I have been looking at and thinking about the Schools on Facebook application being developed by Inigral which has been blogged about by Michael Feldstein (and his guest blogger from the company that makes the product) quite a bit. There is also an article on this in today's Inside Higher Ed. And Tech Crunch covered it earlier in the month.
This is a really interesting product I think and has the potential really to change the environment for higher ed and the way we use course management systems. Part of the promise is that it starts from a whole different starting point than the products that we're used to. One of the things that always strikes me when I use cms's is the crushing sense of path dependency. We seem locked into a way of thinking or approaching the issue that locks us into one direction and limits options (for some really cool general articles about path dependency for example with railroads and the qwerty keyboard see here and here). That sort of path dependency is somewhat inevitable given the scale of the software development that an enterprise system like a cms requires. But it makes innovation and flexibility difficult. So it is nice that with a product like Schools we can approach the issue from a really different angle (with it's own dependencies, of course). We also run all the obvious dangers of getting tied into a specific product and all that that entails. The company already has a product in Facebook called Courses where you can link up to classmates and keep track of a schedule and assignment etc. However, you appear not to be able to search for courses in any sort of easy way ie searching by institution doesnt currently seem to work. Hopefully Schools or a similar product will work better.
It seems to make some sense to build course related information into where students already are.
There is of course the danger that students dont want work to happen in Facebook, that its a social space and they want to keep it that way (what others have referred to as the "creepy treehouse effect"). I sort of feel their pain a little in this regard, just in reverse. I mostly see Facebook as a way to keep loose professional connections and find some of the more personal and frivolous stuff annoying eg the sending of trinkets etc. But maybe over time Facebook and its ilk will develop separations or ways of segmenting parts of your life. There is at least some anecdotal evidence that students do not have a problem using Facebook for more work related activities. I know of a number of cases at Mason where students elected to do projects within Facebook and persuaded the faculty member involved to go along with it. This will be an interesting thing to explore.
Of course the company is claiming that this is not a replacement for a cms but an add on to conventional cms's to add to the sociality. Yeah right. Because we need a whole new additional system and sign-on and integration with the SIS. But I guess they have to keep Blackboard at bay. The features that they appear to highlight in their materials are on connecting people in clubs and social organizations. This is already a big use of conventional cms's on campuses and in research I did for ECAR I argued that these uses were something of a "gateway" technology. People start using the technology for something like that and next thing you know they're using it for instruction. I am not sure how much this is still true, given the institutionalized nature of cms's and the way that they are often being challenged by these upstart web 2.0 technologies.
The fact that something like this is so overwhelmingly social is also interesting given the fact that the vast bulk of learning in higher ed happens outside the classroom. Perhaps we need to start on the outside and work inwards rather than the reverse.