Missing the point with school social networks

I read an Edu­demic arti­cle this morn­ing about the future of school social net­works:

Now, a move­ment is afoot to cre­ate student-friendly social net­work­ing sites, which would be lim­ited to edu­ca­tion and bound to par­tic­u­lar dis­tricts or schools. These sites would give stu­dents the chance to com­mu­ni­cate with peers in per­son and via the com­puter, in a set­ting not unlike an online school. Yet the most desir­able aspect of school-friendly social net­works may be that they would allow stu­dents to work together in a pro­duc­tive man­ner, while pro­vid­ing adults with the peace of mind sites like Face­book sim­ply can­not offer.

This is all well-intentioned but it likely won’t be suc­cess­ful in any mean­ing­ful way.

It reminds me of edu­ca­tional video games. Things that edu­ca­tion exec­u­tives draw up to try to marry tech­nol­ogy with their ver­sion of learn­ing. They don’t work. You can’t cre­ate a video game that kids will want to play by remov­ing its soul.

Sim­i­larly, cre­at­ing a school social net­work by allow­ing for social con­nec­tions which par­ents, teach­ers, and admin­is­tra­tors approve of misses the point. You’re leav­ing out the soul of a net­work. It’s this soul that makes Face­book and Twit­ter so appeal­ing in the first place.

Grow­ing up out­side of a very small, rural town meant being extremely iso­lated in many ways. Had you told a junior high or high school ver­sion of myself that I could use some­thing like Twit­ter, Face­book, or, hell, even my blog to con­nect through shared inter­ests with peo­ple irre­spec­tive of place, age, or social sta­tus I would have been floored.

That’s the soul of these plat­forms. That’s what makes them rev­o­lu­tion­ary for school­ing. If you think cre­at­ing san­i­tized, school-friendly net­works watched over by par­ents and admin­is­tra­tors is going to cre­ate any mean­ing­ful learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties then you’re totally miss­ing the point.

Edu­cate kids on proper usage. Teach them online safety. Show them the power of serendip­i­tous con­nec­tions to peo­ple a world away. But don’t, for their own sake, limit their poten­tial because of fear.

4 Responses to “Missing the point with school social networks”

  1. There is a won­der­fully enter­tain­ing para­dox at work here in how the peo­ple who want to design a safe social net­work are prob­a­bly the worst peo­ple pos­si­ble to design a social net­work. The same thing hap­pened with all the pornog­ra­phy fears for kids and the web in the 1990s — all the solu­tions made no sense, since all the kids knew more about com­put­ers than their par­ents did (and could cir­cum­vent any of the ‘tools’ designed for parents).

    But one of the spe­cific exam­ples in the CNET arti­cle does make some sense: http://flatclassroomproject.ning.com/. It’s a toolkit for teach­ers to use with their stu­dents for their class­room. While i can imag­ine using face­book for the same pur­pose, I can see the upside of a self-contained and boxed way to share/grade papers, give feed­back, etc.

    • Inter­est­ing, and good, anal­ogy with the pornog­ra­phy fears.

      The Flat Class­room Project does sound inter­est­ing. I think there’s a lot of poten­tial for teach­ers in cross-school net­work­ing around resources and projects.

  2. The part that stuck out to me is that author­ity fig­ures feel the need to be in the driver’s seat, that they are respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing social net­works for their under­lings. They clearly don’t under­stand what a social net­work is in the first place, tech­no­log­i­cally imple­mented or oth­er­wise. You can­not cre­ate some­one else’s social net­work. One cre­ates their own social net­work. You can cer­tainly help (dorm place­ment, as a meat­space exam­ple), and pro­vide tools of empow­er­ment… but as Scott noted regard­ing porn/censorship, con­trol & own­er­ship of some­one sim­ply won’t work, and attempts to force the issue are damaging.

    The prob­lem with social net­work­ing tools in schools (and in gen­eral as well) is that the con­ver­sa­tion is cen­tered around “how can we own this?” This is ass-backwards. Sure, my dorm-mates were a big part of my early Face­book graph, but my best friends ended up almost all in other res­i­dence halls. My imme­di­ate cowork­ers at WCTS were great, but my best work-friends worked in dif­fer­ent build­ings, and some of my most reward­ing pro­fes­sonal con­tacts are in other time zones. And where would acad­e­mia be with­out world­wide inter-organizational col­lab­o­ra­tion? Walls of con­text and pri­vacy are cer­tainly impor­tant, but no more so than the bridges & lad­ders that cross them.

    We all (Google & Face­book included, and espe­cially the mis­guided well-intentioned folks in the linked arti­cle) need to give up this myopic cru­sade build The Net­work. Instead, we should be talk­ing about ship­ping tools of empow­er­ment, exten­si­bil­ity and inter­op­er­abil­ity; let users build their own walls and bridges. Instead of ship­ping our own minor net­works and try­ing to suck users into our own faux-Utopias, let’s build tools that reach out into the spaces users already are in the greater global Network.

    We’ve already done this in at least one case so far since the advent of the Inter­net. It’s called email.