The Economist Debate on Social “Networking”
The Economist is doing an “Oxford-style debate” on the following proposition:
educational methods, in and out of the classroom”
Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous, can social networking be defined as the “collective power of community to help inform perspectives that would not be unilaterally formed” or is it simply a distraction for students? Can these tools could be used in the classroom?
While I think that the Economist’s question is quite intriguing (albeit a bit problematically defined), I was sorely disappointed with the two responses.
On the Pro side is Ewan McIntosh. He argues that SNSs are about “helping learners become more world-aware, more communicative, learning from each other, understanding first hand what makes the world go around.” He talks about the use of mini-social networks for media sharing, but his description sounds more like blogs than SNSs to me. He (rightly) critiques the archaic educational styles, talking vaguely about web and SNSs without really explaining how the latter can help reform the former.
On the Con side is Michael Bugeja. He talks about interfaces, how students might misuse technology, and about how Facebook and MySpace are all simply about revenue generation for their respective companies. He then makes an odd techno-determinist claim and then talks about how pedagogy changes to fit interfaces. He then asks a bunch of (problematic) questions.
Sadly, I think that both completely missed 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. Given my irritation with both of them, I figured I should try to make a stab at what my response to this question would be.
danah’s response to said proposition
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.
When it comes to socializing with friends, youth prefer in-person (unregulated) encounters. They turn to SNSs when they can’t get together with their friends en masse or when they can’t get together without surveilling adults. By and large, there are few free spaces where youth can gather with their friends en masse and, even then, inevitably a chunk of parents refuse to let them, thereby destroying cluster effects. So, of course, they turn to SNSs. School is one of the few times when they can get together with their friends and they use every unscheduled moment to socialize – passing time, when the teacher’s back is turned, lunch, bathroom breaks, etc. They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired. This is why they text during classes. They go onto SNSs during the day to write to friends who have different schedules or to write to the whole group if a portion of them are on a different lunch. Given how regulated youth are, any open space where socializing is possible will be taken up by socializing; it’s often the only place they can see their friends. This isn’t something that the schools can fix, but they also shouldn’t be surprised when group time turns into gossip time.
I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from knowing about the cool new thing). I haven’t even heard of a good reason why social network site features should be used in the classroom. What is the value of knowing who is friends with who or creating a profile when you already know all of your classmates?
This not to say that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom. Information access tools like Wikipedia and Google are tremendously valuable for getting access to content and should be strongly encouraged and taught through the lens of media literacy. Email, IM, or other communication tools can be super useful for distributing content to the group or between individuals or even providing a channel for group discussion (in-class or out). Blogging tools and group sharing tools are also quite valuable. Having to produce for the group instead of the teacher can work as a powerful incentive; most youth don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their peers and pressure to perform can be leveraged to the teacher’s advantage. But why social network sites? To the degree that they support blogging and group sharing, sure… but that’s not the key point of them at all. They key features that make them unique are: profiles plus visible, articulated and surfable friends’ lists. I simply don’t get why these are of value in the classroom.
I’m not saying that social network sites have no value. Quite the contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation – understanding your community, learning the communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc. All too often we underestimate these processes because, traditionally, they have happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about today’s youth culture is that we’ve systematically taken away the opportunities for socialization. And yet we wonder why our kids are so immature compared to kids from other cultures. Social network sites are popular because youth are trying to take back the right to be social, even if it has to happen in interstitial ways. We need to recognize that not all learning is about book learning – brains mature through experience, including social experiences.
Yes, there are problems with technology and with technology in the classroom. Anyone critical of capitalism has a right to be critical of commercial social network sites and the economic processes that got us here. But don’t blame the SNSs – they didn’t create the obscenities of the market, but they are bound by them. Also, don’t forget that the current educational system was structured to meet the needs of the market, to create good consumers and good laborers. It ain’t pretty, and the privatization of education and educational testing is downright scary, but it’s a systems problem, not a technology problems.
There are innumerable inequalities in terms of educational technology access, just as there are huge inequalities in nearly every aspect of education. How many schools lack pencils, textbooks, teachers? Again, it’s terrible, but it’s not the technology’s fault. We all have a responsibility to rethink education and figure out how to equip all classrooms with the tools needed for giving students the best education possible, including teachers and technology. Don’t devalue technology simply because there are currently inequalities; no one would go around devaluing teachers using the same logic.
Finally, please adult world, I beg you… stop fearing and/or fetishizing technology. Neither approach does us any good. Technology is not the devil, nor is it the panacea you’ve been waiting for. It’s a tool. Just like a pencil. Figure out what it’s good for and leverage that to your advantage. Realize that there are interface problems and figure out how to work around them to meet your goals. Tools do not define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own desires.
Update: I added a related post that is relevant to this discussion: let’s define our terms: what is a “social networking technology”?