Book Review - Taking the promise and perils of technology to task

19th February 2010 at 00:00

Social Network Websites, Their Benefits and Risks: A Guide for School Leaders

By Paul Haigh. Published in eBook form by Optimus Education (www.optimus-education.com).

A teacher sits in class, idly "tweeting" (writing short comments on the social networking site Twitter). She's musing on the students, and the school management. She doesn't name names, but parents easily recognise her from her tweets and can identify some of the children she mentions. There's instant outrage and a media storm.

The problem is, writes Paul Haigh, that "many teachers have not yet realised how public an activity social networking can be".

The pace of technological change, especially the wildfire spread of the internet, has left many teachers and school leaders feeling that they no longer know what's good, what's a waste of time, and what's downright dangerous.

Mr Haigh's task is to help them retrieve ownership of the issues, telling them in straightforward terms what the words mean, and where the dangers lie.

Most importantly, though, Mr Haigh, assistant headteacher for specialisms and innovation at Notre Dame High School in Sheffield, is keen that schools don't fail to take advantage of the considerable benefits for learning that are to be had from today's technology.

He writes: "I believe new technologies have the biggest potential, out of any of the tools we have, to personalise learning."

He starts by explaining the term "Web 2.0" - the way the internet, once just a big encyclopedia, has become a forum where everyone can debate, share and publish their ideas.

The educational possibilities of that are endless. Mr Haigh lists many of them - collaborative working and planning by students and teachers, online peer assessment, video, podcasting, parental engagement, authentic student voice, and "anytime, anywhere" working.

That said, the risks are real, as Mr Haigh acknowledges. He devotes a lot of his book to explaining them and showing how school leaders can sensibly react.

Some dangers are well known - ill-intentioned adults pretending to be children, or cyber-bullying, for example. There are others, though, whizzing in from left field, like the case of the tweeting teacher, that heads might not have thought of.

In another example, Mr Haigh describes how a student worked with the school's network manager, no less, to set up a "proxy site" from home in order to open up a website that they judged to be potentially useful but was blocked from the school system. "School staff were complicit in undermining the safety of students and the professional safety of staff, all because of an inflexible managed ICT service and a lack of understanding of the issues by school leadership," he writes.

There's a warning, too, for teachers to be cautious about their own use of social sites - not inviting students to join their own networks, for example.

What every school needs, Mr Haigh insists, is an "acceptable use" policy, within an overall approach that articulates "a pro-ICT ethos".

"The latest technologies must be adopted to keep pace, benefit learners and support teachers," he writes.

The book is timely, and as up- to-date as you'd expect from an eBook, available to download in both PDF and ePub formats. It will be an eye-opener for non-technical readers and a very useful summary of priorities for network managers and ICT leaders.

There's a useful glossary and a list of weblinks that includes further advice and stories, including the cautionary tale of the tweeting teacher.

Writer Gerald Haigh is no relation to the author.

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