Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Use and Role of Social Networking Sites (SNS) in Higher Education

With the explosive growth of social networking sites (like Facebook and Twitter), higher education has been faced with an interesting, albeit expected, decision. We know that students are using some of the SNS to connect with one another, with friends and with family. These sites allow and encourage the development of networks. Connecting people with shared interests, common activities, for example, the SNS have blossomed and continue to find use with people who simply have a desire or need to connect with others. The ease and comfort they exhibit in using these sites has come with their continued and intense use. They share information and pictures with others, and eventually with the world. While the consequences of their actions or disregard of privacy issues may cause us and them some discomfort, their use of these sites outside of the realm of education may not impact us, much.

We are now faced with an interesting choice. The use and prevalence of the sites has now shifted to the classroom. There is a perception that if the students use these sites, higher education should as well. Students use these sites outside of the classroom, but the use of the sites as a part of the classroom is not commonplace. Granted, there are multiple course management systems with a wide range of features available. This discussion does not focus on the use or role of commercially or locally produced course management systems. This discussion focuses on the role of social networking sites in higher education.

Should we use the common sites to deliver instruction? How do these sites provide learning opportunities? It can be safely assumed that many of the current SNS are used to share “information” in the form of posts and responses, similar to a threaded discussion board.

These sites can be used to feed, or push and pull information to mobile devices like many of the contemporary smart phones. The immediacy of information exchange can provide some well desired benefits. Additionally, since many of the students are already familiar with the mainstream SNS, the learning curve is significantly reduced. They are using this medium to communicate and connect, and as such, should be able to connect to their classes with the same medium.

However, this is where some of the traditional lines begin to blur. There exists within the “traditional” classroom well defined roles. Teachers and students know and understand the roles and expectations of each role. Whether teacher-centered or learner-centered, the roles are defined. SNS begin to blur these roles. The traditional roles become blurred, at times obscured by the very medium itself. Is it acceptable to develop a closer role, almost a friend or acquaintance, in the classroom? It would be safe to presume that this role would not be tolerated, for the most part. And yet, the very casual nature and environment of the SNS allow and encourage us to become more than a teacher or student, we are encouraged to become friends. This very blurring or obscuring of the roles may impact and potentially damage the teacher-student relationship.

A quick search of “social media policies” and “social networking policies” on the internet will provide guidance on branding, use of images or logos, and a listing of supported SNS applications. And yet, the educational or instructional uses of SNS are not as prominent. There may be several discussions on the obvious uses and protections or safeguards in K-12. There is not much discussion on the role of SNS in higher education.

Granted, we may need to establish some guidelines for the use. Perhaps the guidelines should focus on:
• Using SNS to post information
• Supplementing classroom information
• Providing resources
• Aggregating resources into a single web based site
• Using the current and emerging smart phones to update, push and pull information

Due in part to the new role many of the SNS are assuming, we should exercise caution and not blur acceptable roles for teachers and students. Becoming too familiar with a student, or teacher, may disrupt the teaching and learning endeavors.

We should find ways to use and integrate SNS into our technological approaches. We should be more acceptable to uses of newer technologies. We should be constantly reviewing the uses of technology for different uses. SNS may provide us with an opportunity to connect with students in ways that we never before imagined. We should connect as TEACHERS to STUDENTS. That is how the newer technologies can extend, enhance and engage the learning process.

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