Parents (and more than few teachers) tend to freak when they hear the phrases “social network” and “learning activity” in the same breath. MySpace and Facebook have done that for us. But when you consider the potential power of the software behind web-based social networking tools, you begin to look past the content of the scary sites you’ve heard so much about and start thinking, “There’s a huge teaching opportunity here.”

There are a number of social networking tools out there that educators are finding useful as they develop virtual learning environments for students. One attractive possibility is the free NING platform, which allows anyone to create a virtual community with MySpace-like functions. We’re seeing both student and teacher applications of this web-based service (which can be made private and safe from outside visitors) — including a network for teachers interested in cross-collaboration across state and national boundaries.

There’s also Teen Second Life, which we’ve mentioned here before, which combines aspects of social networking with a video-game like environment.  But sites like NING and Second Life can still make teachers nervous, especially folks in the elementary grades.

Here’s a wonderful solution. The Oracle Foundation (supported by Adobe Corporation) has created Think.Com as a safe environment for elementary teachers and kids to network together online and to reach out to other students and classrooms around the world. The free service allows teachers to help students establish safe email addresses and use websites and interactive tools to publish their ideas, collaborate on projects, and build knowledge together.

A member of our TLN team recently visited a small elementary school in rural Alabama (PK-4) where third and fourth graders were instant-messaging and sharing work with schools in the United Kingdom and Europe. Talk about excited! And the kids were totally adept at using the Think.Com interface. We’d love to see more and more classrooms involved in this smart use of the social networking idea.

By the way, Oracle Foundation also supports the popular ThinkQuest international competition in which teams of students (often in more than one state or country) develop high-order online projects for sharing and judging. Here’s a 2007 prize winner from the same Alabama elementary school we mentioned above.

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