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The educational significance of social media: a critical perspective

The educational significance of social media: a critical perspective



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Published by n.selwyn
Social media, web 2.0 applications and other forms of 'new' internet technologies are seen to be transforming education and learning ... but what reasons are there for exercising caution about the educational promise of social media?
Social media, web 2.0 applications and other forms of 'new' internet technologies are seen to be transforming education and learning ... but what reasons are there for exercising caution about the educational promise of social media?

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Published by: n.selwyn on Jun 29, 2010
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The educational significance of socialmedia – a critical perspective
keynote debate at
 Ed-Media conference 2010
, Toronto, 28
June to 2
July Neil Selwyn
 London Knowledge Lab Institute of Education - University of London, UK 
Background notes:
This paper is a written version of a keynote debate presentation given to the 2010
conference hosted in Toronto by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). The presentation was given in opposition to thefollowing motion:
 Be it Resolved that this House Believes that the Use of Social Media and  Networking is Contributing to the Attainment of Significant Educational Goals in Ways that Suggest Even More Powerful Future Impact 
Jon Dron from Athabasca University presented in favor of the motion.
The educational significance of socialmedia – a critical perspective
Before we consider the main reasons why we should oppose this motion, let me shedsome light on who I am and where I am coming from. A fair proportion of thisaudience is probably thinking ‘who is
to come
at 8.30 in the morning to
conference to tell
what to think about
technology?’. This is certainly what Iwould be thinking if I were you! Hardly anyone in this room will have heard me talk  before. It is true to say that I am not a typical ‘Ed-Media’ presenter. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a card-carrying member of the
. I do not work in ‘ed-tech’ andI am certainly not an impassioned web-two-point-ologist or an open source evangelist.
neither am I a crazed Luddite or a cranky contrarian. I am neither high-tech nor low-tech. Instead, I would like to think that I am simply a balanced observer of education and technology – someone who is interested in making sense of the realitiesof what happens when technology meets education.Unfortunately I am a balanced observer who cannot refuse a challenge! I realize thatthis is a very ‘tough gig’. The offer to fly halfway around the world to oppose
seemingly unassailable motion at
undeniably god-forsaken time to
technologically-attuned audience was too ludicrous a proposition to turn down. Whenthe conference organizers informed me that everyone in the room would have amobile voting device in order to instantaneously tell me how much they hated myarguments, then I was doubly determined to make it here. After all, what have I got tolose except for my pride, my professional reputation, future book sales andchances of ever working this side of the Atlantic again?On a slightly more serious note, I believe that engaging with the negative – as well asthe positive aspects of our field is a necessary step towards creating a better educational technology. Despite our differences, I think that everyone in this room ison the same page when it comes to education and technology. I think that we are all inagreement that social media is a prominent part of the current digital landscape, andwill be an even more prominent part of our digital lives in years to come. However, Ithink that all of us in this room would agree that the only thing that we can becompletely certain of when it comes to education and technology is that there is nocertainty. The relationship between education and social media – or any form of technology for that matter – is not as straightforward as we might like it to be. The‘impact’ of technology on society is not something that can be discussed in simple binary terms of black/white, true/false or favor/oppose. One of the most useful thingsthat I have taken from my own discipline of sociology it is that ‘the social’ is never acompletely cut-and-dried, completely predictable or completely certain affair. Assuch, the only sensible response to the statement posed at the beginning of this debateis neither ‘
’ nor ‘
’ – it is simply (and perhaps disappointingly) ‘
 Don’t Know
’. If we are all being honest with ourselves then it makes no sense to be in favor of themotion – however much we agree with its sentiment or however much we want to
 believe it.So now that we have decided
you are all going to vote, we can give some further thought as to
you are going to oppose the motion. One of the really interestingissues that this debate raises is the need for educational technologists of all persuasions to collectively reassess why it is that they believe what they do. Whatlogic and reason lie behind opposing or supporting this motion? What evidence isthere to inform our response? Put in these terms, it is astonishing how much of therecent debate around social media and education appears to be driven by belief,speculation, anecdote and personal experience rather than recourse to actual evidence.This situation is puzzling, as academics should be the first people to know that simply‘believing in’ something is usually not a good basis for reaching firm conclusions. For instance, many people attending
will come from computer science or cognitive science backgrounds – academic disciplines that rely upon rigorous testingof hypotheses in a variety of contexts before any firm conclusions can be drawn. So asfar as thinking about the influence of social media on our lives is concerned, it could be argued that computer scientists “rush ahead of skeptical, scientific enquiry at[their] peril” (Lanier 2010, p.18). Similarly, one of the basic rules-of-thumb for thoseof us who would consider ourselves to be social scientists is remembering to ‘makethe familiar strange’ – in other words remembering to look beyond our own privileged personal experiences of technology and think of the ‘wider picture’.When approached in these sober terms, then this debate is clearly not about whatsocial media has done for ‘you’ or ‘I’, or for our own children and grandchildren.Everyone in this room will have had personal experience of the potential benefits of social media. But if we are talking about the ‘
attainment of significant educational  goals
’ and ‘
 powerful future impact 
’ then we have to look far beyond our own personal experiences. So this debate is not about what social media can do for theminority of ‘usual suspects’ who have always benefited from the latest technologiesand the latest upgrades. At the heart of this debate – and at the heart of all debatesabout education and technology – are a host of far more complex questions about theability of digital technology to change education for the better on a widespread andsustained basis. If we approach the motion in these rather more substantial andsignificant terms, then there are very few good reasons at this particular moment intime to do anything but oppose this motion.
Considering the actual – rather than potential - use of social media in education
The most obvious question to ask of this motion is how does it correspond with whatknow of social media use in the ‘real world’ of ‘real users’ and their ‘real lives’? Inother words, how is social media actually being used beyond the world of academiced-tech conferences, journals and discussion forums? If we consider the educational‘significance’ of social media in these terms then there would seem to be little solidground on which to support this motion. The fact remains that social mediatechnologies are not used widely by general populations of internet users in the waysthat proponents would like to imagine. Despite all that is written about the
of social media it is important to remember that in reality these are all trends at themargins rather than the mainstream of education even in a technologically

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