Facebook and social networking is very much the thing these days. Everyday we get claims that people have ditched email for facebook and in the past I've blogged about the possibility of facebook for edu.
Certainly people have tried teaching groups with facebook, but almost certainly that's because they wanted the sharing and collaborative features in a social networking platform such as facebook. And as for email being dead, thats simply not true. People use email and facebook differently. Emails are sent to individuals, with (or without attachments). The direct analogy is with the good old fashioned post. You send a communication to named individuals, who you may or may not know, for a purpose. Same as text messages, communication is 1 -> n where n is any integer greater or equal to one.
Facebook is different - it's about collaboration. The idea is very simple, you broadcast your communications to a group of your friends who can see all your communications. It means that they can keep up with what you're doing, how big your cat is or whatever. But it's not targeted, it's more like the communication of a group of friends round a cafe or pub table.
And that's exactly what it is. Let's you know Karen's got a new boyfriend, that Debbie's gone hiking in Japan - check the cool photo's, or that Pierre's looking for some material for a new course he's teaching. It lets you keep in contact with people half the planet away, with whom you still have a degree of friendship and interest. It let's you do the shared thing. But basically you only share with those you know or feel comfortable sharing with.
And it's not just facebook, you see the same nexus of contacts developing in linkedin, where you tend to link and track with people you have substantial professional enagagement with and with whom you feel it might be profitable to re-engage.
But throughout the scheme is the idea of consent.
Now let's look at learning management systems (LMS's).
Generation 1 systems simply modelled the standard pedagogic experience. Tutor made material available. Tutor set tests to track how students are doing. Tutor held tutorials (aka chat-room sessions). Students did tests, checked in papers, particiapted in tutorials. Basically the same deal as it's been for tha last 800 years, but the online version.
The major advantage of these systems was for part time and distance learning students. None of the business of having to nick off for a tutorial during the day. It also made it easy to take a module in your own time and to interact and pose questions of your tutor at a time conveneinet to you. And it also let students work more easily round timetable clashes, review material, especially if the mp3's of the lectures were available to download. So all in all they were a good thing and probably enhanced the learning experience for most students.
Now, here comes generation 2. All the generation 1 features are still there, after all it's worked for the past 800 odd years, but now we're talking about sharing and collaboration and group projects, and that means disclosing information about yourself so that people can identify you.
Now in a small group situation, say a translation group working through early medieval french texts to get up to speed for a research topic that's probably ok. For a start you probably know each other already, and if you don't you'd probably happen across each other soon enough. After all, these days universities are not infested with medievalists, latinists or any other of the stereotypes.
Now scale this out to something like French Language 101. Probably at least 250 in the class. Yes, they're still split into smaller grups for teaching purposes, but still unlikely that everyone will know every one. And there may be people that you don't want to share with. In real life you'd get through any group activity with the minimum of interaction possible. In facebook you'd block them from seeing your profile, but hey, you're at college, you don't have any control over who sees what in the LMS and suddenly your information is exposed. Espeically is there's also a group resource site for the whole course.
And that's the rub. A social LMS imposes social networking. Applications like facebook are (bad management decisions aside) consensual opt in environments.
Now social networking, however basic is probably good for small groups, you might even get forums working and real discussion going. But big anonymous groups?
Not really. Most people probably only know about 15 people and have a wider circle of 40 or 50 acquaintainces - certainly plenty of research in suggests so. People don't have 250 acquaintences. And that's where the other probles that are difficult to deal with, cyberstalking, cyberbullying tend to to take over reducing the utility of the LMS and increasing student dissatisfaction.
So, where does this leave us?
Ceratinly the social aspects of an LMS are a benefit in small advanced and possibly more mature groups. But in big groups? perhaps not, or at least the problems may outweigh the benefits.