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Education and the social web

Norm Friesen has a new article in First Monday on Education and the Social Web. The article addresses concerns about the growing reliance on “web 2.0″ tools – driven by advertising – on education. This concern has been highlighted by numerous bloggers over the last several years (I’ve whined about this as well – i.e. easy-to-use replaces the principle of free in open source). The start of the article solidifies much of the discussion around the presence of advertiser-driven education. After reading the article a few times, I’m a bit confused. He appears to be making two arguments: PLEs are increasingly advertiser driven (I agree with this) and that social networked learning isn’t real learning (I don’t agree with this and I don’t understand how those two points are related). The latter point comes in the conclusion – usually not the best place to provide a new argument – when he states:

Despite the current prominence of social–psychological and connectivist theories, it is easy to make the case that learning is just as much about division as it is about connection. In fact, the consistent pattern of suppressing division, negativity and interpersonal dissent that is central to the business model of social networking services runs counter to some of the most common models and recommendations for online student interaction and engagement…Knowledge is not exclusively embodied in ever growing networks of connection and affiliation, and it does not just occur through building and traversing these proliferating nodes and links.

I’m confused about the main point being made in the article – is it a criticism of social networked learning or of commercial advertising presence in popular web tools? I follow Norm’s criticism until he takes this sharp turn and draws a random, unsupported relationship between social networked learning and existing social network tools. He is equating learning in networks with advertising. The open courses that we have offered over the last several years are based primarily on open source tools (we use Elluminate for the live discussions as we haven’t found a suitable open source replacement). We have significant dissent, debate, and disagreements. This may sound a bit nonsensical, but embedded within a connection is a disconnection. If you have 30 options in front of you, by selecting one, you are in essence disconnecting from the rest, assuming, of course, that you have only one choice to make. Disconnection is rarely a conscious choice -because to think of disconnection is to reinforce a connection. The way to disconnect is to form other connections that, over time, reduce the strength of an existing connection.


  1. You probably already know this but the free software Big Blue Button’s next version will allow videos to be taped (an important feature presently missing).

    (To eventually replace Elluminate.)

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  2. Chris Lott wrote:

    Seems pretty confused to me. The words “exclusively” and “just” open the door, of course, to the obvious defensive counter-argument, but then what is interesting about a statement like “learning does not just occur through X?”

    I’d be more interested in where the theoretical and the actual intersect, if they do, in the realms of social engineering that is utilized *at scale* to create social networks, because while I agree with Norm that such tendencies and pressures exist, I don’t see that they actually have much effect on the little picture of educational activities floating on top of them. We (educators) are, most often, a bit like those tiny fish that live in their own little ecosystem on the scraps and leavings of a leviathan (social networking services).

    Also, It’s not always ease of use that trumps the principles of being free, but (and this seems particularly important in this area) going where the people are. I’ve often turned to proprietary services and apps because that’s where the population is to ultimately sustain my little community during my time with them and provide a place for them after…

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  3. gsiemens wrote:

    @Chris – “We (educators) are, most often, a bit like those tiny fish that live in their own little ecosystem on the scraps and leavings of a leviathan (social networking services).”
    :) .

    That certain seems to be the case in social network services. I’m trying to think of the last big educational tool that was developed by higher ed – WebCT? Social network tools rely as much on “where the people are” (as you note) as they do on the actual software. There are tons of Elgg installs…but data transfer between the two is limited. I have to create a new ID/profile on each one I use. Ning, before imploding, provided an option for centralized networks, like Facebook, but was driven by advertisers as well. Then, the inevitable network-fatigue set in: the easier it is to use a tool, the easier it is to get sick of a tool (ooh, I know, let’s start a Ning group to talk about our cat’s feelings).

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  4. gsiemens wrote:

    @Renee – I’ve tried BBB in the past…it seems like things are developing. Hopefully, it will be a reasonable alternative to Connect/Elluminate soon.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  5. Ed Webb wrote:

    I was going to write some stuff. But then Chris Lott wrote stuff, so I’m just going to agree with him. This either makes me a) a victim of “the business model of social networking services” or b) someone who agrees with Chris on this topic.

    In other news, I can’t make much sense of the paragraph quoted. To the extent that I experience frustration with students being too eager to agree with one another and me, too averse to dissension and too addicted to affirmation, I see no evidence that this is a result of social networking. Rather, I’d say, it has to do with messages delivered by previous schooling experiences (and reinforced by some traditional media) about the intrinsic value of everybody’s opinion and a horror of discrimination in every sense, including the useful one of discriminating between the valuable and the valueless – but I have no evidence for that either.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  6. ggatin wrote:

    I read Friesen’ article with interest and I appreciated his articulation of the concern that the web could become like television as education is concerned–so totally commercialized that it has very limited usefulness. But I’m not sure what alternatives are available. Rely the existing educational institutions to provide and manage the web-based infrastructure for learning on a global scale? Not likely. Count on in-house IT? Even less likely.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Chris Lott wrote:

    @Ed you forget a third possibility– you are victim of agreeing with Chris. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of them and is usually temporary!

    @Ggatin the problem with the tv metaphor is that the television was never really– even with public access cable– a creative space for any but the tiniest majority. It’s what makes the participatory space a revolutionary rather than incremental area for media. Commercialization making the social net that limited will have to take a very different form from that which colonized an already passive platform– one that, to be honest, I can’t even envision short of a total co-option not of the platforms, but of the underlying network infrastructure…

    Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink