Anderson (2009) defines the term social networking as referring to “the networked tools that allow people to meet, interact and share ideas, artefacts and interests with each other”. Boyd and Ellison (2007) define social networking sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.” Shirky (2008) captures the essence of social networking more succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.
Is the network a substitute for community? Would the use of social media in a networked manner be detrimental to the wider school community? The answer to both questions is no. As Bickford and Wright (2006) point out “were community not important for learning, colleges and universities would have little reason to exist”. The critical role of interaction in learning is reinforced by the addition of social networking to the school community, not undermined. Therefore, the addition of the learning network augments the learning community rather than provides an alternative to it, resulting in the overall enhancement of the learning environment.
Are dialogue and collaboration hampered by the addition of social networking to the learning environment? These two concepts are critical to the one-to-one and one-to-many models. However, in the many-to-many model afforded by social networking the focus shifts from collaborative to cooperative learning, from the group to the individual. Whereas collaboration demands that the group “sinks or swim together”, cooperation “focuses on opportunities to encourage both individual flexibility and affinity to a learning community” (Paulsen 2008).
Transparent information and cooperation among individuals foster the creation of personal learning environments in which participants wish to engage due to the potential benefits each can acquire. Schools and other learning outlets have thus far shied away from encouraging the development of such personal learning environments using the host of Web 2.0 and social media tools available, preferring instead to impose learning management systems, sometimes euphemistically called virtual learning environments. These systems do foster dialogue and collaboration, however, as Anderson (2009) indicates, a virtual learning environment which consists solely of students and teachers cannot profit from the benefits derived by a network because it lacks transparency of information and deep engagement between students and teachers (Bickford and Wright 2006).
In my own experience, virtual learning environments quickly become repositories of institutionally approved teaching materials and effectively discourage cooperation and interaction among students, fostering instead less meaningful, transactional interaction such as the setting or handing in of student work or the communication of assessment grades. Less often do students appear to willingly engage in more meaningful forms of cooperation such as peer review and assessment of each other’s work.
Dron and Anderson (2007) have suggested that individuals join social networks to “associate with others of like interest or vocation, or who know more, or who would like to learn similar things”. This contrasts sharply with schools’ imposition of learning management systems on their students. Wheeler (2010) points out that many students tend to avoid using the school-managed virtual learning environments because they either find it difficult to use, or irrelevant to their daily learning needs. It would appear then that a loose network of willing participants is better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students. Having said that, there are also potential roadblocks and disadvantages that need to be explored to better understand the potential implementation of social media in schools.
Leach (2002) points out that teachers ought to exploit their pupils’ existing ICT knowledge and use the tools to which pupils are already accustomed. However, Mazer et al. (2007) have suggested that certain affordances of ICT, such as social networking sites, “can be a potential hazard for teachers as some applications allows users to communicate” and “the content can lead to discrediting or defamatory messages”.
Commercial social networking sites have often been accused of exposing young people to inappropriate content and turning them into victims of cyber-bullying, breaches of privacy and, in extreme cases, even of sexual predators. Trust and privacy are therefore seen to play a critical role when considering using social media in the school context (Griffith and Liyanage 2008). In addition, others point out that social networks can be used for “plagiarism, cheating, harassment and other types of academic and social misconduct” (Anderson 2009). Overall, a picture of risk and danger emerges. As Selwyn (2009) notes, the internet can place children at risk of harming themselves and others.
So, what began as an endorsement of technology as a catalyst for improved pedagogy in the classroom quickly turned into a cautionary tale when said technology allowed students – and teachers, for that matter – to begin to interact outside the classroom. The possibility of abuse, affecting both students and teachers, therefore emerges as the principal disadvantage of social networking sites versus the relative safety provided by the institutionally managed learning environment. However, as user behaviour can be modified and improved through guidance, training and modelling, I see this more as a temporary hurdle than an inherent disadvantage of the application of social media to the educational context.
What do you think? Your thoughts, comments and views are always very welcome. Please don’t hesitate to leave your two penneth as a comment, below.
Photo by Brett Jordan
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