From the “Building the Compelling Case Department” comes this piece in the Harvard Graduate School of Education magazine Ed. titled “Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with my Homework.” This is another one of those pieces you’ll want to print out, xerox, and put in your administrators’ mailboxes. (Yes, my cynicism gene is in full gear.) They will like it because a) it’s from Harvard (ooooohhh) b) it’s based on research (more ooooohhhs) and c) it’s from Harvard.

Seriously, there has been a run of these of late, articles by traditionally reputable institutions that advocate (gulp) the use of social networks by teachers. And lord knows we need them. I sat in on a recent presentation by a union representative who told teachers not to e-mail students individually. (Group e-mails were ok, however.) And, as I recounted earlier, I’ve been in a couple of conversations of late with teachers whose state associations are basically telling them not to even create a Facebook profile for fear of litigation. We could spend hours discussing the challenges here; I’d rather focus on the slight breeze beginning to blow at our backs, especially in this article. Here are some of the compelling points to highlight.

First, kids are already using these spaces to learn, though there are huge opportunities for us to teach them how to to do it well:

Greenhow has found a virtual creative writing boom among students spending long hours writing stories and poetry to paste on their blogs for feedback from friends, or creating videos on social issues to bring awareness to a cause. Far from media stories about cyber bullying, meanwhile, she found that most students use the medium to reach out to their peers for emotional support and as a way to develop self-esteem. One student created a video of his intramural soccer team to entice his friends to come to his games. Another created an online radio show to express his opinions, then used Facebook to promote a URL where friends could stream it live, and then used one of Facebook’s add-in applications to create a fan site for the show.

They are learning skills that will serve them well in the future:

The kind of skills students are developing on social networking sites, says Greenhow, are the very same 21st century skills that educators have identified as important for the next generation of knowledge workers — empathy, appreciation for diversity of viewpoints, and an ability to multitask and collaborate with peers on complex projects. In fact, despite cautionary tales of employers trolling social networking sites to find inappropriate Halloween pictures or drug slang laced in discussion forums, many employers are increasingly using these sites as a way to find talent. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited this spring in The New York Times found that more than half of employers now use SNSs to network with job candidates. The website CareerBuilder.com even added an application to allow employers to search Facebook for candidates. “Savvy users say the sites can be effective tools for promoting one’s job skills and all-around business networking,” says the Times.

No one, however, is teaching them how to use these tools well:

What was more surprising to her, however, is how few teachers were using the Internet at all — and even fewer were aware of, much less using, social networking sites, despite their heavy usage by students. “It is the kids who are leading the way on this,” she says. “They are forming networks with people they meet every day as well as people they have barely met. If we can’t understand what kids are doing and integrate these tools into a classroom, what kind of message are we sending them? I think we’ll see an even bigger disconnect than already exists.”

As such, the kids are asea:

Even so, with the exceptions like Theresa Sommers, few students were actually using these sites for the purpose they were ostensibly created for — namely, networking with strangers in their intended college or career field. “The networking aspects weren’t even on their radars,” says Greenhow, who argues for a role in educators and guidance counselors in nudging students to take advantage of these opportunities. “Kids are conceiving of reaching out to others outside of school, they are getting there. What teachers can bring from their mindset is the added value of networking.”

The solution? We have to suck it up and get our brains around this for ourselves:

If that is going to be possible, however, first teachers must learn from the students’ mindsets — that is, rolling up their sleeves and creating Facebook profile themselves.

Look, I know it’s starting to sound like a broken blog-ord around here, but this really is the only way to put it: The world is changing because of social web technologies. Our kids are using them. No one is teaching them how to use them to their full learning potential, and ultimately, as teachers and learners, that’s our responsibility. To do that, we need to be able to learn in these contexts for ourselves.

(Photo “Creating Networks” by carf.)