Educational Social Networks

socialnetworkProposition: The house believes that social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom.

So opens this week’s debate in the ongoing series at Economist.com.  I find myself in substantial agreement with both Ewan McIntosh’s pro position, and with  Michael Bugeja’s con position.  The two men have taken very different views of just what a “social networking technology” is.

McIntosh includes virtually every technology which puts learners in touch with people who know stuff, and argues the not-very-controversial point that creating such connections enriches the learning experience.

Bugeja considers a narrower definition of social networking technologies, namely, those commercial ventures like MySpace and Facebook who bill themselves as social networking platforms. He suggests, persuasively, that permitting commercial ventures to set the agenda for education is fraught with peril.

They are both right.  I’ve been in love with the potential for online social networking for enriching learning since we found a really weird-looking plant on the glacial kame my son’s 4th grade class was studying, and with a few emails to some folks I know through a parenting list, had links to discussions of this very primitive life form, and the email address of a botanist who studies them. My kids have grown up in a world where it’s possible to read about something on the web, and start up a conversation with the author, simply by clicking the link to her email address provided on the site.

A key to the value of a social connection is the context in which the connection is made, whether it happens in person, or online.

That’s the main problem with the big commercial network sites –  Potentially eeeevil profit-making privacy-invading concerns aside, they make possible connections which don’t have any context, and hence aren’t that valuable. When a fourth grader emails a botany professor with a question about a strange plant, there is an educational context which adds richness to the exchange – the fourth grader is expressing interest in something in which the professor obviously has interest, and it’s fair to assume that the professor has some interest in teaching which complements the fourth-grader’s interest in learning, even if they are not in a formal instructor-pupil relationship.

When a college kid “friends” somebody they’ve met on campus, there is also a context of mutuality. This is why Facebook took off so quickly.

It is a pleasure to be contacted by old friends, by valued colleagues, and to make the acquaintance of people one has never met with whom one nevertheless shares a mutual interest. It is annoying to have to wade through messages from people with whom no mutuality is immediately apparent.  I predict that the development of sufficiently nuanced filtration technologies to keep the “spam” down in the social networking apps is what will eventually separate the winners from the losers.

In the meantime, I celebrate the numerous, creative efforts being made daily to harness technology to put people who are interested in learning stuff in touch with people who know a lot about that stuff.  That this can be done with a simple static web page with interesting info and an email address is cause for celebration.  That it can be done effectively with sophisticated software which permits people who have already identified their mutual interest to continue conversations across time and space is the belief which keeps me working where I do.

Maybe I need a new way to explain what I do?  “Hi, I’m Val Bock, and I work in online educational social networking.”

Nah, too much of a mouthful, and it sorta sounds as if I give MySpace lessons.  But it sure makes the point better than saying “I work in e-learning” does!