Did you know that you're old?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlights the rapidly evolving nature of student communication. The question is, what can we learn from them?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I just finished reading an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education called "Email is for old people." Being an email junkie myself, I suddenly realized that, in computer years, I'm old. So being a proactive sort of guy, I started thinking about this whole email vs. MySpace vs. IM vs. SMS vs. whatever new cool technology I'm not using issue and realized that we may actually be able to take a lesson from our students.

The article itself focused on efforts at several colleges to reach out to students through a variety of media since most tended to ignore their student email accounts (or at least the emails from their colleges). The schools have had varying degrees of success setting up MySpace pages, broadcasting messages to student cell phones, creating web portals, and instant messaging with students.

While this is all well and good at the university level, it brought two questions to my mind:

  1. How can we use some of these technologies to communicate better as teachers in a K-12 community?
  2. How can we safely and appropriately use some of these technologies to enhance our communication with students in a K-12 setting (particularly in secondary education)?

Let me tackle the second question first. I bring up the issue of safety and appropriateness because recent headlines have shown us just how many problems can be encountered through online communication with underage folks. Similarly, MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites really have no place in a K-12 setting. There are simply too many opportunities for kids to go places they shouldn't go, particularly in any way sanctioned by a school. Finally, most of us ban cell phone use in school, so blasting SMS content to our students probably isn't such a hot idea either.

So how do we reach our students effectively, safely, and in a way of which parents, teachers, students, and administrators will approve? MySpace-like sites, social networking sites, and web portals built and hosted exclusively for a school may actually hold the answers to both questions above. In fact, it's remarkably easy to add blog, message board, and chat functionality just to my basic $3/month website that I have for myself.  Imagine what a solid ISP could potentially provide?  Or some determined students?  Or a computer science/technology department.

I've recently been approached by a number of so-called "content management" vendors who earn their money putting together sites just like this, which are easily maintained, encourage user input and interaction, and make it very easy for teachers, students, and parents to communicate in a variety of ways online.  While hardly free, most of these services seem to offer turnkey solutions addressing many of the needs noted above.

I'm not suggesting that we abandon email altogether here.  Email has a place and remains a valid substitute for many written documents.  However, if emails aren't reaching their target audiences, then we need to look elsewhere.  Lots of teachers already instant message with students for homework help, but what if this chat functionality were hosted on school servers and could therefore be documented and school-sanctioned?  This would offer a high degree of protection for students and staff, while allowing for easy, convenient communication. 

Many of these content management solutions, as well as the homegrown solutions I could envision, also allow students, staff, clubs, departments, etc., to customize their homepages, easily post homework or share files through electronic dropboxes, and view relevant information through the web portal model.

Similarly, the social networking model, whether implemented in all of MySpace's glory or through some well-controled school web portal, encourages a sense of community among teachers as well.  As we all seek to standardize curricula, meet learning standards, and otherwise meet student needs better, an easy method of communication and collaboration for teachers, staff, and administrators could offer a real advantage. 

There are countless possibilities out here, many of which can be cheaply and easily implemented.  Many of these will not only encourage communication and really smart use of technology, but also provide a safer environment than the MySpace pages and AIM sessions to which many educators are turning to reach students.  Any experiences, positive or negative, that any of you have had with alternatives to email and static web sites as communication media would be much appreciated - talk back below.

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