Enough with Facebook already

No facebookI had a few “moments” with Facebook over the past couple of months. I was digging all the new tools they were brining in with the open API, they even created one for WordPress.com posts. But when folks start to talk about Facebook as an LMS, I find it hard to keep myself from saying sarcastically, “Wow, that’s imaginative! And it will look really good too!” Bill Fitzgerald at OpenAcademic does a nice job in this post framing out why this is madness given the licensing agreement of Facebook, and I couldn’t agree with him more.

In addition to Bill’s points, I have some real concerns about thinking through Facebook as an LMS because I think that the concept of an LMS as it is bandied around now with environments like Sakai, Moodle, BlackBoard, etc. is pretty much dead as a viable, dynamic, and engaging online space where teaching and learning happens. So thinking of Facebook as an LMS seems that much more ridiculous to me in so many ways. Openly acknowledging my position on Learning Management Systems more generally–which as we know them now are course management systems which, in turn, are environments that are as conducive to the imagination, thinking, and a more general impulse towards creativity as the shopping mall (ya seen one ya seen the mall)–I’ll proceed with my critique of Facebook as an LMS.

In terms of aesthetic and imaginative environments Facebook fits right into this grouping, it is not particularly attractive and it certainly fails to let you adequately customize how you present yourself and your work, no less the 3,000 friends you have. Facebook as an LMS is probably one of the more dangerous ideas I have heard recently. Not only for the points about licensing, but also because this space is primarily a social space for students that is good at forging relationships –even if the depth of these relationships seems suspect given the mind boggling numbers of “friends.” I mean who really has 200 friends? Come off it, is this a popularity poll or a viable network? In fact, the peacock quality of Facebook also resembles the surfaces of the mall, it’s about being seen and making an impression, however shallow and unappealing. To think of such a space as way to frame a student’s academic work suggests that with all these tools and possibilities we have begun to shed all of our discretion and scramble for whatever we think those “net savvy students” might like. We are on the brink of surrendering all dignity to a set of misguided preconceptions about the coming generations -what a colossal waste of time and energy!

To try and make Facebook work as an LMS would effectively spoil both the academic experience as well as any value this tool may have had to begin with. Facebook does the social networking elements well, and has without questions become the standard for millions of users. But if we start trying to populate courses throughout this space, I’m relatively certain that those who enjoy the relative separation from their classes will actively resist the idea of conflating the two. I believe you would have some major concerns on the part of both students and faculty -and with very good reason.

The academy has fallen behind in the world of virtual learning networks and tools because they have handed over their imagination to companies like BlackBoard, WebCT, and the like. Well, here we go again handing over all imagination and creative energy for our learning environments to a pre-exisiting monolith that does only one thing well: keep people in touch (despite how little they really care about one another). Shouldn’t students and faculty be able to create numerous spaces for the different facets of their life, not a one-stop-shopping mall for everything from the weekend’s outing to the Art History research paper. The two may be related, mind you, but the tool should afford the student the control to frame their narrative’s in myriad creative and imaginative ways. Aesthetic and formal environments are what we need to be imagining and creating for our classrooms, not a cheap knock-off of a wall and a group on Facebook. The myopic space of Facebook can’t even begin to trace the multi-faceted parts of any one person’s personal, social, and academic life.

In short, Facebook as an LMS is a terrible idea in my opinion, and downright dangerous because it hearkens back to ten years ago when universities and colleges alike handed over all creative and imaginative impetus for online learning environments to a few companies that have effectively kept us in the dark ages in this realm for a decade. Isn’t it time we woke up and got creative, we have already lost so much by conceding our undestanding of what an educational learning environment might be to a profit-seeking entity like BlackBoard -is it Facebook’s turn now? God, I hope not!

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8 Responses to Enough with Facebook already

  1. Shannon says:

    Facebook as an LMS is a scary thought and I have to agree with many of your points.
    Taking a tool that students use ( actually students wouldn’t even call it a tool I don’t think) and trying to remix it for academic purposes does not necessarily equal a good idea. Heck, it may sound cool to some students that have no idea what you were probably talking about in the first place (LMS, is that like LSD?) or it will come off as the nerdy kid trying to fit in with the cool kids by buying the same stuff they have. Its annoying and ultimately a waste of time, because those cool kids hate the nerdy kid even more for trying.
    It is completely unfeasible for it to be any sort of LMS for licensing issues and the space was never designed to be used academically.
    Students are still figuring out the balance between social life and academics and this is just going to cause more confusion then its worth. Just let the tool do what it was meant to do: be a social space for people to connect, have fun, and perhaps do some stupid stuff.
    There are too many other cool tools out there that work academically and socially to be putzing around with Facebook.

  2. Ah–but here’s a tricky thing–to what degree does your critique of Facebook apply also to blogging platforms like WordPress.com or –shudder– our own umwblogs.org WPMU installation. That’s particularly true as the term LMS is sometimes applied to WP/MU.

    Of course I see differences, but I think we need to attack the question head on, especially for those people who do not (yet) see the difference between a WP blog and a Facebook page. WP/MU _might_ offer more creative ways to use the space, but the ability of the technology to foster creativity, thinking, and imagination is ultimately not a quality of the technology, it’s a manifestation of how students are guided in using the technology.

    In short, how would we respond to folks who say that WP/MU (or any other Web 2.0-ish tool) is equally risky as a ‘LMS’ — equally monolithic when deploy at enterprise-scale, does basically one thing well, creates another ‘one-stop-shop’ for everything, equally susceptible to shallow impressions.

    I’d aim instead for what I think is the implicit crux in what you say, the notion of the LMS as a monolith (BTW, I wouldn’t put Moodle in the same category as BlackBoard that way). Instead, maybe a LMN — Learning Management Network — which consists of whatever tools are ready-to-hand for the teaching and learning mission, including Facebook.

  3. Jim says:

    @Shannon -I tend to think from the perspective of both students and faculty using Facebook as an LMS will be more of a psychological train wreck than a technical one. Facebook could probably be glued together to do it, but I do not think it will have much buy-in or impact. I may be wrong, but many of the very issues you raise -such as the nerdy kid vs. cool kid- are writ large in that space. Why engage it when it already has so many associations that reflect the worst of our social relations.

    @Patrick -You make my point far better than I do. I think I am suffering from a little bit of WPMu induced monomania. That being the case, show me a tool that does it better and I will concede 🙂 In fact, while I didn’t mean to pick on Moodle in particular–and its openness suggests so many possibilities–at its core it is still very much a system based on course management derivative of the same structural logic as BlackBoard, the significant difference is its being open source and flexible. In my opinion, Moodle does not provide that much in the way of re-imagining the virtual course space –which certainly can be thought of as a process distinct from the technology–but such a separation is often reductive and misleading. The technology reflects differences in design and experience in a learning environment -a dynamic and creative environment further fosters new ways of approaching teaching and learning. I think of teaching and technology as elements within a dynamic, constitutive relationship of opening up new spaces for learning, or at the very least getting excited about ideas and their presentation. So rather than thinking of technology as necessarily dependent upon teaching (or vice versa), the two simultaneously trace a virtual space that is not autochthonous, but very much shaped, cultivated, and designed by the people using it. The possibility for customization, augmentation, and re-conceptualization is built in to the best of these systems making them a lot more than technology -they’re a community of people thinking together and experimenting with the possibilities. WordPress is not just a technology, it’s a movement!

  4. Greetings, Mr. Groom,

    In talking these things through (with an eye on, of course, delivering a better system to support reflective thought and this thing we’re calling “learning”), it’s essential to separate out technical function from context, and, by extension, the creative possibilities within that context. Understanding the rather fuzzy boundaries of where one piece ends and the other begins allows us to make some clearer design choices — both technologically and pedagogically.

    Obviously, technical functionality affects the potential creative output, but a tool is neutral, and aquires value though use.

    I agree with many of your comments on Moodle — as the app stands now, it is rooted in a course paradigm, which means, for an end user, most of your activity takes place within the context of a course, or of a hierarchically structured place. Compare this to a WP blog, in which just about everything piece of content is presented as originating from an individual author. Obviously, WPMu blurs the lines a bit, but the contextual difference is clear: in WP (as opposed to Moodle) there is work required to create a course context.

    RE: “show me a tool that does it better and I will concede” — I really can’t imagine anything that would be better than wordpress… although you might want to give this Drupal thing a look 🙂

  5. jimgroom says:

    Actually Bill,

    I’m not convinced with the often repeated assumption that a tool is neutral. I know I’ve said it number of times myself. This idea suggests that tools weren’t designed and built for a purpose. It may be used for other things or in different contexts, or even in extraordinary ways, but in my mind a tool is never neutral. WordPress was built to be a dynamic, customizable publishing platform, and that is what it is for many. It can be customized to work well for students and faculty -but this by no means suggests it as some kind of neutral entity external to the folks who created it. Is Facebook neutral? Is Drupal neutral?

    This makes no sense really. Neutrality in this context is a myth we use to suggest what has been designed and made available is just a hapenstance we come upon and shape entirely. I think that these tools are so much more than that and reflect particular forms of thinking through virtual space. Think about it, our ability to use tools is a particularly powerful element of what makes us human, both in more horrifying ways (the A-Bomb–was that a neutral tool?) and the pencil (a seemingly benign tool that has given us some much -both in terms of beauty and terror). In fact, context is always important, but it also suggests that without context tools have no meaning -doesn’t that hold true for everything and hence become an ahistorical impossibility?

    The other side of this is that there is the context we are currently working together to shape. What we are using these spaces for and the contexts we engender with these tools (not external to their neutrality but because they have a a particular valence) are integral to the process of thinking about tools in relationship to teaching and learning. Tools are never neutral, they are constituitive elements of our imagination and creativity from their inception and beyond.

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  7. Back before Moodle, I did some course sites with Postnuke (a pre- Drupal ‘CMS’ system), but it was not easy ‘re-setting’ the ‘course’ for a new semester-something that is built in to systems like Blackboard and Moodle. The instructors tended to want some to all the content they created to be copied to the new semester, keep an archive of the past semester (in case students complained about credit or lost some work), and have a new list of students loaded into the new ‘course’). In short, they worked in courses, and wanted a system that did also.

    This is Sakai’s trouble, for instance–it also lacks the core architecture of a ‘course’, at the system level, and so it is difficult for teachers to transition their content from one semester to another (again, education stuck in the ‘course’ paradigm).

    This could all change, of course, but I don’t think it is going to be software driven. IOW, there have been open, non-course based, ‘Web2.0’ systems around for some time now (2000 for PHP Nuke) and yet most institutions have chosen some form of course based system that fits their current educational paradigm.

    Now if someone figures out how to accredit a courseless institution…

  8. Jim says:


    I’m not so much interested in a courseless institution, for I do think the course of study has so really important implications. I just don;t think a course management system does a very good job of capturing, preserving, and allowing students to take their work with them when they go. The technology should not be conflated with the actual unit of organization, it should rather be gossamer and impressionable enough to wrap around a course when necessary and slip travel beyond it when it’s over. The spaces in which we think through the ideas of a course need not look like a “course management system” -it might actually look like someone’s virtual living room. RSS can take care of the glue, and while it is not entirely efficient just yet, I think we continue to get closer and closer, whereas as CMSs don’t exactly provide the kind of slippage other applications might.

    What would a digital space look like where students record their thoughts, write essays, and share content? Well, it could easily be the same space where students create, play and imagine -or it could be different -but few CMSs -if any- even conceptualize, no less consider, such possibilities. Using a blog or wiki or some other tool doesn’t mean doing away with courses, it means doing away with this mistaken notion that a virtual space needs to try and reproduce, however poorly, the logic of a course. Why is this? I don;t know, but a big hunch is that we often try to re-decorate the logic of a course management system rather than questioning it a bit more fundamentally -even if courses don’t go away -which they will not and should not in my mind.

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