Last week I attended a discussion of social networks in the classroom led by one of our new Assistant Professors in the English Department, Doug Eyman (his MSU homepage). In his presentation, Doug hit on what seems to be a central problem for those of us who are interested in ways we can use social networking platforms in our teaching.
According to Doug, and I think he’s very right on this, the social networks that work best are those that are based on pre-existing communities. The classroom is, let’s face it, an artificial community at best. Some group of students is thrown together for 14 weeks and asked (forced) to form communities of practice–communities that they know will dissolve shortly after the last class meeting. So it should be no surprise that the networks they form via the blogs, websites, listservs (shudder), or other networking platforms we create for them don’t really become very energetic, especially as compared to the energy they put into their Facebook groups or MySpace communities.
I’m not willing to give up, however, on social networking as a teaching and learning tool. So maybe the problem is that I’ve always tied whatever social network I set up to a particular course, rather than to some sort of larger interest community. In my own case, that larger interest community could be students interested in East Central Europe (for whatever reason). Or it could be history majors at my university. Then the students in a particular course could organize off shoot groups from the larger community (as happens so often on these networking sites).
Or we could decide that we need to keep rethinking the course as a delivery system. Because I’m not counting on this to happen any time soon, I think I’ll try the former option and see what happens.