Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Economist’s debate on “social networking technolgies” in education

The Economist’s site is featuring an “Oxford-style debate” on the proposition “social networking technologies will bring large positive changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom“.

Ewan Mcintosh’s opening “pro” argument describes some of the possibilities:

In Scotland, I’ve been fortunate to work with thousands of school children and hundreds of teachers, creating mini social networks based around a rather traditional ‘social object’: the classroom. Students have been empowered to publish not just their best work, but the many drafts it takes to get there. They’ve received feedback from ‘real’ people outside school and, surprisingly often, the occasional expert has paid a visit (my personal favourite: the professional diver that corrected one student ended up being invited to visit the school to demonstrate the various bits of kit that go into a marine biology dive).

Importantly, they’ve received more communication, feedback and interest from the one group they value most: their parents. Parents, too, have reported feeling more in touch with what their children are actually learning, rather than simply what they’ve ‘done’ at school that day. Teachers feel more connection to parents, too, as communication is daily, online, rather than once a year at parents’ evenings.

Ewan goes into more detail at Edublogs about the discussion so far.

Michael Bugeja argues for the opposition, focusing on “motives embedded in interfaces and scripts interwoven in applications”:

In a recent online forum I observed how technology altered education in every conceivable facet. I have seen it used as delivery system, then as content in the classroom and finally as classroom, building and campus itself, and in every case, pedagogy changed to accommodate the interface. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Unless we impose that logic on social networks, they will align educational methods with corporate motives, as previously discussed….

We must analyze use of social networks in education with a high degree of skepticism to ensure time-honored standards. Otherwise we may realize belatedly that those standards had value—social rather than financial—and that we inadvertently shortchanged our students who above all need to think critically and interact interpersonally to succeed in a diverse, multicultural world.

Social networks advertise access to this diverse world while simultaneously confining users to affinity groups so as to sell, sell, sell.

I, for one, am not buying.

Parry Aftab’s guest comments in the debate describes her experience:

My Teenangels programme (teenangels.org) holds a summit every year in Washington, DC where the teens are on the stage and the adults in the audience. It’s a packed house every single year with long waiting lists of VIPs. This year, on February 6th, my Teenangels chapter from Hortonville, Wisconsin, will be presenting to a room full of industry leaders, Congressional representatives and Senators, law enforcement agencies, Ambassadors and the media. They will be sharing their research on how social networks can help bridge the cultural gap among teens around the world. They think that the more teens communicate with each other online, the better they will be able to understand each other when real world conflicts arise….

Learning was fun and inevitable. And is ongoing.

The most interesting point, however, was that until they had participated in this study and the projects they designed, most of the students had only use the networks for fun, communication with their friends and sharing music. It took imaginative educators to show the students the real power of these technologies to do more. They learned first hand their power to collaborate, inspire and create. According to the research report, “students began very deep and meaningful discussions. For example, one Sunday afternoon several students began to discuss the Kyoto Treaty and possible U.S. participation. Some students decided to post information so that others could directly email the Bush Administration in support of environmental and political efforts to save the polar bear. Students began to understand that they had a strong voice via their publication on the web. There was no inappropriate use of the tool and discussions were very scholarly.”

If one can hide learning under the excitement of the technologies and communication tools, perhaps the students will never realise that their favourite activity is also good for them.

More statements from both sides will be forthcoming; and there are also extensive comments by participants (without, alas, a good way of searching them)

I agree with danah boyd’s characterization of both the pro and opposition comments as missing the point: “I’m frustrated with Ewan for collapsing all social technologies into “social networking” and I’m frustrated with Michael for being so afraid of technology that he lets technology dictate his reality.” After a lengthy and interesting response from Michael in her thread, danah rephrased the latter to “I should’ve talked about how your views reflect a cultural fear around technology rather than accusing you personally of being afraid.” She goes on to give her stab at a response:

In their current incarnation, social network sites (SNSs) like Facebook and MySpace should not be integrated directly into the classroom. That said, they provide youth with a valuable networked public space to gather with their peers. Depending on the role of school in their lives, youth leverage these structures for educational purposes – asking questions about homework, sharing links and resources, and even in some cases asking their teachers for information outside of the classroom. SNSs do not make youth engage educationally; they allow educationally-motivated youth with a structure to engage educationally.

Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in “networking,” they do not meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space when none previously existed.

Educational pedagogy has swung over the years between focusing on individual-centered learning, group learning, and peer-to-peer learning. If you take a peer-to-peer learning approach, you are inherently valuing the social networks that youth have and maintain, or else you are encouraging them to build one. These networks are mediated and reinforced through SNSs. If there is pedagogical value to encouraging peers to have strong social networks, then there is pedagogical value in supporting their sociable practices on SNSs.

In a follow-on post, danah also points out that people are being very careless about defining their terms, and asks just what is a social networking technology?

There’s lots of other good discussion going on in different places about this, for example Will Richardson at Weblogg-ed, Vicki Davis at Cool Cat Teacher (which includes a lot of detail on the ways she uses Ning), David Warwick at 2 cents worth (and Henry Thiele’s response at Two Learn Twice), John Connell at his blog, and Ira Socol at SpeEdChange.  There’s a Facebook group as well, which is currently verrry quiet but who knows, could catch fire.  The cross-participation and cross-linking give a great feel for the educational power of social networking technologies – and the people learning from this are getting a chance to experience the participative and mutual educational approach that these technologies engender. Seems like a tale from the net in progress!

Updates: I edited on 1/19 to clarify in response to Michael’s comment below, and have been steadily adding to the last paragraph as the discussion unfolds.

posted by Jon at 4:22 pm  


  1. Deborah and John,

    Please go back to Danah Boyd’s page and read the long post that I left there for more perspective, especially for your book.


    Comment by Michael Bugeja — January 19, 2008 @ 3:44 am

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for the suggestion. I had read your comment as part of the excellent thread on danah’s blog — and hearing about the limitations you are under as participants was extremely illuminating. danah’s original quote captured my reaction to your post; I probably should also have posted her clarification, and will update the main post accordingly.

    In terms of the debate, I’d like to point out that you’ve participated in an excellent example of how social networking technologies can be used positively in educational settings, in this case you getting around the artificial constraints of your word limit to help educate others (and exposing in the process that Economist, that bastion of transparency, left something important out of its published rules for the debate) and then intervening here, similarly outside the original classroom, to help clarify things for me and whoever else happens along this post.

    Comment by Jon — January 19, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  3. My comments (minus paragraph breaks) on the Economist’s site are on my Economist profile. Alas, the link doesn’t seem to work reliably from offsite; but you can click on my name on any of my posts in the comment thread.

    Participants and moderators, of course, get formatting and nice layout. I discussed these kinds of power differential last November on Liminal States.

    Update on 1/23: unlike the pro/con speakers, pictures of and links to “featured participants” links disappear from the debate hall after the next post. Dr. Aftab’s essay as well as Ms Krug’s are still on the site, but it’s not at all clear how participants are expected to find them. They currently don’t even show up in Google searches! Talk about your power differential …

    Comment by Jon — January 21, 2008 @ 10:43 am

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  5. I love the interplay that is occurring even among those representing the “con.” I’ll note that dr. Bugeja makes extensive use of these tools to “educate,” to explain, to challenge, none of which come “too loaded” with commercial chatter. It is a sign of both the transformative nature and the transformative power of these tools. Without the structure of social networking I would never likely have communicated with Dr. Bugeja, or with you.

    It is world changing. That doesn’t negate the problems. But it is world changing in a world (and educational system) desperately in need of change.

    Comment by Ira Socol — January 22, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

  6. This is an excellent summary of this debate. I have forwarded it to my readers through delicious. You have brought me to some posts I hadn’t seen.

    And the formatting on the economist site is terrible. I have to read it in IE b/c Firefox doesn’t work properly.

    Kudos on this summary!

    Comment by Vicki Davis — January 22, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  7. Totally agreed, Ira. Michael and I connected after we both posted on danah’s blog — and he took the time to put a comment here. You and I connected after you posted your a link to your blog in a comment on the Economist’s debate, and we then paid each other mutual visits; I found Vicki’s blog through her posting on danah’s site; and now here we all are …

    And thanks for the praise and forwarding (the sincerest form of flattery), Vicki! If there are other links to related discussions I should add, please let me know.

    Agreed about the Economist’s site. Between the formatting problems, lack of search or RSS, and vanishing “featured participants”, I have them trailing both the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ side badly on my personal scorecard. However, the debate’s not over yet … perhaps they’ll stage a comeback.

    Comment by Jon — January 22, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

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