Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ateneo's Facebook War

What happens when you pull the plug on Facebook from the college campus network? Understandably, you'll get an irate population. Facebook, after all, is a very popular service, if not the most popular. So whereas once everyone could log in to Facebook at any time, they were suddenly confronted by a terse message that the site could not be reached.

Our university has a fairly generous and liberal policy with regard to Internet use. You can get a wifi signal near offices and lounge areas, not to mention access from the computers in the library and in the labs. Barring the stern proviso regarding pornography, students and teachers could visit any site they wanted...up until last summer when the administration put in place a policy to block Facebook and other social networking sites.

I'll make no bones about it: I was likely one of the few who approved of the decision. I've long since expressed my dislike--yes, disLIKE--for Facebook and I've already written before about deleting my account. I thought that students were dickering too much with social networking when they could be spending the time studying or doing more productive work. The step felt like a vindication.

I expected the voice of opposition to grumble and whine not long after the blocks came up. Grumble and whine they did, but the voices came from a most unexpected quarter: I thought the first to complain would be the students, but I was wrong.

The loudest objections came from the College Faculty Union.

Not a day after the official announcement came out, the following open letter peppered the bulletin boards near the teachers' lounge:

"The College Faculty Union of Ateneo de Davao University (CFU) vehemently protests the blocking of social networking sites such as Facebook and Friendster, including other sites. The blocking is initiated by the Technical Service Office (TSO) of the university, as the internet site claims to be [sic]. This infringes on the freedom of information and of expression which requires thorough discussion beforehand to determine what constitute [sic] a violation or not. The CFU will file grievance as initial and LEGAL response directed to the head of TSO."

Teachers filing a lawsuit so they can access Facebook from school? Who would have thought?

I found the protest laughable for several reasons.

First, I would have thought that teachers--adults--would show more circumspection and responsibility as to how they spent their time: to show good example to their young students, so to speak.

Second, the block against social networking sites was not total to begin with. The memo from the TSO made it clear that the sites would be available outside office hours, including the two-hour non-academic activity period every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Third, other forms of communication and research--email, Google, and other sites--remained accessible from the campus network without any time restrictions.

And fourth, there was nothing stopping teachers and students from accessing Facebook and what-not using their personal mobile broadband connections. That would mean, however, they would have to pay for it on their own dime.

When did Facebook become so vital to education that teachers need access to their pictures and status updates all the time? I chortled at the thought of faculty members marching down Roxas Avenue bearing placards: "Bring Back Facebook." No such rally did take place, and thank goodness, because if the media caught sight of it, we would never be able to live it down.

So what did we gain from blocking Facebook on campus? I spoke with the folks from TSO about the statistics they collected. Just from blocking Facebook from the computer labs alone, they saw a 10% reduction in overall network traffic. Mind, this was last summer when the active student population was less.

Now I can't speak for the College Faculty Union but two months on, I see that my students are doing just fine without Facebook. (None of the students is willing to admit to using Friendster--apparently that concern remains with the faculty.) Some have taken to Twitter, blogs, and news sites.

The preoccupation with social networking among my students seems to have dwindled overall. In my laboratory classes, I no longer have to scold anyone if I see that danged flash of blue-and-white on their screens; instead, they all look more focused on the assignments I've given them. The level of concentration seems to have gone up. I'm hoping someone can conduct a study to confirm my observations, but in the meantime I'm happy enough to see my students actually working.

To be sure, there are still some holdover grumblings. Some students have posted a manifesto expressing their opposition to the block. I am given to understand that it is couched in leftspeak of, ahem, freedom of information and high tuition fees. But it's posted as a--what else?--Facebook page so I'm going to happily thumb my nose at it.