danah boyd and Will Richardson have weighed in in typically heavyweight and erudite fashion. danah is: “….frustrated with Ewan for collapsing all social technologies into “social networking” but then seems to go on to conflate the broad argument about social networking into a specific argument around ‘social network sites’ (SNS). Like danah, I would want to ask some questions about the use of specific SNS (Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, etc) in formal education, but I have fewer doubts about the utility of social networking in its broadest sense in the classroom. And, unlike some, I would not be too concerned with the semantic distinctions between social technologies, social networks and learning networks. I am happy to cope with the synecdochal reverberations of these hard-to-define terms.
danah goes on: “I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom.” And further: “Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in ‘networking’, they do not meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space when none previously existed.”
And then Will Richardson writes, in support of danah’s argument, that : “….what they [the kids] do online is simply an extension of what they do in physical space. They interact with primarily the same groups, and…..they use SNS as a way to make up for the dearth of opportunities to socialize that our kids have today.”
Both, I believe, proffer a link between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought” that does not in fact exist. This doesn’t mean they are wrong, just that neither, even where they focus on SNS as opposed to broader categories such as social technologies or social networking, offers a compelling argument as to why social networking sites DO NOT have a place in the classroom.
Danah’ argument, however, is a subtle one, that SNS have educational value, in certain circumstances and for variously-motivated learners, but not “directly in the classroom”. I respect this argument but I wonder why a truly relevant classroom would not recognise the educational value of SNS and choose to make direct use of them in some fashion?
Will, too, has more than a little subtlety in his argument. He feels that we should be utilizing “social tools” rather than social networks in school. He certainly agrees that we should, “…acknowledge the importance of Facebook in their lives…” but that the SNS themselves have no place. He feels that using SNS is “…almost like cheating…” and that, “…the hardest and best work is building that network node by node through blogging and reading and creating and developing those relationships with all the messiness that the Web allows for.” I understand and respect the point he is making, but I would not dismiss SNS simply because, “…it feels too easy sometimes, like it’ moving into an apartment instead of building a house. You don”t learn too much about the way the thing works or how all the pieces fit. And you don”t learn all those building skills either…”. In simple terms, I do not think they are mutually exclusive, and the “easy way” can most certainly be used, for instance, to lead young people to consider the harder and messier and better route.
I would offer two simple arguments for the use of SNS in the classroom, which may or may not be compelling by the standards sought by danah and Will. The first I think is one that has some logic on its side. The second is an argument by analogy.
First: where our young people are already making extensive use of social network sites in their daily (connected) lives, would it not simply be perverse to exclude social network sites from the classroom? If SNS are self-evidently relevant to kids, for whatever reasons (and relevance is a condition that is not universally evident in many schools today) surely they will have some utility in the classroom.
Second: the arguments put forward by danah and Will could be applied to the school itself as an institution. It is possible to argue that school, for many young people in many parts of the world today, does not ‘help most youth see beyond their social walls’, it often does not encourage young people ‘to meet new people or see the world from a different perspective’, it ‘reinforces everyday networks’, it is a place where kids ‘interact with primarily the same groups’ and, it is possible to argue, young people use school ‘as a way to make up for the dearth of opportunities to socialize’ in other areas of their lives. Would danah and Will argue that school as a concept is moribund? (I might well – depending, of course, on the definition of “school” proposed!)
Some of the specific points put forward by both deserve to be challenged. Does danah, for instance, use a particular definition of ‘networking’ that allows her to argue that this is something kids do not do? In my experience, kids network more and more the older they get – I would argue that we do not suddenly move from a state of maturation where we do not network to a succeeding state where we do. It is a gradual process of moving beyond the childish modes of friendship to something both deeper and broader. If this is the case, then SNS, and social/learning technologies/networks more broadly, should have a place in the classroom.
Also: ‘social network sites reinforce everyday networks’. At one level there is, of course, some truth in this, but SNS do more than merely “reinforce” everyday networks in my experience. My ‘everyday networks’ and my ‘SNS networks’ do intersect, but not to any great extent. They are quite different entities for me, with a constantly-varying area of intersection – and I can think of many instances where my SNS has, indeed, enhanced my everyday networks, where, for instance, someone I previous only knew through SNS has become a real friend or acquaintance.
Finally, I think we need to take some care that we do not end up sitting in the echo chamber arguing with each other about the number of angels on the head of a pin. The real argument is not with each other – though that must and will go on – but with those who would have no truck whatsoever with the use of social technologies or social networks of any description in education. They are many and, often, powerful, although they may not realise the extent to which their days are numbered.
Postscript – In the interests of fairness, I should note that danah boyd has further posted on her use of terminology in this area, and rightly asks that others clarify their own use of categories. The semantics of the subject are critical to mutual understanding, of course, but, like all complex areas of discussion, meaning is destined always to be subject to a never-ending process of negotiation.