The Economist Debate on Social “Networking”

The Economist is doing an “Oxford-style debate” on the following proposition:

“Social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to
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”?

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31 thoughts on “The Economist Debate on Social “Networking”

  1. Rachel Clarke


    Given Ewan is the most prominent evangelist of use of technology in the classroom in the UK, I’m not surprised he was on the Pro side but I do think that mos of what he does is not based on SNS’s but on other publishing tools with some SNS characteristics.

    It’s my understanding that most of your research is US based. Do you have anything that suggests the Scottish/British youth follow different behaviours or use the tools the same way the US youth does?

  2. zephoria

    From everything I’ve read, it appears as though UK and Australian youth have nearly identical patterns wrt SNS use (although they split differently along different sites, primarily MySpace, Facebook and Bebo). The biggest difference is that they spend more time on their mobiles and less time on SNSs compared to US teens.

    Korean and Chinese patterns tend to be quite different, as do Brazilian and Indian patterns. That said, in all four countries, the primary youth practice seems to be pure sociability; the differences are more around status maintenance, cross-age relations, friending norms, etc. I haven’t read any studies of Japanese youth. Filipino practices appear to be quite similar to the US with an interesting twist because of access issues.

    I have yet to hear of a youth-centered social network site used primarily for anything other than sociability. [There are interest-driven SNSs that motivate certain subpopulations to engage around those interests, but these tend to look more like traditional communities than meaningful SNSs.]

    Re: Ewan – I have a great deal of respect for his work, which is why I found this post so bloody infuriating. Then again, I mostly know him for his evangelism around blogging which I completely agree with.

  3. marocharim


    I also tried to take a stab at the debate:

    On the issue: Andrew Feenberg also makes an interesting case for “cyber-education” (he also made studies among the Japanese, I heard).

    Although I find that one of the biggest problems in facilitating “SNS-based learning” is access (as you already mentioned) and purpose: an SNS is primarily a tool not only for reinforcing actual relationships, but also to reinforce the self-concept albeit in virtual form (and, consequentially, as empty ones).

    Besides, I haven’t heard of any teacher who would use Facebook as a classroom. 😉

  4. Alexa

    I’m not sure that social networks should be used to socialise with classmates (although actually, many of their groupware style features facilitate even in-class cooperation when it comes to exchanging links, media, files, etc.). Their core value comes into play when linking up with other classrooms. Increasingly, we see internationalisation coming into play in education in Europe. Social networks can be used to facilitate cooperation between e.g. kids in the UK and kids in France who are learning French and English as foreign languages.

    If we look at knowledge building from a social constructivism point of view – i.e. one builds understanding via discourse with others – a social network begins to look more suitable for education.

    They also have value in terms of motivation; digital lifestyles are a reality for many teenagers. Using the tools which underpin these lifestyles makes the classroom more relevant to every day life and thus typically enhances motivation.

    However I think there is a need for an educational SN platform which isn’t commercial in nature – there are already a couple around (e.g. eduspaces) and I am certain we will see more in the future.

  5. Michael Bugeja

    Thanks for covering this debate. It opened Jan. 15, and I kept noticing comments about my writing rather than my thesis on the Economist site, which intrigued me, because I’m a National Endowment for the Arts fellow. I anticipate criticism, such as appears here, concerning my stance. But my writing? I opened up my opening argument, and to my dismay, 2/3s of it was cut by a technical glitch, which proves the point I was trying to make about technology radically altering any system to conform to its interface or application, in this case Oxford Union debate rules established in 1823.

    Today our student newspaper ran a small bright about it, and I thought your readers would have interest in it:

  6. Ewout ter Haar

    The key features of SNS, “profiles plus visible, articulated and surfable friends’ lists.” may not be educationally useful by themselves, but they may be when integrated into other web and internet technologies.

    [That is one reason to use integrated solutions like elgg (, a white-label SNS system which integrates various web technologies like blogs, wikis and, yes, SNS features like profiles and friend lists, communities, etc. ]

    It seems to me that When an identity layer is combined with internet communication technology (IM, Chat, etc.) and web information technology (The Web, unstructured information made accessible by Google), a great opportunity is created to put the learner in the center of the educational process.

  7. Britt Watwood


    You wrote, “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?”

    I might agree with this in K-12 face-to-face classes, but in online classes at the college level, I look for any tool that helps build community, and SNS’s appear to be tailor-made to helping students who never see each other face-to-face get to know one another. This in turn I think facilitates the learning process, increasing trust and collaboration…or at least, that is my theory.

  8. zephoria

    Britt – you have a good point about college classrooms being different, especially when we’re talking mass lecture halls. Facebook (was) tremendously useful for college students to find out who else was taking a class who lived in their dorm, to find out where to get the homework, and to have a space for discussing it in a situation where they simply didn’t know who else was taking the class. I definitely think that there’s a need to build community in educational settings; I do take it for granted in the K-12 setting.

  9. john Larkin

    Danah – A post that emulates my own thinking. Facebook and MySpace are not tools that can be embedded into a teaching and learning curriculum. I personally cannot imagine incorporating Facebook or Myspace into a teaching programme. There are better strategies and tactics that one can use to achieve the desired learning outcomes. Blogs, wikis and Flickr – sure, they can be used to augment learning and provide opportunities for collaboration.

    As I say at the beginning of all my workshops… as a teacher I have a ‘backpack’ of tools that I draw upon to teach and foster learning. What do I find when I reach into that ‘backpack’? Whiteboard markers, exams, rulers, field trips, debates, pens, text books, metaphor, discussions, pencils, storytelling, writing responses and… technology now and then. What do I mean by technology in this case? It could include the Internet, Word, blogs, wikis and others.

    Facebook and MySpace have their place in the community. I simply cannot see either of these being written into one of my teaching programmes at this point in time. Yes, technology is not the universal cure and it is not the enemy. Technology is just another tool, a way, a thing. I wish I had written your post Danah. I often relate these ideas to other teachers. I think I should write more.


  10. Nicole Ellison


    Thanks for the point to the Economist piece. I think this is a fascinating topic and have been thinking a bit about it, albeit I’ve been focusing on Facebook and not SNSs in general. I discussed some of the potential benefits and concerns with incorporating FB into a higher ed context for a talk I gave last month and blogged the main points here:

    As the post mentions, among the reasons to tread cautiously include FERPA considerations and student resistance. The “pro” points I list include greater student engagement (at least for the time being), the peer-to-peer component you mention, and the face that SNSs are already embedded in the daily practices of most college students.

    I think you make some great points above. I agree that SNSs are probably most valuable for informal kinds of learning, honing digital literacy skills, and encouraging peer-to-peer conversations about educational content outside of the context/time/place of the traditional classroom. Thinking specifically about how the features of SNSs (as opposed to blogs, etc.) could support more formal kinds of learning, I believe this would necessitate altering some of the natural patterns of interaction we’ve seen. Namely, as you point out, the fact that SNS high school & college users aren’t “networking” (meeting new people) but rather articulating existing social networks. These kinds of interactions (between strangers) would have to be artificially created. One example: pairing a classroom in France with a classroom in the US and letting cross-cultural communication and language exchanges take place. Another thought: In a large college classroom, where not everyone knows one another, being able to see profiles might cut down on some of the flaming-type behavior that sometimes accompanies anonymous-feeling discussion lists. I could also see the utility of a SNS app that helps students manage team projects.

    I’m just musing on some of the possibilities. I would love to hear more examples of educators who have used Facebook or other SNSs in the classroom.

  11. Antonio Vantaggiato

    Well, I tend to agree with most you wrote, danah. However, I wouldn’t bet on your (and fans’) logic argument on the lack of reasons “for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom”.

    My line of thought goes as follows:

    1) First, why shouldn’t they? Any compelling reason?

    2) Is it there a reason to separate tools people live and work with on a daily base from the (formal) educational environment? I don’t think so: actually, I believe youth will find their way here to incorporate these “tools” in education. Why?

    3) Because (and this is perhaps the most important axiom) youth have at last appropriated a tool (say, Facebook) as their own. Nobody asked them to use it “officially” (like a Learning Management System), but they (justly or wrongly, I cannot say… I guess it depends on the tool) are using it everyday. Even if you don’t agree with the specific tool, there is no arguing that this process is occurring. So, we are seeing teachers using Facebook (again, an example of a not-readily-agreed-upon tool!) quite successfully in their classes, because it provides everybody with a rich communication infrastructure that helps to build some… structure with and for students. Again, mySpace is perhaps not very different: if Patti Smith can use it to set up poetry and music, so can students within and without a formal setting.

    4) Thus, I believe we are entering an era in which these “tools” will lose their “toolness” and become integrated within our (educational) lives. Some will not, perhaps Facebook is one of those which will not make it, I don’t know. Like the Web did: do you remember the time we called the Web “a tool”? We don’t do that any more, the same way we don’t call a pencil “an educational tool”. These SNS’s speak a language of their own. Do we speak it too? Until we do, will keep looking at them and ask whether they may be used for educational purposes, while this is actually a misconstructed question.


  12. Terry Freedman

    My own small-scale research, many of the findings of which reflect larger-scale studies, indicate that teenagers use social networks mainly for collaborating over school work rather than “just” socialising. See

    I don’t see that ordinary classrooms, social networking, and opportunities for young people to socialise/network beyond their immediate and known circle are mutually exclusive. It just has to be thought out and managed properly. It’s a pity there isn’t (to my knowledge) a student version of Linked-In, for example.

  13. zephoria

    Terry – can you tell me more about how they actually use the SNSs to collaborate over school work?

    My fieldwork suggests that friends use the messaging functions to send information back and forth to each other concerning school work, just as the previous cohort used IM and the one before that used email and the one before that used the phone. They do not leverage the network structure, but they do use the communication functions for sharing.

    I think that it’s fair to say that youth will always use whatever communication medium they have access to to connect with their peers around homework. Yet, does that make it an educational tool for the classroom? In some senses, yes, in that teachers should support youth in using whatever communication tool they wish for sharing information. (Today, most teens switch to email to communicate with teachers after using SNSs to communicate with peers.)

    Messaging is not unique to SNSs – it will be built into every sociable tool and as cohorts switch to new tools, they will switch their primary communication platform. Already, we’re seeing a switch to the mobile underway. If we install SNSs into the classroom because they’re the communication platform of the day, we’ll be so outdated and it’ll be quite like the way things are now… SNSs for friends/email for teachers to mobile for friends/SNSs for teachers. That seems foolish.

  14. Michael Bugeja

    I’d like to respond to this blog, which is interesting, in as much as you share many good ideas, but misargued in places because you’re too early with your conclusions and do not necessarily know the strict guidelines that Ewan and I are under.

    As an example, your blog post above is 500 words above the limit that Ewan and I had for opening arguments.

    I trust that your post is not based on the “glitch” version of my opening argument, which the Economist cut by two thirds so that it totaled 335 words while Ewan had a 1000-plus. That is why I posted to your blog in the first place in an earlier comment, to ensure that your opinions were based on the 1000-word opening argument.

    Also, you might have waited until rebuttals and conclusions before making pronouncements as we not only are dealing with strict rules about word length but also Oxford Union debate rules, which technology has corrupted as my earlier post and rebuttal will illustrate.

    Your statement concerning my fear of technology is baffling. I work at an institution of science and technology, and I collaborate with scientists in our Virtual Reality Applications Center. I buy, vend and otherwise deal with technology as a journalism director. I was a reporter and editor for United Press International after college in the 1970s and was working across platforms before convergence became a buzz word in the industry.

    I don’t blog, but I operate five web sites, and I work with students who base their theses on blogs. And two of my graduate students are doing a Women’s Studies blog with me on the state of the media and its obsession with celebrity and entertainment rather than issues of substance.

    All this is to observe that you may disagree with me as a scholar, but when you personalize the debate by using a word like “fear,” I have to respond. I have books on technology with Oxford Univ. Press, and articles in New Media and Society and other peer-reviewed journals. My observations are based on knowledge of corporate systems, and I know them not only by study but by working in and coping with them.

    I don’t fear technology; I see first-hand how it is being used in a media environment that relies on it for revenue generation and then vends that to academe. (If you get a chance, follow the Chronicle debate on universities giving up their own email systems and relying on Google and Microsoft “because they are free.” Free? Gee whiz, how kind! Can someone please tell me how we can honor open record laws in tenure decisions or sexual harassment cases? I’ll tell you: we will have to sue Microsoft and Google and waste taxpayers or benefactor dollars in the process.)

    This is why I am uncertain just what you are referring to here:

    “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.”

    One of those problematic questions is to assess the service terms that universities agree to when they purchase technology. Why is that so troublesome? Should we assess them only when we realize how much money we have spent on something that we own in the first place?

    Anyone who designs technological systems understands that pedagogy has to yield so that the features of the application or interface can be expressed. A case in point is the digital library. You can access databanks on demand but in doing so, aided by Internet, you may corrupt footnotes. That erodes scientific method and peer review, especially in disciplines that rely on primary sources, such as history. See my research with Daniela Dimitrova, an Internet expert and social scientist, at

    My questions are problematic only if they strike fear in those who do not want to answer or address them. Those questions are based on technology assessment from scientists who test programs for effectiveness and budget. We have to assess the curricular as well as workload issues associated with technology investment or we cannot afford Ph.D. fellowships as well as wireless and other systems that allow students to access databases.

    You speak about privatization as scary, and then say, it’s a systems problem. My questions that you call problematic are intended to fix the systems problems and assess the embedded scripts and other data that can bring resolution.

    The rest of your blog, when you are sharing your own ideas, are insightful and important.

    What concerns me about many posts as well as comments on The Economist is the lack of insight on the cost of technology and the decisions that have to be made when institutions typically can afford the professor or the processor but not both. One of my problemmatic questions–again, assuming you read the entire opening argument and not the glitch version–concerns curricular expansion because of technology that is at the heart of poor adjunct pay and other ills that I have to cope with as an administrator. When we add courses to the catalog, someone has to teach them. So that forces us to hire adjuncts and pay them poorly. I have an investigative piece on that forthcoming in The Chronicle, titled “The High Cost of Curricular Glut.”

    Please know that despite my concerns articulated here, I believe you are an important voice and one of a handful of scholars who can make a difference in the next generation of institutional decisions. I applaud your own insights, but I have to challenge a few about me, in the spirit of scholarship, using Internet to do so, when I would rather attend one of your seminars so that we could debate these issues in an interactive rather than static forum, such as a blog, allowing for give and take.

    And I wager, had we that opportunity, without the restrictions of word length or text posted, commented on and then addressed and re-addressed, we would find many commonalities, shared concerns, and more.

    My concerns, as you’ll read in my rebuttal, again, limited to sound bytes by resticted word lengths, are associated with commitment rather than engagement in academe. I want the next generation of students to be committed to causes that threaten us globally in physical space rather than cyberspace, and unless we can get those learners to understand what awaits them–from oil depletion to global warming–they are not going to be prepared to resolve the huge dilemmas of the next few decades.

    Education for me, and I suspect for many at my age, doesn’t involve fear. I’m 55 with a children age 5, 17, and 24 (same spouse of 29 years) with two grandchildren and thousands of former students that I taught at Oklahoma State, Ohio and Iowa State. I want a better world for them, especially since my own profession, journalism, is in decline, giving the audience what it wants rather than what it needs.

    I see consumer technology doing the same thing, and I am challenging it to live up to standards before we realized that they had social rather than corporate value.

    One final thought: I took time out of my day to post this because you and your blog are worth it. I trust you and your readers realize that.

  15. zephoria

    Michael –

    First, thank you for taking the time to respond. I really do appreciate it and want to try to return the favor by clarifying what I was trying to get across.

    As I interpret it, the argument you put forward is a technodeterminist one where technology determines behavior and culture. I stand strongly in the SCOT (social construction of technology) camp. I believe that technology is shaped by society and that it becomes valuable when it serves the needs/desires of people. Given where you’re at institutionally, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with this debate within STS. [For readers who know nothing of this, the Wikipedia entry on technological determinism is a good starting point.]

    Perhaps it is wrong of me to accuse you of being afraid of technology, but statements like “introduce technology into the economy, and henceforth the economy is about technology” lead me to believe that you see technology as the boogyman. But you’re right – I should’ve talked about how your views reflect a cultural fear around technology rather than accusing you personally of being afraid.

    For brevity sake, I chose to signal that I took issue with some of your questions rather than fleshing out what I meant by problematic. My main concern is that your questions signal and “eeek! change!” approach, rather than asking “given the possibilities, what is the best pedagogical approach to teach students today and how do we take steps to get there?” Part of my frustration is that existing IT efforts are in place to stop students from accessing SNSs and time is being spent in the classroom to warn students of the grave dangers without any consideration of whether or not there is value derived from these systems. I’m happy to answer your questions, but I think that some of them are tangential to the debate.

    The irony, of course, is that we are both very wary of adding SNSs to the classroom. You are primarily concerned because of structural and economic implications. I am concerned because I don’t see the pedagogical purpose. I think that are both responding to the “look, shiny new object” problem in academia and society more generally. Personally, though, I don’t see the point in talking about the high costs of implementing something if it doesn’t make sense pedagogically. This is why I got frustrated with your questions. I think that the debate should happen at the pedagogical level and, should we believe that there are overwhelming pedagogical advantages, then we should talk about whether or not it is feasible to implement. By going straight to the implementation issues, you appear to implicitly accept that there are pedagogical advantages to adding them. And I find this frustrating because I want to slam on the breaks before the cart gets ahead of the horse.

    I also think that we need to take into consideration current youth practices when we think about pedagogy and altering classroom practices. Consider Wikipedia. Most of my subjects have used it at some point, but all of them have heard that it’s inaccurate, full of lies, and not to be trusted. Not a single one of them has been taught basic media literacy or skills for interpreting a Wikipedia entry, checking its sources, reading its history, and knowing how to assess it. Instead, I get quotes like this: “I don’t use Wikipedia. I’ve heard that it’s not true, and if I’m looking for something true, I usually go on Google.” ::smacking forehead:: So, not understanding Wikipedia, most teachers ban it. What do students do? Use it and then cite random references that look plausible from Google or their library’s online list of books. If teachers understood Wikipedia, they could spend their time explaining it rather than forbidding it. That’s a place where I definitely think an intervention should happen because it fits into pedagogy while recognizing how the information landscape has changed.

    Just like you, I’m stressed by the state of our schools and worried about what students are learning. That said, I don’t think that we should ignore the fact that they spend a lot of time in “cyberspace” and focus solely on teaching them about the looming threats in meatspace. We need to teach them how to be proactive, engaged, informed, curious citizens of the world. And that world includes a lot of things. Failing to teach them about media or commercial culture is just as dangerous as failing to teach them about oil depletion and global warming, if not more so, because commercial culture is using media to convince American citizens that there is no oil or global warming crisis. We need to teach them how to live in the reality that exists, whether we like it or not. I believe that you need to understand how the system works before you can change it.

    Anyhow, I hope that helps explain why I felt frustrated by your argument. I didn’t mean to attack you personally, so I am genuinely sorry for offending you. And I do appreciate you taking the time to respond.

  16. Michael Bugeja

    Thanks for such a gracious reply. I truly do appreciate it and admire you and your work, which you may not have known. It’s a task for me at times as a practicing journalist to figure out how to frame theory in a way that others understand.

    We may disagree theoretically, but that’s cool, because I am open to other perspectives, especially yours.

    My own theoretical argument citing Ellul, Heidegger and others, upon which my deterministic sounding paragarph was based, took 20 pages in an top theory paper at AEJMC (ethics division) and 30 pages as a chapter titled “Universal Principles in Autonomous Systems,” to appear in Clifford Christians and Lee Wilkins’ Handbook of Media Ethics. I have to become more adept at theory in small places, as we only had 1000 words.

    On a more professional note, I did mention that my two research assistants and I will be working on a Women’s Studies blog which, I think, might truly appeal to you. (I can’t tell more because we don’t want at this time to disclose what we believe will be a startling barometer of the current state of media.) But I am recommending your blog to my research assistants and hoping that they might get in touch with you. (I know your contact numbers from academic directories.) Also, one of those grad students is doing a thesis on blogs that is health-related and truly important, and I will recommend that she access your presentations and papers.

    Again, my appreciation for your response and for your work.

  17. Terry Freedman


    I’m afraid I don’t know *how* they actually collaborate, only that they use social networks (including MSN: I used the term “social networking” in a generic sense) mainly for work and, in 3rd place, playing games.

    I know of an MA dissertation that involved setting up a NING social network in a school with some success (I mentioned it in my presentation,, and yesterday someone in my own Ning community ( said that she had set up a Ning community in her school for the senior students, and that they were loving it. I have been trying to get her to give me more details of how they actually use it, and exactly why they like using it.

    I don’t think any of this is a simple issue!

  18. Vicki Davis

    I’ve spent the last several days since reading this post crafting my own response which is posted at my blog, over at Tech Learning and on the economist debate itself. Having used educational networking in my classroom in various ways I feel strongly that it can be used effectively and indeed is needed in classrooms. (I’ll try to paste it here if it will go.)

    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.”)

    We 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.

  19. Martin Owen

    This response may come over as yadi-yaddah II have heard it all before…. but….

    Through the 1990’s many of us were experimenting with collaborative technologies in and out of the classroom for learning. What is a new invention of social media we were doing with FirstClass or even the Netscape collaborative tools (remember them???).

    I have good examples:

    Kids in Denmark, Wales and the east coast (English speaking) part of Nicaragua learned a lot about each other’s lives… chat, picture sharing…
    The website looks quite primitive – but then it was 10 years ago

    Young adults following vocational courses in the UK and France (eg catering, leisure and tourism, engineering) inhabit an “electronic village that prepare and sustained exchange visits. Two colleges, in addition to exchanging “official content” (like Quicktime movies of their DocMartens factory visit) also translated horoscopes from each other’s popular magazines.

    Teachers in initial training across creating Euro-webbased-Advent calendars together to support teaching of European cultural diversity.

    and on and on……

    `Very social, very educational, and not just focussing on one verb “discuss” which seemed to dominate collaborate learning.
    Importnat collaborative verbs like share, plan, evaluate, create, coordinate, inform…. also came to the fore.

    We did have a socially tagged media sharing resource up and running on the web 1996! (wrong west coast of the wrong continent ).

    Social networking software works for education. It allows learners to to cross boundaries they didn’t know exist.

  20. diane


    Isn’t using an interactive wiki, collaborating in Google Documents, or using a Blackboard account also social networking?

    Students interacting, within their school structure, with teachers & classmates; parents communicating with teachers; students working online with other students: all are focused and productive uses of the social networking concept.

    There’s much more to social networks than Facebook and MySpace.


  21. zephoria

    Vicki – I totally get why communication tools can be super useful inside the classroom and I can even see how tools that enable youth to talk to folks at other schools is fantastic. But what is the advantage of having youth list who they are and are not friends with inside the classroom? The listing of friends is core to social network sites and yet it seems ripe for complete chaos in the classroom. There are lots of teens who already opt out of SNSs because they see it as a popularity contest. What’s the advantage of bringing that into the classroom? Or rather, how do you work around it and still use social network sites?

  22. James J.

    This phenomena is just that,a phenomena that will fade away or morph into something else.

    I have been a member of facebook for sometime, I joined for two reasons, first I am living in a foreign country and want to share my experiences with others like myself, second I have a company with several employees that use facebook and wanted to see what risks my company was being exposed to.

    Firstly there is nothing educational about what goes in on facebook, it is nothing more than any other thing a 15 year old would use as distraction to fill empty time, while some people and discussions are interesting, the noise level is too high for anything productive or educational to happen, anyone can, and does join and participate.

    Secondly I decided it was a fairly serious security risks to my company, I found people talking about their jobs and companies a lot, and depending on a person posotion with a company some of that blah blah I may not want my competition to be finding out about, because you can never really be sure who the other person is that you are talking to.

    I am a parent and I will limit my children’s use of these social networking sites, and discourage their use in general, they are not very useful, there are much more productive ways for children and myself to kill time.

  23. Ira Socol

    Without covering all the ground above, I’d like to thank you for pointing out how so many societies – especially in the US – block adolescent peer interaction spaces, a dramatic restriction on the potential for “social” and “citizenship” education which, prior to the academic absurdities of recent times, were considered essential parts of education.

    But I am not sure how you get from that realization to finding no evidence that social networking systems belong in school.

    Teaching students how to navigate society seems a proper task for educators, surely a more important topic than, say, algebra. Thus teaching students to use social networks, to evaluate the information contained there, to process that information effectively, are certainly vital, especially when joined with the inherent qualities – that is, the ability of students to hear and understand (and debate and challenge) diverse and authentic voices not typically published by the corporate interests involved in textbook design.

    – “PostColonialTech”

  24. zephoria

    Ira: I’m all in favor of media literacy and teaching youth how to navigate social networks and make meaning of information flow, but that wasn’t the Economist’s question.

  25. Jon

    Excerpting from my Why I’m voting ‘pro’:

    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 — free-association has run for two years with no costs other than web hosting.

  26. John Smith

    It might be interesting if teachers made themselves available on facebook, along with student tutors. These people could simply be there to chat with students when they do their homework, to ask questions, motivate interest… I’m not saying this could work, nor is this about facebook in the classroom, but more about getting the classroom into facebook.

    Schools that took an active role in building an online community, could influence the way kids form groups online. I’ve yet to see a school recruiting for sports teams on facebook for example. Or to encourage sports teams even.

    And while facebook might not rock the classroom, Google sites definately will!

  27. alex

    just in re your last point: grown ups fetishizing/fearing technology: i think it’s a backlash to the fetishization on the other side. there seems to be a sense in the tech world that social networks are all that matter. i’d have to give it more thought to explain this better, but it’s rare to find an acknowledgement that the stuff happening in the three-dimensional world carries any value at all in comparison to the screen. i DON’T think social networks are a tool just like a pencil — or at least, they certainly aren’t perceived that way by the hive that discusses them (myself included).

  28. Jillian


    I suspect that if I were any other teacher at any other school, I’d absolutely agree with your not seeing the pedagogical purpose for Facebook in the classroom.

    Well, I’ve used it. It worked. I teach English 10 and 11 and an advanced Art History class at a teeny private ski academy in northern Vermont. Classes physically meet about half as regularly as normal schools, students are often in exotic locales ski racing while I lecture, and I dorm parent to add to the fun.

    I had no intention of utilizing fb, but the fact that literally all of my students had an account and were an absolute nightmare when it came to checking their email or an unhip utility (I unsucessfully tried livejournal and blogger). So, my academic facebook groups were born–totally invisible to non-students, and hidden from their group lists so as not to appear nerdy. It’s worked beautifully, and although it’s weird to have all my students show up on a feed, it’s probably a good idea to have at least one boarding staff member with a modicum of oversight.

    My school year just ended, and I’m leaning toward trying wikispaces for next year. The thing is that my school’s board of trustees just culminated another of their witch hunts and decided teachers shouldn’t use social networking sites for their classes–it’s so arbitrary that they have yet to determine which sites and establish an actual reason.

    Regardless of what I do, though, I question which utilities out there really are 1) safe in the privacy they offer 2) effective in that teenagers will actually use them. Any insight?

    Also, how does get the attention of 30 teenagers at once without the aid of facebook? Have you had any luck?

  29. Pingback: What I Meant By Integrating Technology | Intrepid Teacher

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