By MARY POLETTI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- For Stephanie Utterback, it was love at first sight.
The sixth-grade reading and English teacher at Hannibal Middle School was set to attend a conference last year for technology educators in Missouri, where she would learn about Edmodo, a Facebook-like social networking tool for classrooms.
"When I came across (Edmodo's) website, I couldn't wait for the workshop," Utterback said. "I went ahead and did it."
Now a seventh-grade computer technology teacher at the middle school, Utterback is leading the charge among Hannibal's seventh-grade teachers to adopt Edmodo, which has revolutionized the way she and her colleagues communicate with students.
The school's use of Edmodo, a secure site that is geared specifically toward students and teachers, comes at a time when educators and lawmakers around the state are grappling with the implications of teachers' use of Facebook and other social networking websites.
The Missouri Legislature earlier this year passed a law that included a provision restricting online communications between teachers and students, forbidding one-on-one communications between them on Facebook and similar websites. Although that part of the law was repealed during the legislature's special session that ended last month, it put many school districts around the state on guard about social media interactions between students and employees.
That was one of the chief concerns when Utterback approached Principal Ken Treaster about implementing Edmodo.
However, the site's unique privacy approach won them both over.
"Because of the openness with parents, it fits within the parameters of the bill," Utterback said.
Each Edmodo network is open only to the class that's using it. The teacher can communicate with students and vice versa, and students can communicate with one another.
What's more, parents receive an access code that allows them to see only what their own child and the teacher post.
Utterback said that's given parents more lead time on class, grade and school announcements, as well as upcoming assignments so parents are better equipped to help their kids with homework.
Students also are able to take assignments home via a virtual "backpack" feature on Edmodo.
They're able to ask Utterback and one another questions directly via the website, even from home. Instances of inappropriate conduct on the site are punished with bans of varying lengths. In a presentation to the Hannibal School Board last month, Utterback said she'd experienced only one such incident this year.
Perhaps most innovative, Utterback, her students and parents all receive emails and text messages when anyone posts to the class' site, including when grades are posted.
"I grade a paper, they get a text message," Utterback said. "It's opened up a whole new world of communication, especially between me and the students. ... We're used to getting those immediate responses, and kids like being able to get those immediate responses."
Utterback isn't aware of any other local school district using Edmodo. At Hannibal Middle School, all but one seventh-grade teacher are using Edmodo to varying extents, and two sixth-grade teachers have adopted it, as well.
As for parental approval, Utterback knows of parents who won't allow their children to have Facebook but have allowed them to sign up for Edmodo, with its secure mix of academic uses and social interaction.
"It's very safe social media for the kids," she said. "You hear so much about the negatives, and I feel like this is a site that is very safe."