Networking it

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
Social networking sites can be hazardous for teachers. But, used appropriately, they can help you and your pupils

If you believe the critics, they're destroyers of friendships, relationships and personal privacy, tearing through your contacts book and exposing distant acquaintances to photographs of you drunkenly oiling male strippers on your best mate's hen night. But what if social networking websites could improve your job prospects, allowing you to share ideas, chase contacts and improve your image to prospective employers? The moral panic about social networking has been fierce, with many schools banning tools such as Facebook and Bebo. But should teachers be embracing them rather than reacting with mistrust?

Research commissioned by The TES in conjunction with LEK Consulting, strategy consultants, predicts teachers will be downloading more than 80 million resources from The TES online resource bank every year by 2012, saving more than 14 million teaching hours, freeing up teachers' time to do what they do best.

The poll of more than 4,000 teachers found that 42 per cent are too busy to meet colleagues, while 90 per cent felt their quality of lesson planning was compromised due to time pressures. The majority (84 per cent) felt that an online professional network would help them to share their ideas, regardless of time and place.

The suspicion around social networking sites is understandable though, given that they exploded on to the scene fairly rapidly in the late Nineties and quickly picked up users in the tens of millions. Facebook - arguably both poster child and scapegoat for the phenomenon - was founded at Harvard University in 2004 by a student. Since it expanded to all internet users in 2006, its value has grown to around $3.75bn (pound;1.95bn). Latest figures show that in June more than 132 million people visited Facebook.Bebo, the most popular site with teens, had more than 12 million unique users in the UK at the last count.

Numerous studies have highlighted the potential risks. A third of children have received unwanted sexual emails online and 4 per cent have been asked for explicit photos, according to research last year from the London School of Economics. This year's Byron report urged sites to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct to protect vulnerable teens. But what about unlocking the possibilities of social networking sites in the classroom?

Tim Fulford, assistant head at the independent Bootham School in York, thinks that allowing children to use social networking sites freely is the key.

He believes schools are shooting themselves in the foot by banning sites such as Facebook and Bebo, and at Bootham teachers actually break one of the cardinal rules of online networking - they befriend current pupils. "We actively encourage staff and pupils to keep in touch online. If children know we're looking, they're less likely to cause problems. I know local schools that have problems with pupils writing abusive stuff about staff on these sites, but I can say hand on heart we don't have that problem. I think our way is safer."

Tim checks the school's name and looks through pupils' sites once a week and will draw attention to problems, such as pupils giving away too much information, laying themselves open to unwanted attention or identity theft. He uses Facebook to keep in touch with his sixth formers about their work commitments and university applications, and has set up a Facebook group dedicated to last year's school trip to the First World War battlefields. "Pupils uploaded photos and turned it into a historical archive," he says. "And the great thing is that only members of the group can see it."

A more subject-specific use of online networking is showcased by Jenny Farn, head of music at Sheffield Park Academy. Her pupils take advantage of the facilities at music sharing website where they can upload self-composed music and comment on the work of classmates and peers. "You can make the music and upload it in an hour's lesson, then do a more detailed blog about it for homework," says Jenny. "Pupils love seeing their work online and they can show it to their parents."

But what about the pitfalls of social networking? After all, never a term goes by without some salutary tale of a teacher being disciplined for revealing too much amid the false privacy of a site such as MySpace. Last year, an American teacher was investigated for peppering his blog with rude comments about pupils and colleagues, and a psychology teacher from Manchester was sacked for sending "inappropriate comments" - although not of a sexual nature - to pupils via MySpace.

Most unions advise that members don't socialise with pupils via online networking sites. "If accusations are made against you later, then evidence on Facebook could create a false impression," says Andy Peart, deputy head of legal services at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. He also warns against uploading too many personal pictures.

Between colleagues and educators, the benefits of social networking have been barely explored. Nascent sites such as allow users to trade teaching tips and even post their CVs. This is a growth area, according to Dr Guy Merchant of Sheffield Hallam University, who has been involved in setting up the site. "You can publish your experiences, your interests and your training in an online portfolio," he says. "I see the use of these sites to further careers as being the next stage of development - it's quite exciting."

In business, the power of social networking is acknowledged, with schmoozing tool LinkedIn attracting 24 million registered users, and companies such as T-Mobile supporting its graduate recruitment schemes through Facebook.

David Lavenda, vice-president of marketing at WorkLight, a company that aims to integrate new technology in the workplace, says such sites are becoming a medium for growing professional networks and identifying job opportunities. By connecting with colleagues in other neighbourhoods, teachers can benefit from the aspect of personal recommendation that such websites bring.

One teacher who is exploiting Facebook to enhance her career is Karen Garner, a Year 6 teacher from the Shirley Warren Primary School in Southampton. She chats with teachers across the UK via the site and is a member of a Facebook group dedicated to sharing educational resources and commenting on colleagues' classroom displays. "You upload photos and share good practice," she says. "It's a great way to get to know people and a good place to let off steam when Sats time comes around."

So devil or darling, social networking is here to stay. Used with care it can be a powerful tool not only to engage pupils, but also to network with colleagues.

Facebook, friend not foe

Andy Osborn, a retired junior school teacher from Surrey, used Facebook to track down pupils he had taught over his 29-year career, setting up a group called "People taught by Andy Osborn."

After befriending a couple of former pupils on the site, within three months membership of his group had exploded to more than 100 as word spread.

"I found out that one chap I used to teach is a physiotherapist going to the

Olympics with the Swedish team, another is with the diplomatic service working in Iraq," he says.

"I've had many messages, mostly good. One child, who was never great at school, wrote that I was his favourite teacher. Another remembered the voices I put on when I read Nigel Hinton's Beaver Towers stories. I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to find out about pupils they've taught in the past."

Get connected

The TES has invested pound; 5 million in TESconnect - a new website where teachers can share resources and enjoy Facebook-style online networking.

On the site, which launched this week, users can create their own profile, build professional communities and upload lesson plans, while subject channels bring together resources, jobs and advice.

More than 200 teachers have been involved in the creation of the site, which is predicted to become one of the biggest professional networking websites in the world.

What to expect


A personalised homepage (below, right) with jobs in your subject area, resources you can use in your classroom and updates from your community.


Jobhunting will be easier with a new interactive map feature and job alerts. You can browse by position, subject and location and save shortlisted jobs.

Subject channels

To help you find resources, reviews and advice in specific subjects, we've added subject channels for primary and secondary teachers. There's also an online calendar to provide inspiration for assembly or last-minute lesson plans.


You can build a profile on the site. Tell the community who you are, what you teach, and where all your resources can be found.



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