QUESTION: What does Facebook and maintaining important relationships have to do with online instruction?
ANSWER: Facebook promises something it cannot deliver just as many promoters promise that online instruction will transform schooling as we know it. Both are over-hyped social media.
Consider that Facebook promises to transcend the limitations of face-to-face contact that have confined us to a small group of people for ages by mobilizing hundreds, even thousands, of friends conveniently from home computers. No longer do we have to be in personal touch.
Not so, says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford (UK).
Instead of hundreds, even thousands of friends, Dunbar found that online or off, our minds (and hearts, I suspect) can only manage a circle of about 150 people. While my number of family and friends is much less than that I am still stretched to maintain even those contacts. After all, how many hours a day can one spend in contact with others when the daily stuff of life from work, eating, sleeping, reading, etc., etc. consumes most waking hours? Dunbar says that given the limited “social time” we have–subtracting hours devoted to above activities–“we devote 40 percent [of that social time]… each week to the five most important people we know, who represent”–she claims–“just 3 percent of our social world.” Since the “time invested in a relationship determines its quality, having more than five best friends is impossible when we interact face to face, one person at a time. Put simply …. The emotional and psychological investments that a close relationship requires are considerable, and the emotional capital we have is limited.”
Of course, whether one is a middle-school or high school student, a company looking to market its product, a grandparent, or a bored 9-5 employee trying to find an old classmate matters insofar as to how each uses Facebook. But focusing on “friends” and staying in touch, even self-promotion, is at the heart of Facebook’s appeal.
Recognizing what actual relationships consume in time, a former Facebook employee established a social networking site that recognized these limits. Path restricts friends to 50 so you can feel comfortable sharing highly personal information
If what Dunbar says is accurate that face-to-face contact with limited numbers of people is crucial to the quality of a relationship, hundreds of online friendships are a sham, an emotional Potemkin Village covering up much social isolation in an increasingly fragmented society. In short, the promise of Facebook to knit our lives closely together with friends from the comfort of our home is pure hype, out of touch with the actual lives we live.
Facebook hype smells just like the hype over online instruction (e-learning in Europe, “distance education” in U.S.). Rather than cite all of the recent books and media that proclaim online instruction as the future of formal schooling, let me focus on the relationship between teacher and students–what an earlier generation called “rapport”– as the foundation for classroom learning. The teacher’s cognitive and technical skills, and moral actions build upon that relationship to advance student learning and achievement. Face-to-face contact with 15 to 30 students daily (up to 150 in secondary schools) forms the gritty work of teaching and learning.
That personal contact sustained over ten months of a K-12 school year in the hands of skilled, knowledgable, and caring teachers, researchers have shown again and again (PDF: Rockoff on Teachers), makes a difference in students’ lives. Even the best online instructional software that create “virtual learning environments” fail to come close to what students do daily as they interact with each other and their teachers.
Over-hyped “friends” on Facebook and over-hyped online instruction promise what cannot be delivered in either human contact or learning.
- We Get By with a Little Help From Our Friends. And Acquaintances. (andrewmcafee.org)
- How many friends do you need? (psychologytoday.com)