Learning from the soc nets?

Facebook and MySpace? A wildly popular waste of time, right?

Well, researchers at the University of Minnesota claim they have uncovered some real educational value buried underneath all that angst-blogging and sheep throwing.

In a six-month study of students aged 16 to 18 from mostly low-income families in the Midwest, the researchers found that social networks are actually teaching practical skills that will serve students well as they enter the job market.

They found that students come away from their virtual lives with a set of general tech skills, an understanding of layout and design principles and better communications skills.

“What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today,” said Christine Greenhow, the lead researcher for the study.

Moreover, the researchers held up their results as an argument against the notion that low-income folks are on the wrong side of a digital divide. Canvassing students at urban high schools throughout the region, they reported that 82 percent have Internet access at home, and 77 percent maintained a profile on at least one social networking site. Ninety-four percent of the survey respondents said they use the Internet.

So Greenhow makes the case that teachers need to accept that these technologies are a part of kids’ (of all income levels) lives and work them into the curriculum.

“By understanding how students may be positively using these networking technologies in their daily lives and where the as yet unrecognized educational opportunities are, we can help make schools even more relevant, connected and meaningful to kids,” she said.

Indeed. Some schools are trying it. Others have banned the sites and threatened to expel students for using Facebook study groups to swap homework assignments. Social networks as they stand today are very much a mixed bag, and despite the increasingly trend toward professionalization, I dare say it will be quite some time before they start showing up on the public school curricula.

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