Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Creepy Treehouse vs. Functional Mall

I've been exploring web 2.0 in a scattershot manner this week (I warned you!), reading about Facebook, exploring ning, comparing delicious with diigo and playing with But I do keep coming back to the issue of social networking. I at some level understand the use of social network sites, such as and Facebook as a pastime, or a way to keep in touch with friends and family, though I've yet to try either (I will soon, both for the needs of this project, and so my children will quit bugging me to get on Facebook!). And virtual worlds like Second Life take such interaction to a new level with a more immersive experience, reminding me of a nascent virtual reality found in the Tad Williams' Otherworld novels.

But my overriding question--what has this all to do with education? Here's a quotation from an Inside Higher Ed article "Will Colleges Friend Facebook?" that deals with the issue:

"Online social networking and 3D simulations between faculty and students may help colleges and universities foster a stronger sense of community in the class, regardless of the physical limitations imposed by class size, or the interpersonal limitations contingent upon traditional markers of experience and identity through race, class, gender, etc." (my italics)

One of the complaints I've always had about course management software, like Blackboard or Angel, is that it's disembodied, that students have no sense of place with online classes. Even with the most well designed class in a CMS or elsewhere, be it blog or wiki or open source spaces like Moodle, students interact with a "desktop" of some sort rather than a room or a landscape.

Yes, they do interact with others through discussion boards or chat, but again, there's no sense of place as we have with brick and mortar campuses and classrooms.

Can social networks improve that sense of place? Well, I plan to deal more with that question later, especially when exploring Second Life. But the other aspect of the issue of using social networks in education is that expressed through the metaphor that became quite popular in the last few months, that of the creepy treehouse.

Here's a definition from Jared Stein:

"A place, physical or virtual (e.g. online), built by adults with the intention of luring in kids" and "Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards."

In online education or with the use of online technology in the classroom, a creepy treehouse would be when the professor or institution tries to coopt social networks or tools that students already use on their own time. So if a professor requires students to "friend" him or her in Facebook, that would be considered for many a creepy treehouse. If an institution or CMS presents closed, locked down versions of web 2.0 services found on the web, such as blogging or a wiki in Angel, rather than using such naturally online, then that could be a creepy treehouse. Many seem to find Blackboard to exude creepy treehouseness, but that's to be expected since it's the Microsoft of CMS's.

The concern has been that many educators are beginning to proclaim creepy treehouseness as an excuse to avoid using web 2.0 tools/applications with students, sort of a luddite backlash.

Therefore, Michael Staton came up with the metaphor of the "functional mall." In a mall, young people, old people, middle aged and children all coexist and participate in the activities of a mall. They may use it differently, and at times they may interact with those in other age groups, but often not. He suggests that social networks operate more in this manner, especially as they mature and seek to expand their audiences, as Facebook is doing, to include every age group. Thus, social networks can accommodate learning groups, such as online classes, in ways that are not so creepy treehouse-like.

The key seems to be to use Facebook or social networking in a way that is not required but as another way to communicate. As one instructor notes, "What I tried to do was not to make it just something to study, but to make it something practical so I tried to incorporate as much communication technology in the course as possible." The same article presents research from the Pew Internet that suggests why using Facebook can be beneficial: "Teachers 'are able to leverage a tool students already use instead of asking them to learn how to use a separate application.'"

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