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December 13, 2007

Facebook and Academic Institutions - Content or Context?

In the world of enterprise and educational  IT, the question I keep hearing asked about Facebook is, "will this supplant our intranet/course platform/LMS/[insert your enterprise application platform of choice]?  Students want to know if they can get their course content in Facebook.  Administrators want to know if allowing students to use Facebook for anything academic will drive users away from their school portals or course environments. Part of the confusion is an as yet immature understanding of what Facebook and the custom applications you can develop for it are really best at.  

Harvard Business School Professor Andy McAfee writes, in Facebook on the Intranet? No -- Facebook AS the Intranet, about Serena Software's employing Facebook as its intranet portal.   Bill Ives goes into more detail:

One of major flaws of existing intranets, even when they work to find stuff, is the lack of social context. It is difficult to find anything about people. Serena wanted to promote a greater connection between people. Facebook, which is both free and a great example of web 2.0, seemed to be the right answer. They established a private Facebook group for Serena employees and they built a few simple custom Facebook apps to better enable intranet functions. Now they provide links through Facebook to documents stored securely behind the firewall.

Facebook is really good at one thing - providing a social graph that connects users to each other.  Developing a Facebook application makes the most sense when you're trying to intersect a social graph of your own (such as the enrollment in a course, the list of students with the same concentration, or those in the same study group).  When developing an application to do exactly this for students, it became clear to me that Facebook's value was not in being the container through which large bits of course content, school administrative information, or academic discussions would be delivered.  We already have excellent applications for all of that, and they provide a level of access control, administrative options, and a cultural "fit" that is useful and durable. 

What Facebook does do, however, is let us publish snippets or updates to students sourced from these university systems, and drive traffic back to them for the "full story".  It lets us give a student a page within Facebook with their course schedule, links to the course sites, lists of their Facebook friends (and other participating users) who are in their courses, and various ways to message between these groups.  Facebook's friends is social graph A, the various university roles and identities of students are graphs B/C/D/etc.  Facebook provides  the means to intersect and display them in creative and student-focused ways.  It's about context for your content, not really about delivering your content.  

As Serena found out in its implementation, Facebook's API that allows iFramed applications to run inside its framework mean that you can develop secure programs that combine a user's Facebook identity with their institutional identity, all without exposing any of your data or your users' institutional login credentials to Facebook.  I suspect that as more institutions explore this realm, some common understanding will emerge that Facebook and social-graph platforms like it are not a threat or a replacement for the portal, LMS or CMS, but a complement to them.

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This is a BAD idea. All it takes is one Facebook worm and they are owned. They may have decoupled the logins but how many people use the same or similar passwords across the web? Especially young people. This is laziness and it will probably end up in disaster.

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