A long time ago, technology use was limited in grade schools around the country. Students were not allowed to use cellphones or iPods within the confines of the classroom. Fast forward to 2012, and all of that has changed. Students walk around the halls of New Canaan High School with their phones on and Facebook pages updated.

Upon his arrival, new principal Dr. Bryan Luizzi said it was an adjustment to have students being able to access everything so freely, as it was not the case at his previous school. But, thus far, he has not found any issues.

"It seems to be that the kids can move seamlessly between paying attention in class and stepping into the hall and checking their email or Facebook page," he said.

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"So I think the freedom in terms of what they can access was a surprise, and then the fact that if they don't have a class, they don't have to report anywhere, and I don't have to worry that they haven't reported to some particular place."

Luizzi said he hadn't experienced this type of freedom at previous schools.

"Right now, as far as I can tell, it plays out very well," he said. "Kids go where they are supposed to go and do what they are supposed to do when they are supposed to do it. It doesn't seem to interfere. So it is exciting to see adolescents stepping up in a responsible way with the freedom that they have."

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mary Kolek says the school has attempted to get proactive with social media while also carefully understanding it's negative aspects.

"I think as with many things concerning technology, social media is an extraordinary opportunity for us, as a school district, to explore. Social media and Facebook explores the ability for collaborative learning and communication. We understand that they can connect with their subjects and peers in a way that basically extends the classroom," Kolek said. "On the other hand, we know that with anything that is positive, we have to due diligence in terms of understanding where the challenges might be and having clear policies. I think we do that. We have an acceptable use policy. We use this as an opportunity to instruct the students and safe use."

Kolek also said a large concern of the administration is to make sure parents are connected and aware about the social media aspect as well. Kolek said the district sponsors many workshops throughout the year for parents to attend and understand the medium better.

"We provide our parents with education around this and the opportunity to work with this," Kolek said. "We have an approach of educating and giving them guidelines for practice"

As far as educators go, Michelle Luhtala, a librarian at the high school media center, hopes that social media is used more proactively and aggressively as a tool for students in the future.

"Social media is here to stay," Luhtala said. "So we really need to teach kids to use it well."

Luhtala explained how businesses and universities are using social media in many different ways and how it has become a part of the professional world. A world she says educators are trying to prepare students for.

"We need to show them how important it actually is to use constructively and not as a distraction," she explained. "As impractical as it may be for educators, it can be really useful tool for collaboration and discussion."

She says using Facebook as a platform for group discussion and project give students a level of familiarity not found elsewhere.

"It's a platform they are already accustomed to having conversations on. If we set up an artificial place for them to do the same thing, it might not have the same allure," she said. "Using Facebook makes it simple for them and really draws them into the conversation."

Rob Miller, director of technology for the school district, did his dissertation on social media and education at Northcentral University and found some interesting results from the studies he conducted there.

"We found that when you put students on Facebook and ask them to use these tools, they began developing other ways to use these tools to support their own learning. They started to develop inter-class groups to support each other," Miller said. "They began projects with other classes and began using the walls to post questions to a teacher. They even began to understand the difference between public and private communication. They would post questions they thought would be appropriate for the entire class to hear and privately messaged other things that were deemed appropriate in that manner."

Miller said in his studies he found that teachers were able to get to know their students in a different way through Facebook.

"Some students are not necessarily comfortable with speaking to their teachers face-to-face, and Facebook was an advantage for them," Miller said. "Teachers were able to help some students, through social media, with their behavioral and personal problems."

Echoing Luhtala's thoughts, Miller said it is essential for students to understand every aspect of social media before entering the real world as professionals.

"The more we can put students into that world now, the better we are preparing them for it," Miller said. "Isn't that part of our job? These are essential 21st century skills that they must learn to us reliably, responsibly, legally, ethically and morally."

Miller said there is an advantage to not blocking sites like Facebook for students, something many other districts around the country do.

"We don't want Facebook and other tools to be a big taboo," Miller said. "When we are using these tools in the classroom, we talk about the implications of posting and things like that. Students are educated on how to use it properly and to their benefit. When schools block them, students react in a very rebellious way that encourages them to use the tools in a misguided way. Here in New Canaan, it is part of what they use everyday and it doesn't become an enticing thing for them do something bad in."

New Canaan High School senior Michael DeMattia agrees with Miller on the benefits of social media in the classroom.

"I think we have a unique set of circumstances here at the high school and New Canaan. We are an open-range school which means the sites are not blocked," he said.

"Approaching it from that open stance, we see that we can utilize Facebook to collaborate on projects, plan sporting events and theater events. I have done some work with the drama department and we were able to post little preview video clips and behind the scene stuff before the debut. It really has become a part of how we do work. My entire English class was on a Facebook group where we were able to share links on topics we were working on. The discussion was able to move in a direction that was dictated by collaboration over time as opposed to one direction dictated by the teacher. It was great."

pjha@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; www.twitter.com/pjhancnews