Dogs and hot cars?

Some things just don’t go well together- socks and sandals, peanut butter and marmite, dogs and hot cars, but what about education and social media? The combination of the two sends shivers down the spines of many a teacher, igniting fears about privacy, boundaries, safety and regulation of online spaces, consent, misuse and so on.

If my MA has taught me anything its that, for better or worse, the zeitgeist in the tech world invariably finds its way into educational discourse. Mobile computing, virtual reality, and now web 2.0 with social media a key expression of its values. It makes sense, classrooms are communications technologies in their own right, and as the dynamics and character of broader social interactions change, its understandable that those interested in holistic, empowered and communicative forms of education are also interested in social media. 

That doesn’t mean its an easy fit, its complicated (although new purpose built social networking tools for educational settings are easing this somewhat) and also disruptive as web 2.0 principles challenge conventional classroom hierarchies.  

Leaving aside practicalities, of which there are many to consider, I think there are essential issues at stake. The foremost of these being the contextual value of actions. As Charles Crook observes, “Communication practices do not exist independently of the socio-cultural structures that communicating agents occupy“. In other words, context matters. This manifests itself in regard to things like the practice of collaboratively curating information rather than re-writing it. In the world of the internet, this is commonplace, but in schools where the structures still prioritise individualised assessment and would class curation as plagiarism, it doesn’t fit so well. Similarly, nobody HAS to listen to anybody online. Web 2.0 spaces are flat and somewhat self-regulating. This is fundamentally at odds with traditionally structured  formal learning environments which place the teacher in an elevated position and which often strictly regulate internet use. I also think there are stylistic challenges- when I use the internet for work I’m also usually listening to music and facebook chatting with a friend (I seemingly have a lot in common with the students Cook spoke to!)- and this kind of free rein is a considerable departure from what is permitted in schools. 

Some thoughts:

  • It’s ok to have differences between home and school– children will experience this distinction throughout their lives in the form of a personal/professional identity and home/work spaces and learning that there are different ways of communicating, acting and levels of sharing and social intimacy or informality that exist in these spaces is a good thing to learn.
  • Social technologies can be embedded in a particular community and don’t need to be connected beyond their context to have value- just as some workplaces use social tools such as Yammer to organise work and encourage thought, collaboration, self-publishing etc that utilise social media within a workspace, schools can do something similar without invading student’s private social spaces.
  • Informal learning environments which rely on peer community and material equally have a lot to gain from using social media– groups that form around learning such as sports teams, music groups, coding clubs, youth movements etc avoid some of the challenges that schools might face when wanting to go social. Whereas I find myself wondering how many kids really want to willingly spend their Monday night’s on the school’s instant messaging service talking about how cool their homework is, I don’t have the same concerns about how many kids want to learn new Judo moves, share sports skills, arts techniques etc.
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