University of Minnesota Discovers “Tremendous Educational Potential” in Social Networks

Posted on July 1, 2008
Filed Under Culture & Technology |

Researchers from the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) believe they’ve stumbled onto something amazing: the educational benefits of social networking services like MySpace and Facebook.

In their “first-of-its-kind study,” the UMN researchers have come to the conclusion that “students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today.”

How exactly did UMN researchers find out what students were learning from social networks? Apparently, they simply asked them what they learn from using social networking sites:

…the students listed technology skills as the top lesson, followed by creativity, being open to new or diverse views and communication skills.

While I have not been able to find a copy of the UMN study online (I was too busy chatting on MySpace with “Mindy” and “Candy” about the liberalization of currency exchange controls over the past decade), it appears that UMN researchers assumed that students were “learning” something from social networking in the first place.

After all, if you specifically ask an individual what he’s learning from some activity, he’ll come up with answers.

Thus, it appears that the foundation of the UMN study itself may have been quite dubious.

Equally dubious are some of the comments made by “learning technologies researcher” Christine Greenhow, who stated:

Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout. They’re also sharing creative original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology. The Web sites offer tremendous educational potential.

Frankly, I was never aware that there was a problem with students harboring negative attitudes about technology today. After all, this is a generation that has grown up with cell phones and the Internet.

When it comes to “editing and customizing content,” it’s worth considering that the character and quality of the content being edited determines the value of the editing process. “Pimping out” a MySpace profile or uploading a video of your booty-shaking is not necessarily an intellectually-worthwhile exercise.

The truth is that “creative original work[s] like poetry and film” have been created by young people since long before the advent of the Internet. Apparently, the UMN researchers are unable to make the distinction between the creative process (which may have value) and how that process is carried out and “shared” (which has far less value).

Finally, I’m glad to hear that in a day and age where a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that one in four girls between the ages of 14 and 19 has a sexually transmitted disease, high school students are “practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology.”

Society can live with teenagers who aren’t practicing safe sex - it would have a far more difficult time coping with teenagers who aren’t practicing safe use of information technology. Note to Symantec and McAfee: consider bundling condoms with your anti-virus software suites.

At the end of the day, it appears to me that UMN researchers set out to find benefits in social networking and not surprisingly, they “found” some.

Ironically, of course, these same researchers note that “very few students in the study were actually aware of the academic and professional networking opportunities that the Web sites provide” and that because of the study’s findings, “educators…now have a vast opportunity to support what students are learning on the Web sites.”

This begs the question: if the educational value of social networks is so powerful, why are both students and educators still so woefully unaware of it?

If the UMN study had any credibility left as I pondered the press release, it was lost in the final paragraph of the university’s press release:

Greenhow suggests that educators can help students realize even more benefits from their social network site use by working to deepen students’ still emerging ideas about what it means to be a good digital citizen and leader online.

In my opinion, before we teach students to be “good digital citizens,” let’s first focus on teaching them to be good citizens. And let’s recognize that true leadership skills are developed in the real world, not on MySpace or Facebook.

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One Response to “University of Minnesota Discovers “Tremendous Educational Potential” in Social Networks”

  1. Brian on July 6th, 2008 8:39 am

    I would also guess that those conducting the study were demographically similar to those being studied and were probably doing little more than defending their own use of social networking. File this with all the other self-fulfilling “look how awesome social networking is” stories.

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