Walled Gardens and Social Networking

How Does Your Garden Grow?
After discovering and tending to a secret garden for a time, Mary Lennox declares, “I am writing in the garden. To write as one should of a garden one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden” (Burnett, 2011). Mary’s garden was a place where flowers bloomed, thorns yielded roses, and miracles occurred. To preserve its beauty, it was initially contained, protected, and ultimately kept secret. Once growing and flourishing again, it was then opened up for anyone to enjoy.

On the Internet, a walled garden is a protected browsing environment that controls information and websites a user is able to access. It is a closed system, one that the user is not able to leave without administrative privileges.

More schools are using closed systems as a protected middle-ground to teach social media skills to students within a safe environment. Schools generally fall on either one end or the other of the social media spectrum: unrestricted access allowing commercial social media services (like Facebook) or blocking all social media sites altogether.

Walled gardens are valuable option that should be explored in order to equip our students with vital 21st Century skills. They allow educators to teach students how to use social media in a safely monitored school-run environment, and parents are often relieved to see the school taking an active role rather than shying away from and fearing social media (Ross, 2011).

Open or Closed?
We all like unlimited options. No one likes to be told what he or she can or can’t do, especially online. We like the freedom to visit the websites we want, download what we want, and navigate freely. Our initial response: freedom is good.

This type of freedom, however, can be dangerous in a school setting, particularly in a K-12 environment. Even with filters and firewalls, students can inadvertently pull up an inappropriate site or become a target for child predators. Schools must take safeguards to reduce those chances, and many have chosen a walled garden (closed-system) approach. This allows students and teachers to work only within predetermined websites and environments.

It isn’t as bad as it might originally seem. Without realizing it, we have closed systems all around us. Our mobile phone provider places certain restrictions we must operate within.  Open vs. closed system is an age-old difference between Apple and Microsoft. Steve Jobs believed “that for a computer to be truly great, its hardware and its software had to be tightly linked” in order to give the user a controlled experienced (Isaacson, 2011, location 2559). This is what still distinguishes Apple devices and computers from Microsoft, Android, and other open systems.

In the classroom, using a closed system is better than no system at all, especially if students gain real-world skills they would not otherwise have access to at school.

Social Media
Navigating the use of social media in the classroom is a new terrain and one that makes administrators, teachers, and parents nervous. It is a tool with tremendous potential and real dangers. Yet, I believe it is wrong to throw it out altogether.

Reed (2007) stated that “tomorrow’s citizens must be global communicators, must be able to participate successfully in project-based activities, and must have collaborative skills.” In a 2007 report by Pew Internet, 55% of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites (Lenhart & Madden). I imagine that number has grown significantly in the past five years, especially since Facebook was still catching on.

Something bigger than themselves
Whatever one’s feelings are about the benefits or dangers of social media, it is obvious that students enjoy sharing, collaborating, and networking online and find it engaging or they simply would not do it (Picardo, 2010). Students value belonging to a collective network, something bigger than themselves.

Schools should harness this desire and enthusiasm and utilize the skills students already possess to benefit them in the classroom. “We are looking to see how we capture that energy and passion in school. Often when they move into school, the energy goes out of it. I think we have to find ways to capture that excitement and get them as engaged in school work as they are outside” (Bull et al., 2008).  Put another way, “Pedagogy, in my opinion, needs to reflect these social changes and conform to the needs and expectations of today’s students and, if we teach them in a way that mirrors how they live their lives when they are not in school, if we help to ensure that the gap between their school life and real life is minimized, we then become better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students” (Picardo, 2010).

In an article on how to use social networking for learning, Smith (2007) made a powerful suggestion: “Schools should reflect the world we live in today. And we live in a social world. We need to teach students how to be effective collaborators in that world, how to interact with people around them, how to be engaged, informed twenty-first-century citizens. We need to teach kids the powerful ways networking can change the way they look at education, not just their social lives. We don’t talk enough about the incredible power of social-networking technology to be used for academic benefit. Let’s change the terms. Let’s not call it social networking. Let’s call it academic networking.”

Walled Garden Approaches to Social Media
Walled gardens can be a valuable tool to engage students within a format they are familiar with: sharing, posting, commenting, and submitting. This approach “not only helps protect those who are the most vulnerable, but provides a safety net as parents and decision-makers become accustomed to a greater degree of interaction online” (Dawson, 2011). Even Google now supports walled gardens within Google Apps, allowing more privacy and security for students.

Fortunately, teachers have several options online to choose from that will create a walled garden approach in their classrooms.

  • Edmodo: mimics a Facebook interface that allows students and teachers to connect, engage, and learn both inside and outside of the classroom. Free for teachers and students.
  • Edu2.0: simple, powerful, e-learning platform for schools. Free plan with upgrades available.
  • Wikispaces: private, secure space for classrooms that allow students to showcase their work, collaborate, share their findings, and interact. Email addresses of students are not required for sign-up. Free for teachers and students.
  • Flickr Groups: share content and conversation, privately or with the world. Best for sharing photos and videos.
  • Diigo for Educators: social bookmarking. Collect and organize anything, access from anywhere. Great resource to share research with each other, highlight online readings, follow related topics.

Reaching out through global communities
Even from within a walled garden, children can be connected to the world, because “if you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden” (Burnett, 2011). Global networks and communities have tremendous power to “promote global learning, provide cultural understanding, and build relationships. Educators need to find ways to connect students from different parts of the world so that they can learn together, share knowledge and develop cultural understanding and relationships.” (Reed, 2007). These websites offer plentiful ideas for classroom integration:

  • Global Collaboration Ideas: How to create a world of success without leaving your classroom
  • Always learning: How to connect your students globally
  • Curriki: empowering educators to deliver and share K-12 curricula
  • LearningTimes: Create powerful and memorable learning experiences online
  • One World Youth Project: links schools around the world to build a generation of discerning, empathetic and empowered global citizens
  • iEARN USA: Learning with the world, not just about it

As teachers embrace social media and social networking possibilities rather than shy away from them, students will be better equipped in 21st Century skills both inside and outside of the classroom. They will be more enthusiastic, more engaged, and more responsible digital citizens. Using a walled garden approach, if designed wisely and well, allows students and teachers a safe environment for learning.

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles” (Burnett, 2011).

Additional Resources:

  • Edutopia: Social networking: their space
  • OnlineUniversities: 100 inspiring ways to use social media in the classroom
  • Slideshare: Social, Professional, and Academic Networking: Ready for School?
  • Safety First: Infographic on social media and securing your kid’s safety
  • In Their Words: A YouTube video on using Web 2.0 and social networking at an online high school

Bull, G., Thompson, A., Searson, M., Garofalo, J., Park, J., Young, C., & Lee, J (2008).
Connecting informal and formal learning: Experiences in the age of participatory
media. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(2). Retrieved
from http://www.citejournal.org/vol8/iss2/editorial/article1.cfm
Burnett, F. H. (2011). The Secret Garden. Simon & Brown.
walled garden. (n.d.).Webopedia. Retrieved from http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/W

Dawson, C. (2011). Google gives schools, organizations “walled garden” approach to
email. ZDNet Education. Retrieved from http://www.zdnet.com/blog/education
Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle.). Simon & Schuster.
Lenhart, A., & Madden, M. (2007). Social networking websites and teens. Retrieved
from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Social-Networking-Websites-
Picardo, J. (2010). Microblogging: making the case for social networking in education.
Retrieved from http://www.boxoftricks.net/2010/02/microblogging-making-the-case-
Reed, J. (2007). Global Collaboration and Learning. EdTech Magazine. Retrieved from

Ross, P. (2012). Social media education in schools – The walled garden approach.
CAIS Commission on Professional Development. Retrieved from

Smith, F. (2007). How to use social-networking technology for learning. Edutopia.
Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/how-use-social-networking-technology