Today I attended the funeral for a person who has been central in our community. His 80-plus years had been spent in a community where his presence mattered very much, and where he will be deeply missed.
Times like these make me think hard about the boundary between this life and the hereafter. But today I also found myself wondering about the border between the real and the virtual when I overheard a conversation at the funeral. One woman was explaining that she had only just found about the funeral a few hours before it had started. In frustration she exclaimed, “If someone had posted it on Facebook, I would have known!” To which someone replied, with a small frown, “You don’t post something like this on Facebook. It’s not the place.” There then followed a conversation about the way some people do use Facebook to create memorials, and why it wasn’t appropriate for this person.
While listening to this conversation, I was at the same time able to observe several of my students who were also in the room. One of them clearly was the leader in this situation, and I believe because his peers saw that he knew how to behave. He knew how to fit in and how to convey respect and care.
These two things — the Facebook conversation, the mature student — have focused some of the questions that I have had. Are students today going to have the opportunity to live life well, like the person whose life we celebrated today? Will these teens who spend so much time virtually be able to participate in communities who come together to grieve and celebrate some of life’s deepest moments? Will Facebook become another standard way of honouring the dead? And ultimately, does a tool like Facebook have a place in the classroom?
In the Economist-hosted debate on Social Networking in Education, Ewan McIntosh argues in favour of social networking tools :
We are all learners, all the time. Ubiquitous social technologies help us connect to those who can help us learn when we’re outside the domain of formal education.
I appreciate Mr. McIntosh’s advocacy for technology in education very much, but I do question this statement of his – perhaps because I am narrowing it too specifically to consider Facebook here. On the one hand, I agree that social technologies can help us connect to those who can help us learn, but there needs to be an intentionality about that connection that seems to be missing in the usual Facebook teen’s motivation. My impression is that teens connect with their existing social networks, not necessarily to people from whom they can learn.
Dana Boyd offers a different perspective on the social networking debate:
I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from knowing about the cool new thing).
Right now, today, I agree. She goes on:
I’m not saying that social network sites have no value. Quite the contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation – understanding your community, learning the communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc. All too often we underestimate these processes because, traditionally, they have happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about today’s youth culture is that we’ve systematically taken away the opportunities for socialization. And yet we wonder why our kids are so immature compared to kids from other cultures.
Is a site like Facebook offering the kind of social learning required for maturation? Is it helping teens understand their communities? Or is it enabling them to check out of one community and into another one where just their peers and friends exist? And for me as an educator — what’s my response?