A Better Course

“thou hast councilled a better course than thou hast allowed”

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Running Out Of Ink

January 16th, 2008 · No Comments

apophenia asks:

I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from knowing about the cool new thing). I haven’t even heard of a good reason why social network site features should be used in the classroom. What is the value of knowing who is friends with who or creating a profile when you already know all of your classmates?

I think that a lot of the answers to this question lie in her other point –

There are innumerable inequalities in terms of educational technology access, just as there are huge inequalities in nearly every aspect of education. How many schools lack pencils, textbooks, teachers? Again, it’s terrible, but it’s not the technology’s fault.

Like danah, I’m unconvinced about the efficacy of social networks as tools for learning. But I think there’s one thing that they might provide – less restrictive access to information.

As I’ve mentioned, I went home at Christmas, and talked with my youngest brother – who is not yet in high school – about how he uses the internet. A big part of this is going to be mediated by his school, because that’s where he spends a lot of time, and (I assumed) it would be an important part of the kind of projects you do at that level of education.

In the manner of a near teen, he described the internet at school as being rubbish. I pushed on this, and he said, “well, everything is blocked. I can’t look at anything“. Again, I assumed that he meant he couldn’t search for Weird Al Yankovic videos on YouTube, and asked another question, and he explained:

“We don’t have enough books to do the research for the projects we do. So we need to use the internet. But at school any reference to gore or anything naughty is blocked, which means that it’s really hard to do research on our projects.”

I asked – because now I was really interested – how he did any learning about, say, Vikings, or the Second World War, online at school. And he told me:

“Well, you can’t. As soon as you find a page that’s useful, the computer learns to block it. Last term our project was on vivisection, and we found a great page with loads of information and pictures. And we took notes and printed until the printer ran out of ink. By the time the ink was replaced, the page was blocked and we couldn’t get back to it.”

I thought that was a fascinating explanation of how (relatively) powerless you are at that age; you can’t change the printer ink, even if you know how, and you can’t use the internet in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed. But there’s one thing you can do, and that’s share information and ask other people what they know.

Social networks broaden the base of people you have to speak to to a massive extent. Even at the age of 12, you have cousins, friends from previous schools, children of parent’s friends, all of whom could be at different schools and who could know different things from you. If you use Twitter or the Facebook status update to ask casual questions, you can get a lot of information from a number of sources as well as ideas to follow up. You might not want to do research for school at home, but you will want to use social networking sites – if you ask one question of twenty people it doesn’t feel like work, and you might find out what you need to know.

This generation are using and will increasingly use tools such as Facebook – and if social networking services are going be used in the service of learning, I believe it will take this form.

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