Business schools have always benefited from keeping an eye on their students -- not to check how hard they are working but to learn from them.
Nowhere is this more the case than in communications, and social networking in particular. The arrival of the "Facebook generation" among the student population has highlighted how social networking websites can improve interaction and promote use of the schools' own online networks.
It marks the end of an era in which schools felt the need to create an online space, free from faculty influence, in which students could get to know each other. Now the social networking sites can do this -- but how much more can or should they do?
As John Gallagher, professor of practice at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, points out, the need to provide a sense of connectedness and belonging has been filled in so many ways by different technologies over the years. He particularly remembers the arrival in the late 1990s of ICQ, an instant messaging programme that, he says, "allowed students to do the equivalent of running into each other in the library late at night".
Now, says Prof Gallagher, the tools that are available are so much richer than in the past. "These programmes are not just a cognitive education experience but a dynamic, multi-dimensional and life-changing one," he says. "The question for us is which of these dimensions are we involved in, in a purposeful way?"
Facebook groups offer a lot of answers to prospective students
Marianne Vandenbosch, director for the executive MBA programme offered jointly by McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management and HEC Montreal, says LinkedIn is "very professional, good for career development and a great way to ensure you don't lose touch with people".
Before moving to the Canadian programme late last year, Ms Vandenbosch was executive MBA programme manager at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. There, she says, students began to use sites such as LinkedIn some four years ago, while student usage of more socially-oriented sites such as Facebook became apparent in the last two to three years.
Inevitably, enthusiasm for social networking is a function of age. "Students on the full-time programmes are ahead of their EMBA counterparts on that curve, they are younger and just more on top of that tech stuff," says Ms Vandenbosch.
The students' growing enthusiasm for social networking has a big benefit for schools -- it can help stimulate use of the discussion boards, online journals, blogs and wikis that have been set up as part of the communications infrastructure for the programme.
"Before we had social networking, engaging students -- explaining to them the benefits of online reflection and working with their peers at a distance -- was harder as it was all new to them," says Guy Brown, director of corporate programmes at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University in the UK.
"Over the past two to three years, since the introduction of social networking sites such as Facebook, that has changed," he says. "Students are used to sharing reflections with each other electronically on Facebook -- what happened the night before, or down the pub, and all we are doing now is transform that same phenomenon into teaching."
This process helps the schools' own online educational platforms evolve, says Ms Vandenbosch: "They can learn from the social networking sites, and make sure they incorporate features and ideas that have proved effective there." Newcastle, meanwhile, has tried to replicate the Facebook approach in its virtual learning environment, says Mr Brown, and has even adopted the language and terminology of Facebook that students are used to. So, students might be encouraged to "write on your wall" rather than "update your e-portfolios".
There are limits to the usefulness of social networking sites in business education, however. Students are using Facebook socially -- for keeping in touch at the end of the programme, as at IMD -- but social networking sites are generally considered too open for reflecting on course and classroom issues, where the focus is on the schools' own online journals and learning environments.
"The issue of confidentiality is big," says Ms Vandenbosch. "Students do a lot of work that relates to their own companies, and there is a good understanding that what they talk about in the class, stays in the class."
A further fundamental point is that social networking sites are not designed to be learning environments. "Facebook is about reflecting a public persona, but it's not about gathering additional input for myself, from myself and from others to develop learning," says Chris Dalton, director of studies for the distance learning MBA at Henley Business School.
The way students reflect about their course is also important, says Mr Dalton. "If you only reflect at quite a superficial level, you don't learn how to link from one area of learning to another, or from one level to another."
Even if sites such as Facebook do not directly play a part in learning or in formal discussion of course content, their importance for helping to create a community around the business school and its work is likely to grow. As distance learning becomes more popular, says Mr Brown, there has to be much greater social networking in an academic and social sense as part of the learning package.
Ms Vandenbosch says the confidentiality issue is the great unknown, but if it is resolved, social networking could potentially have even more applicability for EMBA students than for full-time MBAs. "Full-time students are together all or much of the time, whereas EMBAs are not, so the more channels of communication there are, the better for them."
But if social networking helps online learning environments work better, is this a nail in the coffin for face-to-face learning? Quite the reverse, says Mr Dalton -- it probably makes the face-to-face element more important. As online technology becomes more sophisticated, it can create a false sense of online identity, increasing opportunity for miscommunication, he says: "So you need good opportunities for a reality check along with the virtual reality."
Ultimately, business schools and other educational institutions may have to face up to the fact that social networking is changing the way people learn. "Education has largely been built around filling an individual's head with knowledge in a classroom paradigm," says Tony O'Driscoll, another professor of practice at Fuqua. "But what I'm observing is that the next, or net, generation coming through views learning more like tuning their network to the problem in hand."
For this generation of digital natives, he says, learning happens in real time: when an issue surfaces, the peer network is invoked to co-create a response and learning is a by-product of doing and deliberating.
"For educators there is clearly a significant opportunity to blend the two approaches -- individual and networked learning -- to create a more nuanced and engaging educational experience for all involved."
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2009