DIY social networks for schools

Lucy Johnson outlines the benefits — and hazards — of using social networks for student engagement in her school

Social media can be a great tool for enabling student voice' in school. Which is why we started using the Ning social network platform a few years ago. Ning enables you to create your own network by configuring whatever social features you want: blogs, forums, profiles, activity streams, photos and videos.

Our test case was the school Eco Committee. Initially, we were bedevilled by privacy issues — that is to say, policy restrictions on how pictures of schoolchildren may be used on the internet. However, assisted by Rhiannon Scutt, Head of Sustainability, our Ning has become a useful tool for enabling staff to keep in touch over a site that covers two postcodes, about a subject area that is not curriculumbased.

The topic is now under threat of becoming sidelined owing to government cuts in the sustainability agenda, so it is no longer compulsory for schools to deliver. Yet the headteacher's support (feeling that it reflects the Catholic ethos of our school) combined with the low overheads of running our Ning network means that it has survived.

We began paying for the service a year ago, to avoid having adverts on the site, which we felt was inappropriate for schoolchildren.

This kind of low-cost, flexible network infrastructure has tremendous potential to forge connections at a time when links and communication are increasingly necessary to support an ever more complex and fractured society. Though even these connections come with further complexities attached. The issue of intergenerational relationships is fraught with difficulties as teachers and students reach out online in ways not easily governed by institutional procedures.

We have struggled with the lack of policy and strategy in dealing with these thorny areas. Simply declaring that these platforms, once classified as 'social networks', have to be gated from the school experience does nothing to address the very important issues that are arising around young people and their experiences of the public domain online. These tools are too important and too potentially powerful to ignore.