Social networking: The new ‘McGuffin’ in Education?

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Harrison Ford refers to the treasures that Indiana Jones chases as 'mcguffins' - a treasure that fuels and drives the plot forward, but that isn't really that important to the overall story. Is the use of social networking in websites in danger of appearing in the same way? (Used under CC, by redplasticmonkey)

‘Social networking’ is the latest ubiquitous term in educational usage of ICT; right now to me it feels like it is everywhere. Controversy continues to abound regarding the issue of teachers having personal profiles on websites like Facebook and Twitter. I have very mixed feelings about whether I should make my Twitter profile private – I feel that it actually runs in direct contrast to the spirit of the site, but I am careful to exercise common sense in the messages that go up there. Likewise, I don’t consider that my facebook account is anything other than very private and flat out refuse to add students, even old ones.

Meanwhile, social networking is frequently being added to new ICT resources at what I consider to be a ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ rate. Our school is about to begin using B-Live, a careers website that has high standards of professionality – it looks great for starters, and provides good guidance and advise on progression in an accessible way. Part of the website allows students to engage in social networking – they can create avatars and social profiles that other members of the site can view. While B-Live is one of the best careers websites I’ve seen, I am unsure of the need for this type of element to the website.  Many students in my school already have their own facebooks (strange in itself, considering its minimum age tag) and myspace profiles and funnily enough I do believe that students themselves are cynical enough (oh yes!)  to notice when they’re being marketed to in a way that isn’t really useful or new to them. Why go social networking on a new site when they already have their own personal network which they see as efficient and engaging enough for expressing their own interests and socialising with their peers?

In this case (and in a few other websites I have seen that purport to have educational purpose), is there any in-depth consideration of how the social networking element of the site actually adds to the experience and the learning for students; or is it bound to just become a way in which they can wonder off task, or worse use the websites to break rules of e-safety? Are there any social networking sites for education that offer an effective use of the concept? Something devised by the UK goverment, cyber-mentors seems to me to be an admirable attempt to take the concept of social networking and use it in a positive way (only negative thing is the use of ‘text language’ on the main webpage, but hey that’s me with my English teacher hat on). Essentially the idea is that students mentor each other through difficult experiences associated with bullying. The difference is that a student could be mentoring another student from the other side of the country. I think it encourages students to make social connections and express themselves in an emotionally literate, mature way. Its definitely worth checking out, particularly if you’re a teacher in the UK.

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