A Critical Appraisal of the Educational Value of Social Media

Following the cck11 lecture on the need for caution when discussion technology’s impact on education, I read his more detailed discussion on the impact of social media in education during the EdMedia 2010 conference.  Below I list the main arguments with quotations of the relevant passages in the article.

Some of the critiques of Selwyn on the impact of social media on education extend to technology in education and ring familiar with earlier reading in the H800 course:
      The anecdotal nature of the debate with very little empirical research on the effect of social media in education.

“ There  are  clear  discrepancies  between  the  boundless  nature  of  the  educational promises of social  media,  and the obvious bounded nature of its use.” (Selwyn, 2010, p.8)

      The over-estimation and over-generalization of social media users.

“Indeed, from a truly worldwide perspective this debate could be read as being astonishingly insensitive to the paucity of technology access – let alone technology use – across developing nations” (Selwyn, 2010, p.4).

“Moreover, across all segments of the population – young and old – people’s engagement with even the most popular forms of social media remain stubbornly differentiated along lines of socio-economic status and social  class,  as  well  as  race,  gender,  geography and educational  background (Helsper and Eynon 2010, Jones and Fox 2009, Hargittai 2007, Hargittai and Walejko 2008 in Selwyn, 2010, p.4).”

I think that these arguments could still be rebutted by allowing some more time for ICT and social media to reach to their full potential.  However, Selwyn has more arguments in his sleeve and discusses the nature of social media.  Do they reinforce education by nature?  Is there a “killer app” in social media that is transforming education?  
      Many people do little more with social media than updating their status on Facebook or looking up information on Wikipedia.  In line with the 90+9+1 rule most users don’t create content, but are merely passive downloaders.  There is not wrong with that, even more, Ito’s “hanging out” and “messing around” are arguably important human activities, they contrast with the act of learning as engaging with and discovering new knowledge.

“Yet  while  undoubtedly  of  personal  significance  for  individuals  and  their  social networks, such activities and content remain “the ordinary stuff of life” rather than anything  more  powerful  in  terms  of  knowledge  creation,  learning  or  education.” (Selwyn, 2010, p.6)

      There is little evidence that active use of social media enhances education.  On the contrary, Selwyn claims that the nature of (many) social media is in conflict with the conditions for successful education.  Free-riding and lurking behavior, popular on social media, hamper effective learning, where active engagement with the material is required or at least desired. This “logic of collective action” is fine for social networks, but is detrimental to effective learning.

“If the benefit to be achieved cannot be localized to those responsible for achieving it, then it will be in the rational self-interest of the majority not to participate, and simply to let others put themselves out to press the case for change” (Considine 2005, p.199 in Selwyn, 2010, p.6).

Selwyn doesn’t follow the popular call for informal education and debunking formal education. He argues that some characteristics of formal education such as a set curriculum and forced attendance are bigger equalizers for education than social media.  Curricula offer access to knowledge that would otherwise be hardly accessible for many people, not necessarily because it’s not online or behind a paywall, but because “it’s difficult to know what you don’t know” (Young and Muller, 2009, p.7).
Social media are false equalizers.  Rather, they are based on membership, status and chain effects. In this way they strengthen inequality rather than reducing it. They might be useful for mature learners, but do little to help new learners.  Moreover, many people’s social media networks are a homogenous bunch of very similar people, scoring low on diversity and openness, two criteria identified by Downes to assess the effectiveness of networks. Finally, social networks where information and opinions are shared lose their power to create “wisdom of crowds”, as originally conceived by Surowiecki (2004), but are prone to skewed group thinking.
Finally Selwyn highlights the value-laden discourse that is used with regards to social media.  Social media (or technology in general) is used to promote a whole range of ideologies, from communism to extreme capitalism. Social media are seldom non-profit entreprises.  While they may charge no direct fee, they’ve every interest in creating an as extended and reliable as possible user database for profit purposes.
Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to keep it in mind when evaluating the educational value of social media.  Promoting technology (or social media) in education becomes then an instrument to promote a vision on education.

“Many of the most prominent and popular social web services are mainstream, commercially produced, for-profit services. Any discussion of the ‘future impact’ of social media in education must acknowledge that social media is not necessarily free of charge, but often driven by advertising revenue and underpinned by global media companies” (Selwyn, 2010, p.9)

“Put  in  these  terms,  then  the  clear  appeal  of  social  media  for  many  educational technologists  is  that  these  applications,  tools  and  services  correspond  with  wider beliefs  about  the  value  of  learning  that  is  interactive,  learner-centered,  social, authentic,  more  decentralized,  plural  and  collaborative and  so  on” (Selwyn, 2010, p.10).

I find Selwyn an eloquent writer who questions generally accepted assumptions.  Before starting the course, my view on technology-enhanced learning was strongly influenced by e-learning “gurus” like Prensky and Shirky. One valuable aspect of the H800 course is to offer a variety of viewpoints on technology-enhanced learning, including those that are overtly critical.

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