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.


Scott Berkun says:

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.

Matt Pearson says:

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.

Well said Matt. I couldn’t agree more. 🙂

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