Before March 2009, Eric Sheninger viewed social media the way many principals do. He didn't think it would help students learn. Instead, he saw it as a hindrance to learning.
"I felt that it was more of a distraction to students than it was a tool for growth and development," said Sheninger, the principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey.
He only started a Twitter account to keep the community updated about school announcements. But by following other educators, he saw how they used tech tools that didn't cost them anything to keep students' attention.
And he realized that social media doesn't just involve Facebook and YouTube. Educators collaborate digitally and talk about education issues through Twitter chats such as Edchat.
Fast forward to today.
"Whether it be blogging, writing a book on social networking or helping other principals harness the power of these tools, my views have really gone 180."
Principals around the country have been changing their views on social and mobile tools. And in a position paper, the National Association of Secondary School Principals recently recommended that principals promote student learning through mobile devices and social media.
Keep reading to find out how three high school principals encourage students and teachers to use these tools for learning.
Students today are constantly texting and accessing Facebook and Twitter through their phones. And while schools may keep them off their school network, they still access these tools.
As mobile wireless networks become more popular, schools will have a problem with students bringing in a 3G network and having friends log on through it.
"I think it is kind of futile to control all of that," said John Robinson, principal at Newton Conover Health Science High School in North Carolina, who wrote a blog post about the six steps recommended by the principals' association. "I think instead a better route to take would be to teach them how to be responsible with that."
The tools are not the problem. The problem is irresponsible behavior. And schools need to help students engage responsibly instead of banning the tools.
Ultimately, principals need to become users and explorers of social networking instead of banning it.
"It's easy to ban something you don't understand."
But once principals start getting into tools like Twitter and Facebook, they see the possibilities. And in daily interactions with students, they can model appropriate use of those tools, which the principals' association recommends in its position paper.
Robinson runs the school's Facebook and Twitter accounts as well his personal accounts. Through his personal accounts, he connects with educators everywhere and shares ideas.
Principal Dave Meister uses Twitter, blogs and skypes with other educators. If a student or teacher asks him something, he tweets it out to his network. Within 5 minutes, he sees 15 opinions or answers.
"I don't have to be the expert," said Meister, the principal of Paris Cooperative High School in Illinois. "I've got a bunch of experts that go with me everywhere I go."
Last year, a principal garnered national media attention for asking parents to keep their kids off social networks. During that time, Meister posted a video blog that spoke out against banning social media.
Both parents and schools have a responsibility to lead and model appropriate use of social media. If they don't, students won't be prepared to use social media responsibly in the real world.
A senior who graduated this year emailed Meister about what parts of school worked or didn't work for him. And at the end, he said that Meister understood how kids think about school. And he knew that because he reads his blog.
In addition to modeling mobile and social technology use, principals should strive for a 1:1 device ratio in their schools, the association recommends. And that includes student devices.
At Newton Conover Health Science High School, students bring their own devices and access open air WiFi, which is filtered to a degree. Teachers use Facebook and Twitter to connect with students. And while school computers still block these types of sites for students, Robinson is working with district administrators to open up more access.
At New Milford High School, students bring their devices as well and access the school's wireless network. A year ago, you wouldn't see teachers or students using mobile devices. But now, the teachers have Sheninger's blessing to ask students to bring their phones to class to learn.
At Paris Cooperative High School, students come from relatively poor areas. But 40 to 50 percent of them have smart phones in their pockets. That's a computer that the school isn't taking advantage of, Robinson said.
Two years ago, the high school didn't allow them to have their phones at all. Now students can use their phones outside of class or when teachers say they can have them out to create videos and research.
Meister will be encouraging teachers to incorporate more of the students' technology down the road. And for those who don't have mobile devices, the school probably has enough laptops for them to use.
Next year, the student council at Paris Cooperative High School will move away from a social planning group to more of a student government. The students on the council will create an acceptable use policy and pledge of how they'll use social media.
At New Milford High School, Sheninger meets monthly with members of the student government. They talk about what they could do to change the culture of the school. And one time they started talking about technology.
The students told him, "We know you love Twitter, but if you want to connect with us, you need to get on Facebook." They said he should create a Facebook page for the school, and that's what he did. He carries on informal discussions with them.
And he also stops in to talk to students at lunch. He's asked them, "If I give you more freedom during the school day, how would you utilize it as a tool for learning?"
"I see the shift that we're making is more in line with where the students' interests lie."
While students haven't addressed policy issues yet, they're taking baby steps in that direction. And behind the scenes, they're pivitol. They email Sheninger and talk with him about what they're seeing in school.
While cyberbullying and sexting have grabbed headlines over the past year, principals should not be afraid of what students will do with wireless access. Schools, leaders and districts are using social media to enhance communication, establish a branding presence and find opportunities for students to talk with experts.
"We can't sit back any longer and hide behind these excuses."
Instead, principals should look at what other schools are doing and make sure training programs are in place before opening up social media to their schools.
Along with modeling responsible technology use and empowering students to bring their own devices, principals should provide professional development so teachers can use mobile devices and social networks effectively, the association recommends.
At Robinson's school, the teachers are high-tech. They just need their principal to provide support and funding for tools like Glogster, which he provided for every student this year.
Instead of organizing formal professional development, these educators learn informally from each other. And that's worked the best with his staff.
For example, last summer Robinson sent an email to a key teacher about Edmodo. He said the tool was a safe alternative to Facebook.
"Needless to say, after he started using it, every one of our teachers is on Edmodo on a regular basis."
For principals with teachers who aren't comfortable using social media, he recommends giving them access to tools and the support they need to engage. Also, be willing to find funding for something they want to do.
"The key thing is to keep modeling what it does for you and what it does for instruction."
Some teachers will still resist technology even after you try to convince them of its benefits. And at some point, you may have to take administrative action.
Teachers who struggle with technology aren't graded down because of it at Paris Cooperative High School. But Meister does look at their use of technology in formal and informal evaluations. And he encourages them to use it.
This year, he started sending out faculty meeting agendas in Google Docs and asked faculty members to add to it. The teachers who weren't comfortable using the documents came to him for help.
Through in-service meetings, train the trainer sessions and opportunities to use the technology, Meister gives teachers multiple opportunities to become comfortable.
And he also forced every teacher to use online tools to grade and plan lessons. With these online tools, parents can see the lesson plans every Monday, and teachers have become more comfortable using technology with students.
At New Milford High, Sheninger doesn't mandate use of social media or online tools. He makes tools available to his staff. And for the teachers who do embrace different tools, he provides them with support and resources. And that's his pivitol role.
From a formal standpoint, Sheninger has training sessions to help teachers. And he also directs them to online social networking sites like the Educators PLN ning, Classroom 2.0 ning and webinars focused on different areas.
Now teachers are blogging and creating Google Sites. And through social media, the school promotes the great things that are going on at a time when a lot of education news is negative.
"When we made the changes and we opened up our eyes and minds, we really did see positive changes in our school culture."
Using Mobile and Social Technologies in Schools Position paper from the National Association of Secondary School Principals
Time to Toss Out Cell Phone Bans and SM Filters and Be True Technology Leaders Blog post by John Robinson about the six steps.
Banning Social Media is not the Answer Blog post by Dave Meister in response to a principal who garnered national media attention by asking parents to ban social media.
Small Changes, Huge Results Blog post by Eric Sheninger that shares the changes he's made over the past few years in instruction, communication and learning at his high school.