When social networks were still finding their feet among their key demographic a few years ago, I was a keen advocate of formal learning institutions and their staff keeping out of those spaces, certainly not using them as social learning environments. danah's research backed this up and the concept of teachers creating "creepy treehouses" was enough to knock that desire of some on the head.
Seeing how the US Army has harnessed Facebook for a mix of both informal communication and leadership is opening up the question again in my mind, as the demographic using Facebook rises well into the 30s and Twitter's growth started with an older demographic and is only now appearing to edge southwards to early 20 year olds and teens (thanks to my wholly unscientific research - danah, if you're not busy this summer...).
It's particularly pertinent as Local Authorities charged with improving the prospects of their learners and staff in an increasingly technological age do not cease to become ever more Machiavellian in their desire to clamp down on any communication about the realities of being a teacher or learner in their patches.
From an institution that in 2000 wouldn't allow unfettered access to email (and before that whose "Full Metal Jacket" reputation preceded it), one of the most traditional public institutions with the most apparently valid potential for killing communication to those back home has come a long way. And it also shows how far schools and teen learners working within them have to go before their life cycles start matching the real world.
What is it that Facebook brings the military? It allows family to keep in touch with minimal effort through a great deal of the deep ambient intimacy of the status update:
It also allows senior members of staff in the military to, quickly and easily, without disrupting the flow of their day, update via cellphone or laptop on what (non-secret) operations they are undertaking. What exactly does an army Colonel do? Well, now you can 'follow' them and find out. It will almost certainly make a few more people aspire to doing something different or improving their act not just in seeing what superiors and, above all, seeing what peers are up to.
While intranets and VLEs provide a structured learning environment for teacher-defined groups of learners, they do not provide very well (or at all) for friends-of-a-friend (FOAF) communication, happenstance connections and temporary windows in on what FOAFs are up to. They are designed for preset activity with preset groups, despite the admirable efforts of talented creative individuals to shoehorn them into other more enticing uses. It's hard to argue that, in terms of how kids connect within the school environment with school-like material and contacts, things have really moved on since the likes of my students blogging and podcasting from their French trip in 2003 (the 2004, 2005 and Auschwitz blog remain). The fun serendipitous connections are happening very much outside the school boundaries, and the school institution itself remains largely blind to this. The knock-on effect is that school and what it should stand for - learning - are also blind to learners outside the schooling complex.
Now, at Channel 4 the Education department has worked with great skill over the past two years to create learning opportunities in the social networks and spaces where young people hang out (think Battlefront, YearDot, Routes.... There has been little attempt to make these interactions fit into schooling per se. At 4iP, where many of our products and services involve learning of some description, we continue this 'non-school' of thought.
I wonder: is there mileage for schools in looking at what the Army is achieving here and for what purposes, and seeing if there are unmet needs in the schooling environment which could be supported by social networking services and platforms which are increasingly better embedded in society? Or is this something in which only others outside the formal schooling environment are prepared to invest?
Pic: Full Metal Jacket