Facebook as a learning tool? You have to be kidding me. What’s next, Farmville leading the way in agricultural studies? Term papers being turned in on Digg? Kids actually hanging out together online to do homework?

Is this a freak of nature or the sign of things to come?

Turns out it’s the latter, according to a National School Boards Association survey. The survey poled students ages 9 through 17 and found that one of the top things kids talk about with each other online is (Are you ready for this?) their education. And no, they’re not complaining about school, but rather they’re asking each other for help with their course work.

The survey also showed that middle school and high school kids use social networking for college and career planning, doing research for assignments, and learning outside of school. In fact, only about 40 percent of their time on social networks was used for pure socializing.

So what does this have to do with college and online education? Turns out plenty.

Back in 2009 the SRI International for the Department of Education conducted a 93-page report on online education that spanned a 12-year period from 1996 to 2008. The report highlights a quantitative comparison of the same courses offered to students in both the classroom and online settings. The results were shocking to the highbrows in the world of higher ed in that the students who took the courses online did better academically than the students who took the same courses in a classroom setting. And yes, most of that data was collected at the college level, as opposed to K-12.

“The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing—it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction,” said Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International.

But if you think about it, finding out that students do better when taking courses online shouldn’t be any big surprise. In the 12-year time frame over which the study took place the Internet and e-mail went mainstream, Friendster, eUniverse, Napster, MySpace, and Facebook were all introduced, video conferencing and Skype replaced face-to-face meetings, YouTube replaced TV, iTunes replaced radio and CDs, smartphones took off, and books went online with e-readers. The kids now between the ages of 15 and 25 actually spend more time social networking than they do watching TV or talking on the phone.

It’s only natural that the generation that grew up at the dawn of social networking is going to use it as a tool to get ahead in life. So if we want to keep up with the demanding expectations of a generation that is used to getting whatever it wants with the click of a mouse button, then formal education will have to lead the way in terms of teaching these kids (and the generations after them) in the manner in which they’re accustomed to receiving information.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t be a problem. Prior to social networking and high-speed Internet, online courses meant reading some material and then taking an online multiple-choice test, with virtually no human interaction. But now with colleges as prestigious as Stanford offering online coursework through the use of their own social networks, students can develop relationships with their instructors and classmates, just as easily as if they were all sitting in a classroom together. Plus, it lets students learn on their own terms, allowing them to review material as many times as they want and log on to study at times of the day when they’re most receptive.

That’s not to say that classrooms will go away completely. There are some subjects that will always require hands-on interaction with a real live mentor (learning how to perform surgery, for example, comes to mind). However, the SRI International for the Department of Education report shows that online college is not a second-class substitute for brick-and-mortar college. It is the real deal as far as learning goes.

Which means that online education is not only here to stay, it will continue to grow and get better, especially in the areas of higher and continuing education. Social networking and the kids who swear by it are pushing us into the next phase of how we formally learn. So the next time you go to kick your kid off Facebook, you might want to pull up a chair instead and observe. Could be he’s doing a calculus assignment with his classmates or trying to figure what he needs to do to get into Harvard. Either way it beats watching the latest reality show on TV.

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