Following on from the Facebook post, the work we have done has raised some interesting tensions between developing for a third party platform and those services provided by the institution, such as the VLE. These will be issues that many universities will have to face in the coming years, so I'll list the ones I think are important here. I don't have any answers to them, I just know they're things we can't ignore. I'll use Facebook as an example to illustrate the points, but they can apply across nearly any third party application which isn't directly integrated into the formal learning experience.
- Does having interaction across multiple platforms dilute the overall effect? For example, if a subset of students start collaborating in Facebook does this have a negative impact on the dialogue and learning experience for the whole cohort in the VLE?
- Even if 1 is true, can we do anything about it? Many students are connecting and communicating via Facebook before they even start their courses. It would be unrealistic to expect, or to mandate, that they stop using whatever system they like for communicating. For example, someone else had already created an OU courses profile application in Facebook, so maybe it's better if we deliver these tools.
- What are the privacy issues and responsibilities? If a university develops applications for a platform is it implicitly endorsing that platform? For example, in Facebook when you join a network the default setting is that everyone in that network can see your full profile. Imagine some unsavoury student X starts bothering student A through this. Student A only joined Facebook because her university had developed some tools for it and seemed to be encouraging it. Where does the responsibility lie in this case? With the student (for not controlling their settings)? With Facebook? With the university?
- What are the support issues? For instance on the Open University Facebook page some students have started raising tech support queries. Sometimes they get a response, sometimes they don't, since this isn't an officially recognised support mechanism. Logistically handling queries across multiple platforms will soon become unmanageable. Is this problem exacerbated if the university has a semi-official presence on the platform in question?
- What are the real benefits? Maybe none, but I think there will be some subtle ones, which research will dig up over the next few years. Will they relate to educational performance, ie those students connected through Facebook tend to do better because they have better quality peer support and find a range of alternative resources. Or will they relate to motivation? Maybe those students in Facebook tend to drop out less because they have peer support and pressure. Or will it influence satisfaction? Students in Facebook tend to rate the course better because they felt better connected to the cohort. Or maybe none of these.
I think the natural instinct of universities (and particularly senior management) when faced with issues such as these is to think 'more control'. As readers of this blog will know, I tend to favour less control, but that doesn't mean it will be a smooth ride. There are some potentially very difficult issues, and a few legal cases, to be addressed as we blur the boundaries between out there and in here.