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.

Diigo.com

The subject of this week’s blog is diigo, a website that I have been getting to grips with in the past week or so. I think it offers a real chance to change practice within the classroom.

Firstly, its features: Diigo is a free service that allows you to trawl the web and bookmark websites in a social sphere. Essentially, if you find a wesbite you like, you bookmark it (similar to adding it to your favourites). The difference is that you can then share that link with others who are part of the site; this is the social element and where the phrase ‘social bookmarking’ seems to originate from.

As good as this is on its own, it doesn’t take into account the functionality of Diigo. There are numerous tools that can allow you to reflect on the website you’re using, which again, can be accessible to other members of the site. For example, you can highlight parts of the webpage and leave ‘post-it’ note style annotation on the highlights, meaning that others can then access your experiences/insights of using the website.

Never mind that this is a useful tool for all the trawling I do with journals for my masters, I quickly began to consider the implications that this website could have for teaching practice. One of the biggest concerns with students using ICT is how effectively they are using the internet. Many are comfortable using search engines; far less get into the regular habit of adding good websites they find to their favourites.

If Diigo was used with students they could quickly begin to see the usefulness of such an approach. If a student found a website they liked, they would simply bookmark it. Because of the social networking part of Diigo, that link would then be passed onto other students in. Furthermore, the student could have left annotations, reflecting on what they consider to be the most salient parts of the website.

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A still taken from the test group I have set up. Notice how the ‘notes’ I have left for the website are accessible before having to view the website.

 

Things don’t necessarily end there either. Having signed up as an educator on the site (an easy, vital part), I have created a test ‘group’ for one of my classes. They then have access to a message board in which they can discuss what they’ve found and a space where all the bookmarks are listed and summarised.

For a long time there has been a feeling in my school that students, particularly those taking the jump from GCSE to sixth form, struggle with processes of research and the independence that comes attached with this sort of study. Given that students are increasingly doing their research on the internet, this seems like a powerful tool for shaping that experience for them in a meaningful, significant way.