Monday, November 10, 2008

A Place for Social Networking in Education?

This month's Lunch 'n Learn discussed Social Networking in Education. Not too many people were interested in attending, and I wonder if it's just a bad month for attendance, or if people don't see a use for social networking at NLU- perhaps they see tools like Facebook and MySpace as entertainment only time-wasters for teens? Not to be taken seriously as a tool for education?

The top 5 reasons I think that educational institutions (K-20) should not give social networking sites the brush-off are:
  • you can reach your students there, because they are already there
  • social networking teaches important life skills
  • social networking teaches creativity
  • your students will use social networking in the workplace
  • social networking is also a useful tool for faculty collaboration and development
Several studies have found that the use of sites such as MySpace and Facebook have real educational benefits. Not only do the majority of students who use the sites use them to talk about school (they ask questions about homework, discuss class, form study groups*) but they also learn academic and real-world skills such as communication, collaboration, flexibility, adaptability, critical thinking, and a slew of technology skills like page design, image creation, video editing.

And it's not just the teens and tweens who are on these sites. The fastest growing population on Facebook are those 25 years and older. And LinkedIn (a professional social networking site) is rivaling Facebook in growth and number of users. So it's not a matter of whether our students are using the tools anymore- but what the appropriate ways to use social networking in education are.

Let's start with LinkedIn, because that's an easy one. LinkedIn is less about photo-sharing and more about tapping into relationships. It's not nearly as fun as Facebook. It is based on the premise that, "it's not what you know, it's who you know", and the "Strength of Weak Ties". Encourage your students to create their profile on LinkedIn. If you have a profile, you can even "recommend" them. It may be a "weak tie" that gets them a job. "Currently, more than 30 million professionals are on LinkedIn, including executives from all five hundred of the Fortune 500 companies." There are well-over 100 people on LinkedIn that list National-Louis University as their current employer.

Facebook is a bit more tricky. Students may view a faculty member or institution's presence in Facebook as an intrusion. That's not to say that Facebook hasn't already been 'invaded' by alumni departments, libraries, student organizations, and professors. I don't think it's wrong to be there, I just think you need to tread carefully. Certainly, you don't want to send your students a "friend request". They might be completely appalled by the idea of sharing their personal life with you. But you could create a group in Facebook and encourage your students to join. That maintains everyone's privacy and coolness factor. Within a group, you can have a discussion board, messaging options, wall (announcements board), resource sharing, and more. This can be a group for a particular class, a cohort, an experience, or a department. Looking at groups created by institutions in Facebook, students do join them. Libraries have hundreds of members. Alumni groups have thousands. The key is to make it voluntary and useful.

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