A friend of a friend of a friend

August 4, 2009

About the time I started to use the Internet (1995), the phenomenon of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (SDKB) was in its infancy.  SDKB is a party game in which an actor is named and the goal is to determine the smallest number of links back to Kevin Bacon.  15 years later, and I bet this could be a Facebook application for Facebook users.  The rise of the social network has lead to a surge in the number of users interacting through social networks.  According to Fox (2008), there are over 10 million Facebook users in Canada.  Of that 10 million, around 25% are teenagers.  These teenagers are in our classroom and using this technology on a daily, if not hourly basis.  With this much exposure by students to a social media, the question raised by educators must be, what role does social networking play in the classroom?

Tran (2009) argues that social networking websites will provide teachers with a new way of communicating with and between students that will promote learning in a relevant way.  With such a high percentage of school aged students using tools such as Facebook, it seems only natural that the use of these technologies in the classroom be forthcoming.  The ability to interact with like minded individuals within your community or external to the community is a very powerful concept.  Not only is conversation amongst the individuals a natural progression, linking of “friends” creates opportunities for more learning to take place.

Let me give you just a small example of what I mean.  I took a PD course through the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium (ERLC) this past school year on SmartBoards.  The session was very informative and the instructor provided the participants with a website address for a social networking page that had been created so that all participants in each of the sessions could engage in conversation and learning.  I joined the site which was built using Ning software and then posted to my facebook page an update status message that indicated I had joined the site.  From these status messages, two friends from facebook, both of whom are educators joined the site as well.  One friend is a coworker from school; the other is my cousin who is a teacher in the Cayman Islands.  This is but a small but powerful example of how social networking can provide links to new learning.

When I begin reading about a topic or following the Trailfire links, I am constantly thinking about how the information I am gathering could be used in my classroom.  For this topic, I chose to see how a social networking tool like Ning could be used in the science classroom.

Ning – [What is a Ning?]

I felt that creating a social network on Ning was a safer alternative to other social networks such as Facebook or MySpace.  These websites are highly populated by internet users and marketing is a major component of the sites.  I understand the learning curve would be smaller if a webbased classroom prescence was  hosted in Facebook or MySpace as students have spent time using the applications.  However, due to the extremely high level of popularity of these sites, there are multiple add-ons and applications distributed by third parties that are less than appropriate.  To my knowledge, Ning does not have applications such as this [update: as I continued to search the applications that can be added, and most were productivity tools or design tools for the site – I did find a slot machine application and a bingo application]  As such, I felt that building a social network on a smaller scale would be more beneficial for all involved.  I already had a user name and password to the Ning website from my experience in the ERLC session, but the process for getting one of these is rather easy to do.  By entering the fields that are required and supplying an e-mail address, login instructions are given to the new user.  Once you have begun to search Ning as a user, there are opportunities through links to “create your own social network”.  By clicking on the link, the following process occurs:

  • Name the social network and give it an address.  Be careful when selecting an address.  When I did it, I spelled science with a silent H in the middle and had to go through the process again.
  • The next step involves selecting whether the network is public or private, giving the site a tagline and description and providing language and location information.
  • The second to last step in setting up the Ning is to select the features that you want on the site and the layout that you prefer.  Through drag and drop methods, features such as a forum, chat, a blog, music, pictures, video, and others can be placed in various locations within the design layout of the site.
  • The final step in the creation of the site, is to select a theme for the site.  There are over 50 pre-made themes, but once a theme is selected, specific colour details can be changed relatively easy.  For advanced users, there is even the option of changing the cascading style sheet for the page to add specific personal modifications to the look of the page.
  • The final-final step in the process is to select the launch button where you are taken to the site.

I was amazed at the simplicity and ease in order to make a site.  Teachers often discuss their lack of technological ability or lack of time when choosing not to use technology.  Setting up this site was so easy; the ability to read, type and click was really all that was needed.  To see what I created, click here.

Once the site was set up, adding content was easy as well.  There is a large typewriter icon that you click on in order to add content.  A pop-up appears that allows you to invite friends, add pictures, videos, events, discussion items, blog posts or applications.  There are around 200 applications developed by Ning or third parties that can enhance the look and functionality of the Ning site.

The total process of creating the site was less that 15 minutes.  It took much longer to type and edit the process than to create the site the first time.

The site is set up, now what?

As you have seen, I decided to setup a Science 9 Ning.  In the top center of the page is a picture of a volcano.  Not only does the picture look cool and sort of matches the theme colours that I chose, the picture is being used part of a task that I would have students complete as a warm up exercise to get them looking at the textbook and interacting with the Ning.  By going to the photos section and looking at the page for the picture, they can see that I have asked the students to find a page number from the text that has content that related to the picture.  Once the students have found the page they think goes with the picture, they are to include an explanation why the picture and the content on the page are related.  The information is left in the comment section of the page and this can be the start of a discussion.

This is but one example of how the Ning can be used within the classroom.  This site could be combined with blog style posts to include lecture notes or combined with a wiki to allow for a class to develop an entire class set of notes.  Management information including homework that is due and quiz and exam dates can be included on the site.

But, what would excite me more than anything, is the development of the site for not only my classes, but to invite grade 9 students working on the same curriculum from different locations to the Ning site.  This would allow for interaction and sharing outside of the brink and mortar walls of our school for the mutual benefit of all students involved.

Realistic for the classroom?

I think that using social networking tools in the classroom could be a realistic venture.  The technological side of creating the site and adding content is easy and can be learned by anyone, despite their reluctance.  What I think is more relevant for discussion is the other skills that teachers require.  A few questions that come to mind when I think about the whole process:

  • Is participation in the social network by students mandatory?
  • How will they be assessed?
  • Do all of the students have reliable internet access at home?
  • Is there access for students at school? How often?
  • What rules are in place by the teacher, school, school district regarding the use of computers by students?
  • Are social networking sites allowed through the school internet filter?  If the site is not, does the teacher know what to do to get the site opened?
  • When will the teacher make time to update the site?  Have students use the site?
  • Will homework be given based on using the site?
  • Who will support the teacher if there are issues?
  • How will the school respond to this increased use of technology?
  • How will other teachers respond?
  • What will a teacher do if a student behaves inappropriately while online?

These are but a few questions and considerations that teachers need to deal with.  In working with technology, the teacher’s role changes.  Not only is the teacher a teacher, but the additional managerial roles complicate the matter.  More and more non-traditional tasks become the responsibility of the teacher when working with technology.  Over time, these will become traditional as technology continues to be incorporated into the classroom.

Social networking exists in many forms.  From Facebook to YouTube to Flickr to Twitter, the social aspect of the internet is here to stay.  There are concerns by the general public regarding student safety and I recognize that.  There is inherrent danger in anything that we do with students.  Is it more dangerus to play on the playground equipment or to use a social networking tool on the internet?  I would imagine more students are physically injured on playground equipment each year than in a computer lab or on the internet.  It becomes a question of risk vs. reward.  Do the social aspects of the internet with their potential risks get outweighed by the learning process or the collaborative approach to learning or the new media skills?  I believe there is a place for social networking.  I also believe the time is now for teachers to start getting involved.  Listed are a few sites that can help teachers get onto the social networking band wagon:

SocialNetworking4Teachers – wiki

TeachUsTech – Ning

How to use social-networking technology for learning – Edutopia article

EdTechPD Blog – blog


Fox, M. (2008, December 29). December facebook statistics – Canada Message posted to http://socialmediagroup.com/2008/12/29/december-facebook-statistics-canada/

Tran, L. (2009). Let’s get social. Teach, Spring(2009), 12 – 14.


  1. I also have some apprehensions regarding using site such as Facebooks and Myspace in the classroom. I created a Ning site for my school as I feel it is a safer alternative as well.

  2. Hi Dan,
    Glad to hear setting up a ning for classroom is so user-friendly. I too, have issues with internet filters at my school and I’m not sure if we have policy/guidelines in place for social networking or not. I’m wondering if a ning for educational purposes would be considered “social” or “educational or academic” networking instead?

    • IT is interesting that you raise a point about the term social. During my reading, I came across a comment from Vicki Davis who stated that we need to move away from the term social networking and refer to it as student-networking or teacher-networking. Social networking has negative aspects to it in educational environments. Hopefully, school and district administrations will see the benefit of the technology and encourage teachers to use it instead of using filter and blocking technology to keep it out of the classroom.

      • I like educational networking – several others have blogged about that for this assignment.

        I have never been able to imagine a way to use Facebook in a class/school setting where I would feel comfortable. I think it is important to separate social from learning and I think informal learning can take place in a class ning in similar ways to Facebook or MySpace.

        I think ning is a great possibility – I also think it should be allowed to evolve to meet the students’ needs – see Shirley’s blog.

  3. I liked your ning. I am wondering how a ning and a wiki are the same and different? I guess I am so new with both of these technology uses that I can’t quite see when one would be more appropriate than the other.

    • Ruth, remember that a wiki allows for changes in content. If I write that the confederation of Canada happened in 1900, you could come along and change that to be 1867. In a ning, it is a site that allows for the addition of content, but not the changing of content. A ning is more of a organizational network.

  4. I like the show don’t tell approach you are taking with the tools we are exploring Dan!

    Then ning does seem like an appropriate choice for K-12 and your’s is very good looking!

    ~:) Heather

  5. Dan, thanks for the introduction to Ning. This might be just the alternative to Facebook I was looking for. I have a feeling that some of my young adult students would prefer not to include me–their instructor–as their friend on Facebook, much as they would likely refuse to include their parents.

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