It’s nice to get away for a while; a difference of perspective does a world of good for your clarity of thought, and often even your basic happiness. You don’t get a much bigger difference of perspective as between Oxford and the San Joaquin Valley (pictured right), or between sitting in front of a screen all day and spending time in the outside world.
The danger with creating a community online is that people will spend too much time in that community. It seems like a funny thing to be worried about when we’re largely involved with promoting engagement and creating systems that people will want to use. But it seems to me that if someone is too involved in a learning environment, they’re liable to not spend enough time actually learning.
Of course, this is true of all educational facilities – the danger of creating a really cool student bar is that students will spend all their time in it drinking beer. It’s important to promote a balanced learner lifestyle containing all kinds of helpful elements, rather than the use of one tool or other. I don’t buy the idea that we should just let people get on with it, and students don’t want any kind of involvement from the institutions in their lives – they come to an institution, and often pay tens of thousands of dollars, so that they will come out at the other side with a good degree and a great deal more knowledge and skills than they came in with. Sure, these things perhaps shouldn’t be mandatory, but this kind of lifestyle help should be out there and very visible. I would hate to think that someone might be spending twelve hours a day on Elgg when they could be out there taking advantage of everything on offer to them.
You might scoff – nobody would spend hours in front of a website! – but this is, I’m afraid, naïve. Hang around community sites like Myspace if you don’t believe me, or check out the frequency of posts in some LiveJournal communities. A growing number of people are beginning to recognise the seriousness of Internet addiction. Of course, as the programmer and vendor of an online learning system, I’m not about to say that learners should avoid such systems – the bottom line is that an institution’s role includes both gentle guidance towards the knowedge and skills that a learner seeks, as well as how to use them in a rich and balanced way.