Teachers and Students as Nodes on Online Social Networks

Tomaz Lasic has an interesting post on teachers banned from contacting their students over online social networking sites in Queensland, Australia. I sympathize with his argument that education is an inherently social activity and that online social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are ways to encourage this social mode of learning. I agree that “banning” much of anything (without first putting in place some guidelines) is probably not the best way to explore what the potentialities of something are, for better or for worse.

He does note the “other side,” however, that keeping kids safe from “online predators and abusers” (most of whom are not teachers) is very important. I think that positioning one’s argument against such an extreme is usually counterproductive.

In my view, there are much more immediate and subtle effects of using social networking sites to communicate with students, blurring the boundaries between “teacher” and “friend” and out-of-school and in-school learning. Reading Axel Brun’s commentary on Trying to Remain Faceless on Facebook and Social Networks on Ning: A Sensible Alternative to Facebook (Dr. Brun hails, ironically, from Queensland) and Anton Steinpilz’s Thesis #3 in Paradise Tossed: Three Theses on the Impossibility of Future Progress are some takes on this idea. Not that I think that there shouldn’t be some overlap between “teacher” and “friend,” but it’s more complicated than Facebook makes it out to be.

But my argument can best be put by danah boyd, who warns us of a combination of technological utopianism and determinism which is so easy to slip into:

…[W]hen we introduce technology in an educational setting, we often mistakenly assume that students will embrace the technology in the same way that we do. This never works out and can cause unexpected strife. Take social network sites as an example. You use this for professional networking; teens use it to socialize with their peers. Putting Facebook or MySpace into the classroom can create a severe cognitive collision as teens try to work out the shift in contexts. Most problematically, when teens are forced to navigate Friending in an educational setting, painful dramas occur because who you’re polite to in school may be very different than who you socialize with at home. Using technology that ruptures social norms in the classroom can be socially and educationally harmful.

Her post, some thoughts on technophilia, is not long, and well worth the read for anyone who is concerned about education, technology, and students. If educators are insistent on using online social networks–and there are some good reasons to do so–I wonder if following Axel Burns’ advice is the way to go, setting up a Ning, or better yet, a Moodle on the school network (if such an option is available), dedicated to the class or a specific project, maintaining stricter boundaries between school work (and yes, it is, in so many ways, work) and friendships.