Friday, May 11, 2007

Social networking sites for education

I am back from holidays in Italy and not quite back in the swing of things yet. My mind keeps wondering of to other places....... Stephen Downes OlDaily sent me a link this morning to Ewan Macintosh's blog post on Bebo. He mentioned that the average Bebo user spends 41 minutes online a day on their Bebo musings. He feels educators should harness the potential of these sites, and the skills people pick up while using them for educational purposes.
Although I can see the networking potential of the tools and their ease of use, in addition to their business potential, I wonder what makes that Macintosh is attracted to sites like Bebo for educational purposes. Young people use these sites for gossiping and talking with their friends, showing off their music, and exposing themselves to the world in order to grab some attention. And yes, ok they learn how to press buttons and to use templates, but there are in my view major issues with their use in education.
Research by Neil Selwyn, and one of his papers 'Digital Inequality and New Spaces of Informal Education for Young People' shows that the majority of young people use technology for very mundane purposes: finding information, sharing music and messages, writing about their everyday life. Selwyn, sees the potential of technology to move young people to a deeper engagement with issues of citizenship and other issues related to wider society, but he believes the best way to go about this would be facilitating an organic growth of engagement, rather than for it to be imposed by adults in the informal online spaces that young people have created for themselves. 'In practice, what are essentially fluid, organic, and chaotic virtual practices will be flourishing precisely because they are free from external control, restraints or official adult intervention'. Perhaps invading Bebo and MySpace with our message is not such a good idea. The medium needs to 'fit' the message. Why would young people, who are on Bebo and Myspace to communicate with their friends, engage with a site put up by adults about citizenship? Authenticity of the communication is at the heart of this. If people's expectations are not aligned, the message won't come across, in a similar fashion that this would happen in a face to face environment, where people would not discuss subjects such as 'democracy' with people sitting at other tables in a coffee-shop. What has already shown to work is communication on networks of interest, or on spaces such as Elgg, in which networks are formed, but with a different purpose than Bebo. Where a higher level of thinking and reflection might be part of the expected package for the participant.

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