This school year, the students in Robert A. Miller’s 5th grade class at Port Orange Elementary School in Florida have been chatting with historical figures. They’ve given Thomas Jefferson advice on how to write the Declaration of Independence and touched base with Benjamin Franklin. In early spring, they had conversations with explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as the duo made their way west. The explorers sent back detailed descriptions of prairie dogs and the sights they saw on their travels. Students had to restrain themselves from revealing to the explorers the pivotal role that the recent addition to their team—a pregnant Native American woman named Sacagawea—would play.
Students are having conversations with those celebrated figures (played by Mr. Miller), as well as each other and their teacher, using the social-networking site Edmodo, which is designed specifically for use in schools. “It makes learning more interactive” Mr. Miller said. “It’s a way to extend the classroom after hours, but I’m also using it to present lessons.”
“This is a controlled environment,” Mr. Miller said of the San Mateo, Calif.-based Edmodo. “The teacher sets the parameters and can see everything, and there’s no messaging solely between students.”
But even if networking sites are geared specifically to the classroom, they still must be considered carefully, educators say. Some charge a fee for their services; others collect data on their users and could use the data to inform advertisers. And schools need to investigate who owns the material that students post on such sites.
Even so, many educators say they feel more comfortable with a social network designed for education rather than the sometimes-murky environment of a site like Facebook.
“Everything is transparent,” said Andrea Keith, the implementation manager at Gaggle, based in Bloomington, Ill., which provides social-networking and other services to schools. “Teachers can be friends with students the way they never would on Facebook.”