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Purdue program offers new way for students and teachers to communicate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 18, 2011 - Discussion of classroom learning and social technology are hot button issues, made even more so by the passage of the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act in Missouri. Under that law, "Teachers cannot establish, maintain or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian or legal guardian." (A previous Beacon story outlined the new law.)

School districts are crafting policies right now, and many of questions have been raised about what's permitted and what is not.

Missouri State Teachers Association regional coordinator Glenn Bussen said his group has received calls with questions about the bill.

"What teachers need to know right now is that the law does not bar appropriate use of text messaging and social networking sites," according to the MSTA blog. "Schools will have to address the question of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate when they establish a policy that is required by this law."

But what if the website is open to parents and administrators? How might social media be a useful tool in the classroom?

Purdue University has been on the cutting edge of trying to bridge the gap of students and teachers using cell phones or other devices. Its work includes the development of a web application called Hotseat that will allow students to sign into their Facebook or twitter account and comment on a lecture or classroom discussion.

The teacher can decide to make the application public or private -- in the classroom -- by putting the application on a screen. Hotseat was developed internally at Purdue University as part of a program to see how educators could take a positive advantage of technology use in the classroom.

Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue, says that students can learn from their phones and laptops if the tools are right. "Hotseat will engage students," he said. "It takes the idea of what was once seen as distracting and make it a part of the classroom discussion."

Hotseat can help teachers by letting them see what the students are and are not understanding so they can adjust the lesson plans accordingly. "During our research we saw that student students are asking more questions than ever before but there's always been a distance between the instructor and the student," Bowen said.

This program may help turn the negative stereotype of social media devices in the classroom around, giving the student a better chance at engaging with classroom material.

Glenn Barnes, a social studies teacher at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy in St. Louis, thinks that technology use in the classroom is important in a digital age.

"Absolutely, it's something that I use every single day to teach; I've used smartboard, powerpoint, even a blog through Google blogspot," Barnes said.

The main concern for Barnes is that the school policy and technology program must all agree on what the boundaries are: "We need to know how to use it properly."

The new Missouri law causes some concern for Barnes, who says that educators in Missouri have to discern the difference between education and entertainment.

"There are two schools of thought: ban social media devices completely or allow them so that students can respond to a teacher's request," Barnes said.

Using technology at the high school level can create obstacles when everyone does not have equal access. Barnes says that he had to stop using his Google blog four or five years ago because it created a hassle for some students getting their assignments.

"I decided to just go back the old fashioned way of handing out assignments," Barnes said.

Bowen says Purdue has not tried it out the Hotspot program in the K-12 arena, but does see it happening soon, citing the impact it could have toward student achievement.

Barnes sees an importance in everyday classroom issues: "When asking questions, students don't want to come off as being smart or too dumb in front of their peers." Hotspot would let students ask questions without fear of ridicule.

"I think the St. Louis School District is making progress with parents, but I would like to see more technology used at multiple levels," Barnes said.

He believes that social media and other technology can be "a great benefit to the classroom." But the rapid change in tech has made use difficult for school districts and some teachers; and the Web and smart phones may be facilitating cheating on assignments.

But on the positive side, Purdue's Hotseat application aims to improve student success both inside and out of the classroom. The university is adapting Hotseat to work with other programs, such as Mixable, which uses Dropbox to deliver documents, and Need4Feed, which will highlight key words, linking relevant queries with Hotseat.

"I think these applications can help students maintain their level of privacy and to be comfortable to ask questions to learn," Bowen said. How to use them within the stricture placed on Missouri schools, and the less restrictive environment in Illinois has yet to be worked out. But the baseline is that universities are working to make social media a useful tool in the classroom.

Ray Carter, a senior at Purdue University, is a summer intern for the Beacon. Intern Allison Prang contributed to this story.

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