When Lexington 1 science teacher Heather Brothers goes on maternity leave in January, she will still be part of her students' learning.
She will be leaving behind an online, social media presence that allows her middle schoolers to access short video lectures and ask questions of her.
"I'll be able to keep tabs on the class and see how things are going," said Brothers, who teaches science at Meadow Glen Middle School.
Brothers is among a growing number of Midlands teachers who interact with students via social learning technology platforms such as Edmodo, ), uploading video podcasts of lessons that might have been offered in the past as classroom lectures.
Educators are embracing social media and learning sites, from Edmodo and Facebook, to Wikis and Twitter, as part of curriculum development, said USC education professor Cheryl Wissick, who teaches about technology applications in regular and special needs classrooms.
"I think as far as teaching, we want to use social media, Wikis and blogs to train teachers to use them in the classroom," said Wissick, who has worked with teachers to develop web-based applications for students with mild and moderate disabilities. "Teachers want to know how to teach their students about social media."
As sharing sites proliferate, Wissick said teachers realized "we can learn more collectively than individually and that is why it is here to stay."
Brothers learned about Edmodo as a secure social learning network for iteachers, students and parents in a webinar two years ago and quickly saw its value for her science students. Soon she found herself demonstrating its effectiveness to district officials and spreading the word to other Lexington 1 teachers.
She created video podcasts of her lectures last year using an Apple MacIntosh and Camtasia software. Now she is using an iPad issued by Lexington 1 and an app Explain Everything for lessons.
Brothers operates a "flipped classroom." She posts traditional lectures online so that students can access them anytime. After they have absorbed the material at home, Brothers uses her class time for hands-on lab activities, she said.
"We can do a ton of lab activities and a lot of group collaboration," said Brothers, who is now in her fourth year of teaching in Lexington 1. "They can get more personalized learning."
In Richland 2, more than 1,400 teachers now use Edmodo and most students have accounts as well, said Donna Teuber, the district's technology integration coordinator.
Once teachers learned they could post assignments, share content, create student groups to collaborate on projects and communicate with students, parents and other teachers "our numbers just skyrocketed," she said. "Teachers just liked it so much."
One of Edmodo's biggest advantages, Teuber said, is its flexibility in creating online conversations among students and teachers but within a controlled environment. It also integrates with Google Docs, a free online document service that allows a user to create, access and store documents.
Facebook and Twitter, social networks favored by students to communicate and socialize with each other, are more open and can be subject to abuse.
While some teachers do use Facebook, "it is not the safest environment for teachers to communicate with students," Teuber said.
At the college level, Wissick has found professors will create a professional Facebook page to communicate with students while maintaining a personal Facebook page to share information about their family life with relatives and friends.
The proliferation of social media and social learning sites, as well as smart phones, virtually guarantees that information gathering doesn't stop when the 3 p.m. bell rings.
At A.C. Flora High School in Richland 1, junior Salley Reamer said she routinely communicates by email with teachers and in one class, the teacher used Twitter to post assignments. Reamer and others on the school's award-winning math team have an online forum to work on difficult math problems among themselves and with their coach.
Brothers, the Lexington 1 teacher, routinely answers emails well into the evening from students, although she usually turns off her phone at 10 p.m.
Even with a small child at home and another on the way, Brothers doesn't mind the nightly interactions with students who are stumped by a problem or have a quick question on her lecture.
"If, for some reason, they do a lab at home, with Edmodo they can quickly message me and ask me to help them," she said.
With the explosion of social networking sites and smart phones that keep everyone plugged in at all hours, school districts have had to revise their human resources policy manuals to deal with evolving technology.
Richland 2, Lexington-Richland 5, Lexington 3 and Kershaw County, for instance, don't restrict social networking during non-school hours although it is blocked on the districts' networks, a typical stance among Midlands districts.
But districts set guidelines for how employees should conduct themselves in their off hours.
"The personal life of an employee, including the employee's personal use of non-district issued electronic equipment outside of working hours (such as through social networking sites and personal portrayal on the Internet), will be the concern of and warrant the attention of the board if it impairs the employee's ability to effectively perform his/her job responsibilities or if it violates local, state or federal law or contractual agreements," Kershaw County states in its updated employee conduct section. "Unprofessional conduct may subject the employee to disciplinary actions consistent with state law, federal law and/or board policy."
That's virtually word-for-word what Richland 2's employee manual states.
Brothers said being available to help her students in their learning is a good thing.
"You feel that you care more about them and that learning is 24/7 and not just in school."
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