July 01, 2009

If the Army sees the potential in Facebook, why not schools?


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.

On the Facebook blog this morning says Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Arata (link to his FB page):

Allowing our audience — including our soldiers — to connect and communicate through social networking is still considered risky business by some, and we do face unique challenges. The risks to operations security felt by some, or the fears that our soldiers will post "unbecoming" information, are outweighed by increased communication and sharing.

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:


Facebook is also giving a platform for sharing of skills and advice between recruits:

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


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Interesting post - just listening to Daniel Livingstone from University of West Scotland talking about integrating Moodle with Second Life - check out http://www.sloodle.org/moodle/ doubt we'll ever get schools thinking along these lines!!!

I find it interesting that the army is encourging its use as i had heard that soldiers captured on operations have had their social networking sites accessed by captors to use as a psychologiocal tool in interrogations.

The distribution of sensitive information is a difficult one to master in an open environment - you mention a couple of excellent solutions.

I learnt from our lawyers that if they had (as a company) a Facebook page they would not be considered for a M.O.D. contract.

I'm guessing this is to do with arms movements or equally sensitive information - they are nervous. Unfortunately relying on common sense is no way to control information. (These walls have ears.)

I suspect it will take someone with your intellect and some success stories or case studies for the education sector to take note of the Army approach. Either that or the realisation that the best solution to an as yet unidentified problem is a social network. - Or the school suddenly realises that there is real benefit in creating a close knit online community?

Good post Ewan as always.

Our Local Authority (LA) has this week added bebo to the websense banned list for teachers who were allowed acccess until last week! This means my colleague can't communicate quickly with the old S5/6 who are sorting their yearbook out for example. The patronising reply from LA was 'banned as they are time wasting sites' implying professionals such as teachers in their employ are time wasters. Hmm. These are same LA 'experts' whose Acceptable Use Policy is dated 2001 and mentions bulletin boards etc and when I challenged this asking for my S6 class blog (maintained by the kids)to be unblocked they did so but then nobbled the twitter update feed on the blog so I can't let kids know when I've uploaded resources onto the whole class website! So we keep getting told to use ICT, yet can't use it in our classrooms!

Hello...21st Century calling LA! Ironic as I am ex Army and have been using IT since 1982 so have rather more experience than many of the 'experts' in the LA IT Dept! Am spending holidays writing huge letter to various people in LA to persuade them to (a) let us get on with job with the tools we want and are supposed to be using NOW and (b) stop assuming teachers know nothing about IT etc. As you said it's about the teach so it is the teachers who should be telling IT what they want to use. It has been like this all term - one step forward three back with LA. And don't get me started on the GLOW/ SEEMIS deployment!

Holidays start tomorrow - wonder if they'll have things sorted by mid August? *sound of hysterical laughter in background* I might just ask for the British Army to step in!

I go both ways on this one:

YES - Facebook et al are a great proof of concept for the kinds of social interactions that could be possible in education. Institutions need to take note, and as well as looking at the technology, provide a simple way for educators to understand the pedagogical implications. In other words, the technology is great, but not enough; the underlying reasons are extremely important.

NO - There are huge data protection implications for requiring or even suggesting that students go join Facebook. Better to learn from it and find a safe way to do the same sort of thing.

I've recently been encouraging institutions to look at developing a more user-centred approach, which I think would benefit both education and the wider web at large.

Ewan, I think you are asking a lot of schools when some local authorities are still actively banning/restricting social networking (including blogging!). Fears over child protection are not going away in a hurry.
Then throw in some research findings that suggest that many learners don't want schools/colleges invading their online social spaces...
I think at UWS we've achieved a fair compromise in setting up a ning group for students. The VLE is used for 'education', ning is more social by far (including a lot of very irreverent content), but some of the learning/education activities do leak over.
At the other end of things, the Open Source Moodle VLE will have a repositories API in version 2.0 which will allow tutors and students much greater flexibility in connecting what they do on the VLE to the world of Web 2.0 (and vice versa) - Flickr, GoogleDocs, ...

@Catherine - Thanks for the name check - most unexpected :-)
Look out for 'Canvas' a schools project from Learning Teaching Scotland based in Opensim (Second Life compatible virtual world that you can run on your own server).

@Ben Werdmuller
ELGG - http://elgg.org/ - is open source social networking software, used by some universities and other organisations.
Would be nice if local authorities (or schools) could run their own social networks. Ning would be easier, but would still presumably have some of the data protection issues.

Oh noes 3 replies to a single post...
just realised I told a co-founder of ELGG about ELGG

/me blushes

Hi Daniel,
I think I still agree with you (and my previous views) that we should learn from rather than actively use social networks in schools. I'm also still really clear on the fact that normally it is not schools and teachers at fault here for the lack of thinking on the matter - it is certainly the local authorities who repeatedly fail to engage on the issue in a meaningful way.

In that respect, I'm not asking a lot of Local Authorities. I'm asking them to think more transparently about why they do the things they do, be open not only to people's thoughts on that matter but also to bend to them when the overwhelming feeling is that teachers need to be treated as professionals.

Child safety should not be compromised by allowing teachers to take control of networks. If it is, we have existing mechanisms for training and disciplining staff in the most serious cases of misconduct.

Good post. We are experimenting with our own school social network within our school website. It's a closed environment and as such has its positive and negative sides, but nevertheless it has been a really great way of building school community spirit. The students love it, and regularly access and use it both in and outside of school hours.

We also use Twitter as a means of documenting what's happening in the school community. Last week i was tweeting the leavers' prom with pictures on Mobypics and we have quite a few former and current students following the school. We also have Twitter unblocked in school and I've seen students tweeting in Science lessons, collaborating on the learning tasks and sharing online resources. It's early days of course, but i think there is real potential for exciting use of these kinds of resources in the future.

There definitely are unmet needs in our school learning environment that Facebook meets. One example is with student leadership groups. Student Council leadership (including advisor/teacher and student leaders) communicate with each other and fellow students this way and organize all events such as dances,charity fundraisers, meetings etc. via Facebook. This is so embedded that posters with info about Prom or any student council events aren't even put up around school anymore.

Will our students migrate from Facebook to the intranet? This remains to be seen.

Facebook and blogs etc are blocked during class sessions but freed up over lunch and breaks.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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