Read. Watch. Listen. Learn? -- Facebook & the Future of Study Apps & Learning Data

Facebook held its developers' conference today in San Francisco, unveiling a number of changes to the social network's UI as well as deeper integration with various applications.

Facebook Apps for Education

The motto for the F8 was "Read. Watch. Listen." Absent from that series of verbs was "Learn." But that doesn't mean that we won't be seeing a whole new round of applications that take advantage of Facebook's popularity, as well as its social graph, for educational purposes.

Indeed, some exist already. Earlier this week, I covered the new study app Hoot.me over on MindShift. Hoot.me allows students to form online, real-time study groups and gives them both video-conferencing and math-friendly chat tools in order to work together.

There are other educational apps on Facebook too. Inigral, for example, aims to boost college student retention by helping students better connect with others at their schools. Kno recently introduced a Facebook app allowing students to access their textbooks there. And many other companies -- educational and otherwise -- have long used the Facebook social graph (that is, your profile data, your school information, your friends, your likes) to help personalize content they deliver to their customers.

As part of the buzz from the Facebook conference today, several educational companies are already touting their new integration with Facebook. The test prep company Grockit, for example, unveiled a way for its users to create study groups with their Facebook friends, pointing to some of its own research about the success students have when studying with others versus studying alone.

And the book rental company Chegg announced a new app that will allow students to share their course selection information -- past and present -- with others.

What Can We Learn From the Social Graph?

It makes sense that companies integrate with Facebook. It's the major destination site on the Web, second only to google.com. And the wealth of data that companies can gather about a person by integrating with Facebook is pretty incredible. (I don't mean to imply that's a bad thing necessarily -- more data can mean better service.) Of course, the rival there is Google too, but there's a different sort of interaction between Google -- even with all its various mapping and productivity apps -- and with Facebook. Hence, of course, the pressure for Google to "do social."

With the emphasis on social learning, then, Facebook may be well positioned to offer itself as a platform for even more companies to build apps upon. What do students like? What do students read? What classes to students take? What movies do they watch? What sports teams do they support? How do they respond when their friends "read, watch, listen"?

If you think these questions are tangential to education, you may be right. And you may be overlooking the vast potential of data and analytics in education. Read this interview I conducted with George Siemens for an interesting take on the subject. Okay, he doesn't mention Facebook, true. But that's not to say that the site couldn't be a player in the space or, as social data becomes more and more valuable, couldn't endorse a winner in the race to create better social learning tools and educational analytics.

Facebook Wants to Take Over the Web, But Can It Take Over Education?

One of the big roadblocks for learning analytics and data that Siemens does describe in that interview is the question of privacy, and no doubt, thinking about Facebook in this space raises all sorts of questions, particularly considering the company's less-than-stellar track record.

Another obstacle, one more pressing perhaps than speculating about the company's role in social data and education, is that Facebook remains on the list of blocked websites at many schools. It's a distraction, some contend. It's dangerous, others argue. Cyberbullying, some warn.

But like it or not, Facebook is pushing hard to take over the social Web -- or, hell, the Web itself. The filters on many schools' Internet access does mean that that part of the Web is unattainable in many school buildings. Good riddance, you might say. But students might think otherwise, particularly if the Web as they know it revolves around the relationships and applications they use there. As I often argue when it comes to texting, we can't simply assume that because students are using social tools that they're using them for distraction or entertainment.

On stage at F8 today, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced deeper social integration and social sharing with Facebook, admitting that friend recommendations via Facebook were a far more powerful impetus for folks to watch movies than Netflix's own algorithm. But that integration won't come to the U.S. as a 1988 law, the Video Privacy Protection Act, prevents people from disclosing video rental information. It sounds as though Netflix has been lobbying hard to have that changed, and a proposed bill may do such that.

I can't help but wonder about how pressure from tech companies may impact the laws that impact privacy, children, and education too, namely FERPA, CIPA, and COPPA. All these laws stem from the same era, and arguments about their being outmoded can easily be made.

So at first glance, there was little on stage today at F8 that made me think that Facebook has an education story to tell or an education app to offer. But as more companies sent me emails this afternoon, announcing their plans to integrate with Facebook's new and improved "open graph," I think it's clear that Facebook will be a force to be reckoned with in the future of student's online learning efforts, whether we decide to let it into the schools or not.


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