A recent article in Grocotts about Terri’s running project began:
“Most social networking sites are associated with gossiping and posting more or less funny wall comments to your friends’ pages. This may be true for Facebook, but it’s not the case with AwareNet, an online educational social network exclusively for school children and their teachers.”
I’m happy to report that the author is mistaken about this There’s plenty of goofing around on awareNet, and there should be – our goals for awareNet focus around the empowerment of underprivileged (particularly rural) youth, through spreading awareness, skills and literacy. It might not be obvious what joking around and ‘wasting time’ on online social networks have to do with these goals, but there’s a real connection.
Perhaps because schooling is constructed as a serious, top-down, teacher driven system of structured learning activities with standardized curriculum goals – gossiping and joking on a website doesn’t look like ‘education’. Worse, many teachers and parents are concerned that ICTs such as cell phone messaging and social networking sites make education more difficult by teaching students ‘txt spk’ and an abbreviated, conversational writing style that must be unlearned by students before they can communicate in formal proper writing.
But I’m convinced that joking around online – like all play – is a powerful form of learning. By having a social motivation to spend time online, learners are drawn to incidental acquisition of skills such as typing, fluency with the browser and desktop environment. They build comfort with computers and an intuitive understanding of web concepts such as links, forms, URLs, blogs, wikis, online videos, etc. Much of this tacit knowledge can be difficult to teach or overlooked by school computer classes with their focus on secretarial stuff (ie, MS Office). We hope it’s fun to use these things on awareNet, it would be dreadfully tedious to learn this much dry material if it is not.
More importantly, and why awareNet is so centrally a social networking site rather than a collection of curated content and typing exercises, it allows learners to engage with one another in a computer mediated environment. This teaches things which no previous generation has had to learn. The digital networked world increasingly overlays and merges with the everyday and there is a brand new set of social skills the young people will need to be full and competent citizens of this new world.
- management of one’s online identity
- navigating privacy and openness
- understanding the intersection of audiences the internet creates
- dealing with and filtering vast quantities of information
- managing the stress of being constantly connected and constantly available through portable devices
We hope awareNet’s closed garden provides as safe as possible a space for young people to learn these and many other skills. They’re going to need them.