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The real reason schools need Facebook

By James Levy / December 2007

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There's one good reason why schools are likely to block access to the Facebook domain on their campus networks: It's a major source of distractions. But after months of research I've come to see that potential for distractions as one of Facebook's most valuable qualities for education.

It may seem obvious enough, but the distraction issue was only brought to my attention after I spent months developing educational tools for Facebook. As File Platform Director for, I developed a document collaboration tool on Facebook designed specifically for educational use. Last summer, when the site announced it was closing its own courses program to support third party educational utilities, I was invited to the company's Palo Alto headquarters to give a talk about learning on Facebook.

I spoke in a conference room lined with eye-popping David Choe paintings, and filled with a throng of platform developers as well as familiar faces like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. I described how developers could incorporate each member's detailed friend network to enhance the learning process. After I'd finished cycling through my presentation slides, I took questions from the audience.

One of the many young programmers in the audience raised his hand. "Education on Facebook sounds great in theory," he said, "especially because the site is so popular with students." I nodded in agreement. With Facebook's emerging ubiquity among teenagers, it seemed natural for teachers to start considering the possibility of incorporating the "social graph" into their curriculum.

"But," the developer continued with a hint of sarcasm, "don't you think Facebook would be just a tiny bit too distracting for school use?"

The question caught me off guard. With a head full of production code, I hadn't even considered the distraction issue. I had no real answer to offer, so I just said "I'm not sure. It would be best to ask teachers what they think."

I spent the next couple of months doing just that. I interviewed 50 instructors from public and private high schools, professors from universities and community colleges, a special education teacher, and an after-school tutor, among many others. All knew of Facebook though less than half had accounts of their own. While many expressed concerns about privacy and misuse of personal data if Facebook were to be used in an educational setting, almost all expressed deep concern about distractions. More than half of the high-school teachers noted that Facebook was blocked on their school network as a result of its disruptive nature.

But if there's one place where distraction is an even worse problem than in schools, it's the office. So why don't we consider the acquisition of productivity skills to be just as important as basic reading and writing skills for future workers of the twenty-first century? It's essential that students learn how to overcome distraction. They should be encouraged to participate on sites like Facebook to increase their presence on the social graph and learn about collaboration and network interactions—all while developing skills that will help them cope with a world that will always be full of distractions.


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