The Digital Native (gsd) Says:
My school is scared of Facebook, and I know it's not alone. It's blocked on all of the computers, and for good reason, too. Facebook use at school brings up concerns over privacy, as well as concerns that students would just waste their time on Facebook instead of using school computers constructively.
I'm not saying that those concerns aren't valid. But instead of running away from Facebook, I think we should be running toward it, and embracing its power and potential.
If Facebook expanded a few of its features, it could transform itself into a powerful educational platform that schools simply couldn't ignore.
Facebook has many online features that allow you to communicate and share in different ways.
Facebook Groups: I envision my teachers creating Facebook Groups for all of their classes. The group could serve as a great place to discuss text, photos, videos, audio, and other links from around the web. Facebook could expand on this, and allow teachers to track how many comments each student made. Teachers could use this as a way to gauge student participation in a discussion.
Document Collaboration: Documents are stored online in Facebook Groups where you or anyone else in the group can view and edit the document. Anyone can look back and see all of the changes any member of your group has made.
Facebook could expand this feature by allowing students to more explicitly control who has access to their documents. They could be private or could be shared just amongst a few of their classmates, so that they could collaborate on a group project. Facebook could expand from the very basic document editing available now to fully featured online apps that would offer the full features of Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.
Events: Facebook could expand its current Events feature to allow students and teachers to manage homework. Teachers could type in an assignment, any instructions, and the due date. All the students in their class group would be instantly notified of it. Facebook could create a centralized place for all of these assignments where students could view everything that they had due.
Questions allow users to poll their friends on anything. Users can see a little bar graph of their friends' responses in real time. Teachers could use this feature to create online tests, if Facebook made a few minor changes. Facebook could allow multiple questions to be on one page, and the test could be given a date that it had to be completed by before it was removed. Students could answer the questions, and then Facebook would send back the graded results instantly to the teacher.
What if Facebook created a place where teachers could draw on a live interactive online "whiteboard" that students could see? Integrate that with Facebook's video chat and you've moved the classroom online.
Facebook Access on Students' Phones: Not only would students' assignments be with them wherever they were, mobile devices open up a world of opportunities for interconnected experiences. A teacher or student could stream video to Facebook from anywhere.
Facebook is not the only way to do these things. There are other websites, services, and technologies that help schools achieve the same results.
But I think the most powerful part of the idea of specifically using Facebook is the ubiquity that Facebook already has. I can imagine that it would take a long time to train administrative staff, teachers, and students on how to use any new online technology.
Yet with Facebook, I can tell you for a fact that 85% of my current grade already has an account. (I counted.) That means we'd be already 85% of the way there in training people how to use this new tool. In this case, it just makes more sense to adapt a current technology than to bring in a new one.
I see a lot of potential here, but in order for this vision to become reality large Internet companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft would have to step up to the plate. But perhaps if they can be shown the potential, we can move in that direction.
The Old Digital Immigrant (Me) Says:
You make several good points about how a social network, like Facebook, could be used in education.
You also raise the concerns about student privacy and confidentiality. Protecting student data is the primary concern we have about using social networks in schools. We would also be concerned about who "owns" the data, that the information housed on some "non district owned" server somewhere could be used for non-educational and marketing purposes.
If the district promotes the platform, thereby making its use a school-sanctioned activity (making schools responsible for what happens on the site), how could we regulate the speech or potential cyber bullying issues if all students in a district could communicate with each other freely? These issues may be simpler for one teacher, a classroom, or a school, but imagine the challenges for any of the top 10 largest districts that have hundreds of thousands of students.
And there's always that whole digital equity argument that not all students would be able to participate in such an environment.
These issues are complex.
Yet, you bring up a very important point that most students already "live" on Facebook.
Learning to manage and navigate one's digital life on a social network is an important life skill. Educators have devised alternate, more controlled, environments to possibly teach these skills. Whether these "school only" environments will be as effective as using a natural environment where all students already "live" will be an interesting study. Most of our "teachable moments" come in real life situations that happen all the time on Facebook, and not on Blackboard or some other school site.
But, for all the focus on Facebook or a specific company, what if we had endorsed the popular social network six years ago, and we told all students to join MySpace?
We would have a different set of challenges now. What if, six years from now, students prefer to live on Google +?
So, while the popular social network sites may not be as feature rich or appealing as Blackboard, I suspect we will not be encouraging students to join Facebook anytime soon.
And that's our collective loss, because the features and applications you highlight could create a dynamic and engaging online environment for learning, if only everyone would use them as you described.