networks on Ning, and MySpace groups have a direct impact on educators’ methods in the classroom: sharing resources, exchanging best practices, discussing assessment techniques.And these out-of-classroom applications of social networking technology like the education blogosphere,
What about the contentious issue of social network sites (SNSses) in the classroom?
I certainly share concerns have articulated here: Facebook’s repeated breaches of trust and closed environment, MySpace’s chronic problems with security, the panoptic and advertising-focused aspects of both, the cost of tweets via SMS on Twitter, the risk of predators.
There are, however, other options. Ning and Groove, for example, have “private networks” that reduce the risk of exposure. In the open source world, Joomla/CB and Drupal/CivicSpace are both very viable, and allow you to set up a completely-private SNS that people can’t get at from the broader internet; it’s easy to see how this could be added as a module to something like the Sakai project. So I would encourage people to think more broadly here.
Similarly, people are generally reducing “SNS’s in the classroom” to “friend relationshps between profiles representing the students”. There are many other possibilities.
This debate illustrates one: SNS’s ability to provide extensible, largely-self-documenting objects of study – participatively created, and so with a shared experience base and vocabulary. Properly annotated, this debate is great fodder for classes on journalism, sociology, business (“can ‘old media’ ever get the online world?”), race and gender studies, pedagogy, and so on. It’s also a useful case study for radicals operating within the system, detourning media events that appear to be stacked against them. None of this requires people subjecting themselves to panoptic environments.
Or consider AIC, a “web-mediated character-playing simulation for high school and college students” that focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here, profiles represent the real-world actors. Representing and providing access to the different connections between them (friend, enemy, relative, business partner, supporter, same political party, served in same army unit, …) brings in the social network. [I’m not sure how much of this is in the current version of AIC; please treat it as a thought experiment.]
As well as deepening people’s understanding, this adds a lot to the simulation. More easily being able to see “friends in common” (or “enemies in common”, as the case may be) makes a big difference when you’re trying to discover paths to open communications. Or imagine updating your status (visible only to your friends) to say “I’m off to the meeting, wish me luck” — and then realizing that one of your friends is a reporter, and the meeting’s supposed to be secret.
A variant based on my personal experience: I was involved in the constitutional convention for free-association (a very small non-commercial, open-source-based SNS). It was a pretty amazing experience, combining threaded discussions and the ability to get a better understanding of the people involved and the relations between them. Consider extending this to a simulated historical constitutional processes in which the “members” are the personas of the different participants — perhaps by reusing and extending AIC’s engine.
While Dr. Bugeja and others raise some very valid concerns, I don’t see these as fatal. The study and simulations I describe above could be accessed via shared logins (even using Tor if anonymity is particularly important), or run as a private and advertising-free network using Ning or an open source base. And as long as computing resources exist, it would cost virtually nothing to run this game – free-association has run for two years with no costs other than web hosting.
Access and digital divide issues remain big challenges here. I don’t see social networking technologies as inherently making these worse. In the scenarios I discuss above, each persona could be “played” by a teams or even entire class of students for each participant – and phone and Sidekick access would be possible. To deal with limited network connectivity, locally-hosted versions would be possible — and you don’t need a server-class machine to host this kind of software. And so on …
So I find the “pro” case equally compelling inside the classroom.
And returning back into the rest of the world, social networks can also make a huge positive impact on some underlying issues in the education field. Start with the exclusion and marginalization of a lot of voices and from debates held in the halls of power. Again use this debate as an example: no current or recent students in The Economist’s roster; the speakers, Moderator, and guest participants all currently occupy positions of (relative) privilege; and the tone is often condescending towards practitioners (as opposed to “experts”). Social networking technologies make it easier to broaden the conversation, with people bringing their friends and acquaintances in environments that are more inclusive – and creating opportunities to network together, creating connections among existing networks that didn’t exist before.
Add to this social networking technologies’ transformative possibilities for community and political activism. Having worked on a social-network based grassroots activism campaign, there’s no question in my mind that an effectively-networked coalition could make a huge impact in reversing the anti-science, anti-intellectual, “exploit the children as eyeballs to be programmed in consumption”, and technology-worshipping trends in our society today. Social networking sites are the places to build and grow that kind of coalition with teachers, students, parents, experts, politicians and even corporations.
So even though I wish the “pro” side had done a better job of articulating their position, they’ve got my vote.