It is about Educational Networking NOT Social Networking

simulpost with TechLearning

The Economist debate on social networking has sparked some interesting discussion between Ewan McIntosh (the pro side) and Michael Bugeja (the con side) and uber social-networking researcher Danah Boyd has interjected her wisened thoughts into the matter. I'd like to add my thoughts into this debate as I think that there are some things that should be said from a teacher who is USING "social" (I detest that term) educational networking.

Danah is right on when she says,

"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."

When I first considered the misguided approach of going into "their space" they told me that... it is "their space." They want their personal and "professional" lives separate as do I. We're heading down a slippery slope of forcing students to delete their own memories when we force ourselves to use "social" networks AS educational or professional networks.

Social networks are great platforms and create spaces that cannot be duplicated, however, either Facebook and Myspace need to allow for different TYPES Of associates: (i.e. family, friends, coworkers, professional, educational) or we will be continued to go to places like Ning to make distinct separate locations for our classroom work.

1) Classroom Networks should be divorced from embedded "social" networks and advertising

While, we allow students to "friend" one another in our Flat Classroom and Horizon Projects, it is not a requirement. They often do it because they "connect" with their classmate from around the world such as Casey (Camilla, Georgia USA) and Cannelle (Bangladesh) did for the first Flat Classroom Project in 2006. And during the project, I unblocked facebook for a while to allow this sort of thing to happen.

However, when we saw the usefulness of such a network, we were concerned about the implications of creating totally unsupervised interactions. Sure, Casey and Cannelle were great, but what happened when everyone started doing it? (We can't KEEP it from happening, on the last project some traded Xbox live ID's. It is what they do when they make "friends.")

wanted to make a place using the social platform but to facilitate educational networking, so for this year's Flat Classroom Project, we created a Ning. First it was private while they joined and we encouraged them to "clean up" any inappropriate profiles for the project and then it was made public. To say it was invaluable in connecting our 7 classrooms in Camilla, St. Louis, LA, China, Austria, Australia, and Qatar is an understatement. Students learned quickly and the platform included a blog, photo sharing, audio sharing, forums, and groups that facilitated communication in a way we couldn't do elsewhere. (This is the operative idea behind using "social" educational networking in the first place.)

And the whole project almost came to a screeching halt because of the Google Ads advertising sexy women to the students in Qatar.

From experience, I believe that "social" educational networks for students should be:

  1. Separate from their entrenched personal social networks and
  2. Free from contextual advertising.

As for Danah's thought:

"I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom."

Danah, we need "social" educational networks because when you're doing a global collaborative project and trying to "merge" your classroom with students around the world, you need something easy, manageable, and user friendly to quickly build the connections between students that must collaborate without ever having met.

This sort of network "speaks their language" and facilitates communication... it is superglu! It allows us to "broadcast" messages to everyone and gets the communication out of private student e-mail accounts where it cannot be properly supervised onto the Ning which is connected to their e-mail anyway. It is just the right way to do it.

I also have a private Ning for my classroom with ALL of my students. They post their weekly reflections and ethical "question of the week" answers in there in a private place where we have a lively open debate and can share everything we wish to share... photos, videos, podcasts. It This environment cannot be duplicated in any other manner that is as customizable and even at school they like to customize "their" page. They LIKE to mashup their world and when we let them, it becomes more "sticky." These are a great compliment to my class wiki and fill the classroom with teachable moments about digital citizenship and safety. They can make mistakes with me privately before going "public" accidentally and ruining their lives.

2) Private "social" School-Wide Networks are the Greatest Opportunity for School Building and Digital Literacy Ever Created

If you ask administrators, communications is one of the toughest issues administrators face. PTO's have pitifully small numbers of parents attend and papers often don't get home to parents. I've personally seen children as young as 9 lying about their age to get on facebook. They have an innate desire to communicate in this way with their peers. Additionally, adults have to use things to understand them.

The private "social" School-Wide Network solves all three problems. This was the brainchild of my tenth graders as they were asked to brainstorm ways to help our school become digitally literate and digitally safe. While we're completing Beta testing, our small social network created a few weeks ago has grown to 100 members.

We have 65 year olds blogging and grandparents messaging their grand kids. The other day I had a parent come in and say,

"I get it now, I see why they like Facebook."

A 65 year old teacher about to retire is blogging, as is a coach, the curriculum director, and headmaster.

It also gives a place for the outlet for the younger children, keeping them from lying about their age on Facebook to communicate in this way... the older students serve as mentors to everyone on HOW to do it, the parents and staff agree to give feedback on the ethical, safety aspects and I premoderate the photos and videos although I do not premoderate comments and blog posts.

Every class has a "group" as does each organization and after people join, they can be contacted via e-mail with a click.

We're early on the stages of adoption and are going to require permission forms for the younger kids, however, the initial response has been very positive. The conversations that have started are great and I feel closer to the students, other faculty, administrators, and parents that are also "ningers" as we call it.

3) We need networks for learning

I believe every platform has its uses, however, it bothers me greatly that as professionals and educators inundate facebook's inherently "social" nature that people will be forced to delete their memories as did the fictitious character Fred that I created in Freddie's Two Faced Future.

Textbook companies should be making networks for their teachers and all of the classes using that book to share and communicate because eventually the pro-sumer (or pro-student as we like to call it) will be contributing to those textbooks. We're making networks ourselves and if you don't watch out we'll be making our own textbooks and leave you out.

Social Networking Companies are Missing the Point of "Life" Networks

The social networking companies do not seem to understand that we want a nexus from which to manage our lives... a life hub if you will. However, to treat every spoke of the wheel the same is network malpractice. (I can't add my children if everyone in my network can see who they are. I won't!)

We want more than a social network, we want a life network that is archivable, livable, and compartmentalized.

Nix the Social when its not social

I agree with Danah -- we should stop calling it "social" networking unless it is for Social. Social is just one spoke of the wheel of life. Here we're talking education.

The students don't want us in their private lives any more than we want them in ours. We've got great platforms, lets make them practical now.

I applaud the Economist for promoting the debate. And if they read this, I hope they'll fix their site to work with my firefox browser...I'd be in there more if it did.

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