I was reading danah’s blog awhile ago, and her latest entry posed a very intriguing question: can social networking sites (SNS) be used as educational tools, in and out of the classroom? This is the premise in the latest debate of The Economist. And I agree with danah’s disagreements on the responses of Ewan McIntosh and Michael Bugeja: they’re answering the wrong questions.
I figured that since I know a thing or two about SNSs and social technologies, although I’m no expert on this matter, I may be able to take a shot at this question.
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It is important to frame the SNS as an educational tool. Something like Friendster, for example, does not automatically translate as an educational tool just because you have access to your instructor’s account. For education and learning to take place in an SNS, people have to use it as a learning mechanism. However, SNSs have yet to effectively structure themselves to function as “mini-classrooms.” At best, we could expect exam announcements posted in bulletin boards, or if classes made an exclusive Friendster group in order to facilitate homework. Not exactly a “mini-classroom,” if you asked me.
I have to agree with danah: SNS users don’t engage in “networking” per se. But here is where danah and me depart: based on my own research, an SNS is more of a venue for self-articulation (at least here in the Philippines) than to reinforce actual relationships. While it is true that users learn a bit of HTML in the process, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a substitute for course-work on basic computer programming. While it is true that you can get to know more about yourself based on the comments you receive, it doesn’t automatically follow that you’re learning psychology or philosophy in the process.
In my thesis, I wrote about how Internet technologies – particularly SNSs – are “wellsprings” of research. This, I think, is where the SNS as an “educational tool” is most properly framed: using the SNS as a sort of “social laboratory” to test existing theories and to formulate new postulates on online social behavior. As a tool for learning, however, the present structures and features of SNSs do not facilitate that or make it all that practical. It is important to note that as much as an SNS is a social technology, it is also a personal technology: as much as it serves social expediencies, it also serves personal expediencies like self-reinforcement and boosting one’s own sense of self-worth.
Research is where SNSs are most properly situated as educational tools: learning from an SNS at this point is geared more towards researchers than towards users themselves. To refer to my (rather pointless) title, the point is not to learn from Dora the Explorer: the point is to learn why Dora the Explorer is part of my “Friend” list (which she’s not, which also begs the question).