Writing and the Social Network

I recently had a student email me and ask my thoughts on the role of Facebook and social networks in teaching and learning. I’m far from the expert in this and it’s not really in my area of research, but I was a bit surprised by some of my responses. I was reminded of the axiom that, “you don’t know what you think until you write” and, that it can be quite freeing to write fast, stream-of-consciousness prose with little thought given to “evidence” and “logic” —  another great reason for young researchers to keep a journal. It’s honestly been a long time since I had done that. Anyway, here are the questions and my responses:

1) Do you think that social networking sites such as facebook have a positive, negative, or no effect at all on academics and learning? Does multitasking play a role?

Everything going on in a learner’s life affects the learning process. There are affordances and constraints associated with social networking. Educators need to work hard to maximize the affordances (e.g., strength of weak ties, distributed cognition, expanded social support, engaging with and synthesizing diverse views) and minimize the constraints (e.g., mindless “Facebooking/Farmvilling” during class, sharing potentially damaging information) of social networks. This isn’t a trivial task and takes a lot of rethinking about the learning process. Part of the reason I love learning technologies is that, ideally, they force us to rethink pedagogy and bring a critical lens to our preconceived notions. Any time we have to think deeply about and get creative with what helps people to learn, good things happen. Conversely, not thinking and blindly throwing FB into our instructional toolkit isn’t going to end well — just like anything else.

Their are optimists, contrarians, and agnostics forming around the multitasking debate. To me, the salient issue for learning is what are students being distracted by, what bits of information are students switching between before, during, and after class? My take is that if we engage students in real, valuable, and meaningful learning experiences, they are much less likely to drift around to alternate bits of information that are of no educative value. On the other hand, I’m all for it if a student briefly disengages from a lecture or formal learning activity to Google on a topic related to the course or fire off some tweets to crowdsource relevant ideas. I do believe this is where some “Good Ideas Come From” and a desperately important affordance of the digital age. Heck, I do it in every talk or lecture I attend. If it takes using social media and socially connected technologies to meet students where they are and engage them in learning experiences that are meaningful to them, then I’m all for it.


2) What are your thoughts about an application that connects facebook and academics in one place to discuss class material, upload documents, etc? such as Purdue University’s Mixable?(if you have heard of it).

I hadn’t heard of it, but like I mentioned above, I’m all for it if there are still clear pedagogical goals and outcomes attached to its use. If it’s just trying to “be cool” students will see right through it and likely ignore it. Students want to be challenged and they want their learning institutions to give them a vision for the learning process and have good reasons why this system is being implemented. If that’s clearly there in Mixable, then it will probably work. In addition, it needs to be intuitive and give learners choice. Some want to separate FB from their academic life and that’s fine. Can they still engage in the Mixable experience and get value out of it via different avenues?


3) Do you think having the capability to use a program that the student is familiar with, like Facebook, for academic purposes has any role in learning and motivation to achieve?

Yes, see above. But I’m a young instructor. I have no problem catering somewhat to students and experimenting with FB. Older instructors may not, but there are still very effective low-tech ways to engage learners and increase motivation (e.g,. cooperative learning, problem-based and team-based learning, authentic assignments where students can apply course concepts to their lives, formative assessment, etc). FB has come and some day will give way to something else, but low-tech student engagement techniques and evidence-based instructional design principles will likely always work.


3) With emerging technology, smartphones, and increasing popularity in social networks, do you think social networks will become more of a learning tool in the future?

It’s THE learning tool of the present. Large, slow-moving educational institutions have been, on average, slow to the party. That’s why you see alternative modes of learning (e.g., badges, open learning initiatives, massive open online courses) starting to take hold.


[Photo Credit: _Max-B http://www.flickr.com/photos/massimobarbieri/]



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