Imprisoned by your VLE – use Facebook instead?

Yesterday, I attended the Education Support Unit Easter School here at the University of Bristol. As part of the session on collaboration, Mike Cameron from Durham University spoke about the educational potential of Facebook – I must confess that I was dubious that anything genuinely educational was going on there.

He contrasted the formal, educational experience of online learning that is represented by Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) with the free for all that is found on social networking sites like Facebook.


Land and Bayne (2002) have even gone as far to suggest that VLEs have similar characteristics to Bentham’s Panopticon (shown above), a design for a prison where inmates are kept in check by the possibility that everything they do is being watched or in the case of a VLE tracked, assessed and recorded.

Mike told us about an academic at Durham who was invited into an existing Facebook group that her students had set up to support each other in their course. She did not actively take part in the group, but used what she learnt there to improve interactions within the course VLE, address topics that the students did not fully understand in subsequent lectures and relate topics in the syllabus to students areas of interest, as stated in their Facebook profiles.

Durham followed this up with a survey of their students use of Web 2.0 sites and one sixth of them said that they were consciously learning with their classmates in such spaces. However, students feel that such spaces belong to them, a theme I have encountered before when looking at Web 2.0 activity in schools and educational uses of YouTube.

It appears that students are learning in Facebook, the question is what – with no quality control without the watchful teacher / prison guard. If academics are invited into these spaces by their students, they can engage with them to improve the quality of the teaching and learning experience, as long as they respect the fact that it is an informal learning space where they are not an authority figure.

Mike’s paper from ALT-C 2007 Whose e-learning is it anyway? A case study exploring the boundaries between social networks and VLE courses gives a learning technologist perspective on all this and it also includes a set of PowerPoint slides.

Intute: Social Sciences features more resources on social networking, educational technology and Web 2.0.