vision of their ability to add to the accumulated knowledge and understanding of the world.

Both social networking and blogging carry a risk of an "online predator" seeking to gain information about individuals through their online content. Blogging sites are relatively easier for parents or teachers to protect (and can often limit their ability to viewed to only to certain other individuals), but it does require thoughtful oversite and discussion to make sure that personal details are not divulged that would create risk (e.g., "today I went to my regular yoga class that I go to every Tuesday at 6:00 on Douglas Road..."). Blogging sites devoted to educational topics are less likely to carry this type of "journaling" content as well.

Social networking sites are accurately described as typically revealing personal details that would put a youth at risk of a predator. By their very nature, social networking sites are intended to create social connections. While there are many youth using social networking sites in responsible ways, such sites are just inherently revealing. Many parents are either unaware that their children have social networking "presences," or that these sites even exist.

Clearly, the best remedy for making sure that parents are comfortable with the online behavior of their children is awareness and oversight. And it would be a shame for the very real risks of social networking to discourage parents and teachers from active involvement in educational blogging.

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