Neil Selwyn from the Institute of Education in London recently led a seminar at LSE where he introduced the audience to his findings with respect to the use of Facebook in educational contexts: Faceworking: Exploring Students' Educational Use of Facebook.
He notes that there is a great deal of discourse surrounding the use of tools such as Facebook in order to support education at HE level, as well as competing discourses which strive to cast Facebook as a distraction, where time spent, in whose consumption, is directly proportional to the deterioration of grade you are likely to receive. So some discourses breathlessly envision a self-directed pedagogic utopia in which learning becomes integrated into informal social activities, while other discourses cast Facebook as another great evil alongside Wikipedia et al, which distracts students from work, or allows them to plagiarise, or generally avoid taking responsibility for their learning.
Selwyn refers to a number of efforts to engage with students using Facebook - Cambridge University have built applications, for example, and even some students themselves have set up groups calling for Blackboard to be ditched in favour of Facebook. I will pass over similar efforts by the Media School at Bournemouth in silence - you know who you are!
In fact, Selwyn finds that Facebook communication is put to a limited set of uses when these students users are left to their own devices:
i) Recounting and reflecting on the university experience ii) Exchange of practical information iii) Exchange of academic information iv) Displays of supplication and or disengagement v) Banter
When Selwyn looks closer at the actual exchanges which go on under these headings, he finds that they generally reflect an anti-intellectual tone, in which learners portray themselves as inadequate and bored. The university experience of course revolves around the social life, while discussion of seminars or lectures often concentrates on the personality defects of the academic staff. Selwyn notes, nevertheless, that we may take consolation that students do at least get some indentity-work-benefit from tools such as Facebook (in the sense that they are able to find correlations between their own sense of inadequacy and that of others, in what Selwyn refers to as 'facework', after Goffman).
Interestingly, Selwyn also suggests that if academics want to quickly make a name for themselves, research into social networking should be a shoe-in. He offers Danah Boyd's recent visibility as evidence, since she is 'just' a PhD student, but is the 'biggest self-publicist out there'.
Notwithstanding Selwyn's unkindness to Boyd, his argument is basically that educators should stay away from Spaces like Facebook, MySpace, and whatever happens to be the next big thing next year. I tend to agree, not least because the whole business of bringing education into these spaces is analogous to bringing it into any other extra-curricular activity: it's the equivalent of your parents joining in at the school disco, or Tony Blair co-opting the stratocaster; imagine what government sponsored punk would feel like, and you have educational use of Facebook. Totally naff.