Facebook, Friends, and Online Schooling

Robin Dunbar - How Many Friends Does One Perso...

Image by evalottchen via Flickr

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.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

15 responses to “Facebook, Friends, and Online Schooling

  1. I have been thinking along the same lines about online learning taking the place of teachers interacting with and understanding their students. However, I see a flaw with the analogy to Facebook. For one, the 590 friends that I have on Facebook represent about 20 years worth of friends (and also family). At each point over those years I was focused on building those relationships and maintaining them, meaning that only maybe 50 of those people at a time were on the top of that list. However, by having facebook readily available I can reconnect with many of those friends whenever I remember a funny time that we shared or come across a funny photo that we haven’t seen in a long time. Facebook allows me to feel connected with memory in much the same way that blogging helps me feel connected to other professionals. Do you suggest that we all quit blogging and only attend costly professional development conferences in order to network?

    • larrycuban

      I am glad that Facebook has meant so much to you over the years especially as you have made it work for you in reconnecting with old friends. The analogy may have flaws, as you say. But you haven’t pointed out that the hype common to it and online learning is flawed. Obviously, I do not suggest you either quit blogging, God forbid, or attend professional development conferences in order to network.

      • Bob Calder

        I think the people actually at FB or media outlets such as Mashable, Wired, ReadWriteWeb, and media insiders like Jay Rosen and Romanesco are well aware of the importance of distinguishing between strong and weak ties. Unfortunately, teaching online social theory that makes fine distinctions among “friends” isn’t going to make the front page. The ingénue’s view we see in mainstream reports will go away as adoption rises. Likewise, the magic view of all technology goes away as we learn to ignore it.

        Perhaps the more important question for us is whether classes of user will arise, or will frequency of influential social ties change significantly with help. The Dunbar number may not ba a hard limit given programs designed specifically to support social interaction the way a social secretary does. The problem is one of attention, not capacity.

  2. Pingback: Comment on Larry Cuban’s Blog: Facebook, Friends, and Online Schooling | The Becker Blog

  3. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    I was resistant to Facebook. I heard all the things that people say, but joined it anyway. I was told it was for younger people and that they would resent our being in the space. Not true. I met one of the inventors of Facebook at a conference. AAAS and paid attention to what he said about the participatory culture. I liked him.

    The first thing I got from it, was a way to link family, using pictures, stories, and recipes. I like to write, but not that many letters. When I had a Fulbright to India I begged people to copy the letters to others. So the fun thing was being able to communicate to family in London, Rome, Houston TX, and in the Metro area as well as Dinwiddie County, Va. Sharing…
    So Family and others who loved the members of my family became Facebook friends,.

    Former Students

    I read that kids , and students would resent their teachers being on line.
    Well not quite. This is the magic part. As a teacher you may have some idea of your influemce or lack of it. I am in “touch” light touch with students who are math professors, geography teachers, computer science wiz people, a
    couple of actors and some who are on television ( I used to do a lot of drama before technology) .. one student would come online and another would friend me. Often people make fun of teachers for investing their life with
    students. It is not as much fun as a child seeing me in Old Town Alexandria and recognizing me in the dark and stopping to say hello and thank you, but
    it is a good thing.

    I particularly liked finding out in later years that I had made a big difference in somones life, and that from time to time students wanted to see me, to know things about me, and to share their families. So to the student who left and went to Tunisia and to school then in Jordan , we could compare notes. I fought once to have a child go to the Aquarium and paid her way. As an adult she reached out on Facebook to tell me she has taken her own children to the Baltimore Aquarium and to thank me. Who knew?

    To my dear Karen who was a student who died, facing cancer bravely, we talked , prayed, shared secrets and ideas. I never knew that she loved me.

    I was a single teacher . Years later one of my students wrote to ask me to be an honorary grandparent.Not kidding. Or another who had a play on broadway invited me to New York to see his work. This is not the age of Miss Dove. Teachers don’t stay in the same place and therefore probably never know how they affected the students they taught. Vi has a store, a Waterfront Cafe.. in Alexandria, I have been invited there. Nathan Lyon is a cook on television. We all have stories. It is nice to be able to put new pages in the stories. I don’t keep up with them ever day, but we laugh about our stories and our pain, and growing up ideas that helped them. I wondered about Willie, who was a student that I convinced that he was very special .. he is on line and doing well. I always wondered. Facebook won’t give me all of the answers.. but it is nice to have some of the answers.
    I had three young men who sat together and write me letters, and I have seen all three of them, but one of them is in Denmark. How would I have ever known that? Kea is in Greece. I hope to visit here there on my next trip to that country.

    Here is the funny thing. I remember school as one thing. Sometimes they knew it better than I did. When I was catching heck from a principal who hated me , I never said a thing to the kids. Who knew that they knew? Well now I do. Students put the puzzle pieces into place and tell the real story. One night in Texas, a student shared the whole thing with me. Now it was funny but then I was in agony. I did not want the children to be involved.

    Educational Partners
    The Fish and Wildlife Service, NASA, the Commerce Dept, Supercomputing and other groups that I worked with such as the National Geographic and
    Earthwatch are important to me and special to teachers. When would I have the time to talk to the people who changed the life of the students I taught by enriching my life.

    On Facebook for sure, but also I can extend the mentoring hand to others to
    talk about going to Earthwatch on a mission , or share other resources with teachers, and administrators. I was in Deia , Mallorca , Spain and I had never heard of Carthage, or done an archaeology project before. I keep in touch with them on Facebook.

    There are subgroups , groups, and passions, for awhile I played games, and did the activities. But there are phases to people’s Racebook involvement that shape the online experience.

    Parry Aftab is on Fasebook. I could reach out to her and ask about Cyber bullying, or be informed.

    Vint Cert is on Facebook. I am not a celebrity as he is , but when I need to know something he is there and he answers his mail.

    Facebook can be individually tailored to the experience that you want it to be. My best friend is in Vietnam teaching, another best friend is in Greece
    another friend , is the son of a man I almost married , who wanted to know , what happened. why did I not marry his dad? Well , I am not telling you, but I told him. We have shared and communicated.

    I could tell you about travel, recipes, conferences, keeping up with the gamers, but I tailor the Facebook experience for my own needs and pleasure.
    I did not come willingly, but friends and family and advocates created roadmaps for me to enjoy being in contact with them.

    It’s not perfect, but this is a good place to be for me. Television and the mass media are shaped by someone else, this space I decide how to accept, involve or be involved. I am still working on the sharing of reading
    but ..I have given up on that . I suppose that it was shaped by someone who reads a lot less than I do.

    Ford Cochran of the National Geographic shared photos of trips he takes with students. I had been to Hawaii, but my pictures were not as good and he and the student willingly shared their experience. I don’t like the reality shows as mush as I like the real sharing that people do , who are my peers.
    That is one of the reasons I LOVE Facebook. it is more an experience because the people are friends that is likely that I would enjoy even if is vicarious.

    Cooking? Don’t get me started. We all have cookbooks from around the world and from family, but the recipes and connections here are free.
    I don’t have a cookbook, but I publish freely and easily and can reach out.
    One of these days I will master Fava beans, and long stemmed artichokes.

    I like the participatory culture,it is enriching. I like gathering the
    friends in a crazy quilt of technology.

    I won’t talk about Facebook as an online class in this sharing.. I just love
    being in touch, or high touch with people I care about , and want to learn things from.

    In the madness about Arizona, I have come to know some things from friends that I never knew. In the sadness of working for the digital divide, I can light a candle for equity and share resources.

    I could write more but you get the drift.

    LIttle ones Luca, Dexter, and the little ones of others help me to see the world in a different light. I feel included.

    Thank you Facebook!

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Bonnie, I get the drift. I enjoyed reading your use of Facebook and what it has meant to your life in friendships, intimacies, joyful acquaintanceships, and maintaining contacts over the years. It has broadened your life and given you joy. Wonderful.

  4. Pingback: Dunbar number mooi getekend (+video) « Is het nu generatie X, Y of Einstein?

  5. Bob Calder

    The importance of weak ties or weak connections is what is at work . Here as well (Larry’s blog).

    There is also the related issue of how edges harden. This is a new phenomenon we see as extreme conservatives began to take up online social tools. Rather than engaging in discussion, attacks happen. The deliberate manipulation of Digg was a major act of vandalism that has hurt the site, perhaps mortally. Issues of trust online and offline are important.

    • larrycuban

      Again, thanks for reminding me about the literature on weak and strong ties and their connections to social media. Somehow I keep forgetting to weave that concept in since it does belong to any discussion of “friends.”

  6. I’ve had very negative, personal reasons to think about and look at Facebook quite a lot recently and one of the things I have noticed is that it is the most insecure, damaged individuals I know who have by far the largest circle of Facebook “friends.” Not only that, but they are also by far the most active users, as though they are somehow desperately trying to convince themselves they are liked.

    A long time ago I forged the following little definition for myself, which I used in my teaching career with some pupils when the occasion demanded. “A friend is someone who tells you what you need to know: not what you want to hear.” Facebook has far more to do with flattery and sychophancy than meaningful friendships.

  7. I like this..”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.”

    But that is assuming that all students have access to qualified teachers with depth of knowledge and permission to teach well. I live in Washington DC, where Michelle Rhee came to attempt to part the waters. We have needs. We have .. problems as many school systems do. We don’t have a lot of teachers who are well trained even in the use of old fashioned teaching and learning. We have to teach for the future too. No more digital divides , please. W.E. B. DuBois was right.

    As a teacher, I am really, really, really good at close up and personal. Before there was the Internet, there was my closet and what I could afford, write grants for, experience to share with kids, and know from my areas of content expertise. I was a teacher star. But I learned the ways of Marc Prensky.

    Teachers need all of the help and support they can get.In the participatory culture of Facebook, or .. say, Project Based Learning, I learned to step away from the know all teacher stance and to partner with the National Geographic, EarthWatch, NASA, and the Supercomputing areas of interest, .. I learned to gather the ideas, and the expertise from others to help me teach. Facebook, or let’s say the participatory culture lets me do that. I can reach beyond my personal areas of expertise to the director of education at NOAA. We were able to work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. It started with a simple project from the National Geographic, back in the day of Kidsnetwork. When I finished the activities on water.. I was hooked on thinking differently about teaching.” Workshop on Water”

    Use the experts, learn with them, go above the level of the textbook..
    involve local area people. So we went to the Smithsonian Estuary Center
    which we found on the Internet we could have done a virtual visit, but
    this is a place of magic. Think eat a crab lab… think seining in big old boots in the river, think using real microscopes , and studying salinity. .. at lower grades and learning the kind of math you need for studying turbidity, describing the percentage of salinity, and so on.. learning that builds on thinking. Best of all, resources came to me, and I could use the expertise of the scientists at the Smithsonian, the experts at the Baltimore Aquarium , and yes we did travel there to study adaptations, we did it with a grant that the kids and I wrote after our initial work on the study of water. It was not a paragraph in a book on the Chesapeake Bay . From the National Geographic we did the maps of the bay, the history of the bay, we cooked a little bit, and
    learned the lay of the land. Take a look here at my Facebook photos.
    Here is the SERC resource. We were not reading science, we were doing it.

    Education Resources Smithsonian Estuary Center

    Creeks , Canopies and …
    Can you say Anoxia? THink Duck Stamps.. and I am a minority teacher.

    OK I will admit that I was a WOW teacher for the National Geographic and we studied the water barons who dammed up the Colorado River as we traveled across America.. hands on.. but still a teacher from anywhere with a modest amount of connectivity can reach out and touch experts who care.
    Like Larry. He is making us think deeply ….on purpose.

    We are all using pretty much GPS. But kids? why not? Google Maps and Map Machine. I remember when teachers used to fight over the maps available , or run get them so they would be available WHEN they wanted to teach .. if there were maps available ..Map Machine

    Or use Google Maps . You can walk down streets in places you may never get to go to. Walk down the street in Berlin.. awesome.

    The Future? I don’t know..

    Think Bob Panoff and http://shodor.org/educators/, think and look at the education resources, A teacher in a classroom can learn from it even if they never turn on the computers for students, but that would be a shame. It is free, and the director of Concord, loves hands on because he is a bird watcher like me. http://www.concord.org/

    Some of us that never got to go to Ivy League schools got help with our teaching and learning. That is the power of the participatory culture.
    The SERC Smithsonian Education Research Center was able to supply microscopes, tools, and experiences for me and the children. We
    used the maps from the National Geographic, and their movies and history of the Chesapeake Bay to learn the rivers, the flora and fauna of the area
    and to learn and have a concern about the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
    Long story short, blended learning, partnering with experts, learning the use of real math and science, and geography, lead to writing, reading, and loving the information about a resource in our area. Enter the Fish and Wildlife Service. We were able to extend our learning with them .. a Home for Pearl was one of the projects we worked with. We were kids , teachers, researchers, parents. It was hard work. It required more depth of knowledge. It is being beyond a paragraph in a book, we needed resources.
    A couple of years later, here is a project that is almost entirely on line that has me thinking. I do not love Second Life, but then I love this project Power Across Texas.
    Look at the projects for Tweens.. Why Power, Energy Challenge. Power Simulator. Not perfect maybe, but reading about energy.. well not as interesting. This makes you want to read about power, energy etc.

    Let’s talk STEM. I am probably one of many of those obnoxious people who taught science during the NCLB lack of interest era anyway to my peril. If you said STEM people thought you were talking about a flower, then.

    Whyville has created a virtual energy space. Power Across Texas. Look, I don’t love online alone that much. But this one got me. I never knew that I would get “hooked” on running a city, using various power sources, and that it would consume my thoughts for a couple of weeks. I am a teacher. I love it that the evaluation is embedded. I like it that the teachers get assistance on line. This from a teacher who had a grant, went to all of these sources, and studied energy, and I am person who remembers” Reddi Watt” . My second life is in a kitchen, but this Power Across Texas looks like a way to use technology well. I would add some
    history , some maps and videos.. but a teacher is supposed to be able to construct knowledge , right? What’s the rub, well Larry is right , we have a digital dark road and there is not a level playing field, and who knows that an administrator even knows or cares about authentic assessment, project based learning, partnering, in depth on curriculum, and integrated learning.
    These are areas I love. Serious games.
    Immune attack.
    Visualization and modeling, and scalable game design can morph into higher learning that will take kids to the areas of expertise that we say we need for the future.

    I might be overeducated in these ares. But I get some really good results. I learned in museums when there was separate but uneven education and I have spent my life trying to even the score. So pardon me if I am a bit passionate. I just love to teach students to LOVE learning. All kinds of students.. with the best resources possible.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    I love this blog , because we get to share ideas and think out loud.

  8. Steve Davis

    “So You Want to Close Your Facebook Account”

  9. Steve…quite, quite brilliant! Satire at its best.

  10. Couldn’t agree with you more on the gap between the promise of online education and what it’s actually delivering. Despite what scores of pundits are saying, if you talk to to a meaningful cross section of parents, you find that they’re far more concerned with in person teaching than they are with online/virtual teaching.

    I actually spent most of this past summer doing just that. Conversations with dozens of parents, teachers, and students kept pointing to the same conclusion – while online learning is cool and niche and may be a good compliment to live learning, it is purely secondary in terms of importance and efficacy.

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