The Economist is hosting an important debate. Proposed: Social Networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to educational methods, in and out of the classroom. (Thanks to Will Richardson for Tweeting on it.) Here's my take:
I have been an educator in one form or fashion for over three decades, with students ranging from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate. Of all the degree programs, lectures, seminars, colloquia, books, et cetera ad nauseum I have experienced / endured, the single thing that has had the most profound impact on my thinking and professional practice is informally sharing ideas with colleagues.
"Social Networking" is just another name for "Community of Practice." The question is, what is being practiced? I can use YouTube, Twitter, del.icio.us, etc. to fritter away the hours with ephemera (and frankly, sometimes I want to do just that!). Or I can use these tools to subscribe to the brains of some really smart people that I would otherwise never meet.
"SN" is just a tool, like a screwdriver is just a tool. You can use a screwdriver to poke holes in a wall, pry open a can, or assemble a mechanical marvel. (You can even drive a nail with it in a pinch.)
It's a set of affordances and constraints, no more, no less. Our students use these tools already. Are we going to try to make them stop using them, disregard them as useless, or will we try to open their minds to using them to learn in new ways?
The story goes that Ben Franklin was invited to witness one of the Montgolfier Brothers' balloon flights. A fellow next to him scoffed, "What use is THAT?" Franklin murmured, "Indeed. And what use is a newborn baby?"