Social networking in education

The third of the Economist’s online debates is on the proposition that “social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom”. Martin posted this comment:

In some ways the argument is irrelevant – it’s like asking ‘is alcohol beneficial to study?’ You could argue either way, but regardless of what we think students are going to use it anyway.
But, that aside, let’s look at what SNS offer – a sense of community, peer support, enthusiastic users, engagement with technology, resource sharing, democratic participation – hmm, these are all things we’ve been desperate to have in higher education for years. We’ve largely failed in many of these (as anyone who uses a VLE can attest), so why wouldn’t we look at what happens in SNs? It would be remiss of us not to do so.
However, there are some _big_ cultural issues that higher ed will need to get over – in particular HE is based on a very hierarchical model, and is often obsessed with controlling the student experience. In a social network you have to let go. In short you have to accept bottom up over top down – and that will be tough, as it goes against 3000 years of educational instinct.
So, my conclusion – of course higher education should try and adopt principles of social networks and 2.0, but the question is whether it _can_.

My two-pennyworth was:

Technology is not the key factor in any of this. Many years ago Seymour Papert believed that putting computers into primary schools would revolutionise learning and education. It didn’t — mainly because giving pupils the capacity to engage in computer-mediated exploratory learning would have undermined the authority of teachers and made schools more ‘difficult’ to manage. So the school system asserted control over the technology and placed it in roped-off spaces called ‘ICT Rooms’ or the like, and Papert’s hoped-for revolution didn’t happen.

There’s an analogy here for social networking. It’s intrinsically non-hierarchical and largely uncontrollable. It’s therefore a poor fit with our hierarchical and tightly-controlled educational institutions — at every level from kindergarten to university. Social networking could conceivably have beneficial effects in education — but only if the social structures implicit in our educational system adapt to accept it.