Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Social Learning?

Social networking has become one of the biggest uses of Internet usage among teens and adults. Sites like FaceBook and MySpace have brought together people from around the globe, and have created some interesting problems. Some of the more obvious problems often make their way through the Sunday comics: mothers or mother-in-laws who join FaceBook and make embarrassing comments, bosses and coworkers who hear venting rants that they should not, and various trysts that should have never made print to begin with! However, there are additional considerations that occasionally cross ethical lines.

For example, as a teacher of 15-to-18-year-olds, I am a FaceBook member, and have many students on my friend list. However, there are some limitations-- no student currently in my class list may be on my list. There are simply too many opportunities for comments to be made that can turn sour quickly, and such a visible connection can open suspicions, even when any relationship is completely innocent. We have seen news reports of vindictive tirades posted on FaceBook or other sites and the effects of the attacks are felt at school.

Cooperative learning has the opportunity to take all the best aspects of social interaction and apply that to an educational environment. However, there need to be certain constraints in place, accompanying a well-defined structure, before the project can be most effective. In particular, students need to know the goals of the project, and have access to necessary resources and each other. This indicates that it is not merely enough to hand students a generic problem without additional foresight and preparations. When the goals and aims of the project are well communicated, it establishes a focus for what the group needs to do and provides a common purpose to the group's actions. Without that focused effort, the well-intentioned "group project" simply becomes smalltalk and random discussions.

At times, it may be enough for the teacher to define the problem to be solved, provide a timeline, and monitor students. However, with this low level of guidance, students can quickly find themselves off task, especially if they do not see a way to solve that problem. It then becomes essential to write activities in such a way that they explicitly state both the kind of answer(s) that are required, along with a list of 'deliverables' that must be turned in to complete the project. It has been my experience that projects that focus on "why..." can be motivating to students, especially when presented with a situation that seems counter-intuitive. ("Why does this ball roll uphill?" or "why can you sometimes say that 1+1=1?")