Computing on the dark side

I suppose I am working on what many of my colleagues currently perceive to be the "dark side." I argue that education never met a technology that it did not like. The Gutenberg press is said to have led to textbooks and the very concept of public education. Radio quickly led to education programs via radio. Television led to educational programming including PBS. Videotapes returned control to the teacher on what was shown when. Computers brought software and programs, networks have provided whole new ways to communicate with students.

Given the results of the survey I ran, clearly my students are in cyberspace. 83% use a social networking site, typically MySpace or Bebo. The collegiate market stateside is, however, clearly on FaceBook. When Blackboard sought to partner, they partnered with FaceBook. FaceBook is also being used a student service and support tool, When news media market leader CNN sought an inauguration day partner, they too chose FaceBook. Anecdotally, articles that discuss academic use of social networking sites more often cite FaceBook by name (Online Social Networking on Campus, Professor as Open Book). Discussions of faculty and student interactions also often center on FaceBook. A FaceBook group even promotes a code of ethics for faculty.

Given that Twitter and blogging appeared to be non-starters for my students, I decided to dip into the dark side and explore FaceBook, while seeking ways to link up MySpace and Bebo users.

The first serendipitous discovery was that within three hours of signing up I had located more than a dozen off-island alumni including some UB-only alumni. I suddenly understood, "grokked" to use a word invented by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, the tremendous power of these systems for an alumni organization. I also learned that each is a separate walled garden, a silo, and that one would need an account in each major player. But with that, lots of alumni could be found.

I am pushing myself up a steep learning curve - learning the ins and outs of an interface that has clearly evolved and now has its own language. The first few hours have been filled with trying to understand why someone was writing on something called my wall, learning to upload photos, and getting my Twitter feed and blog to cross-load into FaceBook. I was also absolutely blown away by reconnecting with friends I have not seen in years, some not since 1978. The power of these things left me literally dizzy. Seeing friends for the first time in thirty years - recognizing in their faces that which I see in my own mirror, older faces. At least they look wiser for the years, I feel as foolish as ever.

With only a basic one-day worth of understanding under my belt, I am now exploring how to use this productively in supporting my students. One obvious path is to set up a closed group for a class with myself as admin. This will probably be the initial experiment.

Post-script: FaceBook turned five just after I wrote this article. David Coursey at PCWeek wrote an excellent article on the fifth anniversary of FaceBook.

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