MySpace has helped musicians reach their fans, political activists spread the word and made average people feel popular. Now, it's being used to teach--but not without controversy.
N.C. State Professor Tom Hoban is offering Sociology 395-M, "Social Movements for Social Change," on the popular social networking site that claims to have 100 million active users worldwide. But administrators say it's the wrong space for teaching a university course.
Hoban says he received approval over the summer from his department head to teach via MySpace. But last week, Katie Perry, senior vice provost for academic affairs, told Hoban to move the course to university servers.
Hoban has refused.
"N.C. State's distance education is primarily oriented toward what I would say is pushing information into students' brains and then trying to get them to prove that they've learned it," Hoban says. "I want my students to build relationships, to build friendships and to build trust in one another. No one can show me another tool. I've told the university, if they can show me one, I'll move."
A tenured professor, Hoban is citing academic freedom, saying the university's applications don't include social networking components that are essential to the course. He taught it last year using the university's WebCT Vista site, but found it "impossible" to create social interaction.
Approximately 40 students are enrolled in the course for credit; another 10 are auditing the course with Hoban's approval. While the course profile and blog can be viewed by any MySpace user, only "friends" (enrolled students) can post comments or access online workgroups.
Tim Miller, professor and vice provost for Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA), says administrators have three big concerns.
First, Miller says, MySpace is not compliant with the Americans for Disabilities Act, so using it to teach is a violation of federal law. "When we schedule classes on campus, we make sure the classrooms meet certain standards," Miller says. "We would have to make sure that courses delivered in a virtual classroom meet those same standards as well, but frankly, those standards are not as clearly defined." Making a site accessible to programs that read the content for the blind, for instance, puts some limitations on the use of images and requires HTML code to meet Web consortium standards. Miller says he ran the MySpace course page through a filter and came up with 155 instances of 12 different types of compliance errors.
Lastly, Miller says, it's unclear whether Hoban is violating the MySpace user agreement which prohibits "commercial" uses of the site.
Hoban says he's addressed all three concerns. He says many blind people use MySpace, and the code can be fixed. Furthermore, he says, his is not the only online course that isn't 100 percent ADA compliant. Privacy controls already built into MySpace are under the students' control. As for MySpace approval, Hoban says he has alerted the company to the course and asked for their blessing. Given that the site is famously useful to musicians promoting their music, he says he doubts the company will see his course as a commercial use. (MySpace officials did not return calls for comment.)
"As a sociologist, I see [MySpace's] potential for society as big as the printing press," Hoban says. As he sees it, the site's popularity is a benefit to educators. "I would say 90 percent of the students were on MySpace already."
There's another aspect to controversy over SOC 395-M: the content. Hoban is both a scholar and a proponent of 1960s counterculture. Students are expected to participate in a social movement as part of the course. Hoban's syllabus suggests they pursue issues such as "animal welfare and environmental issues; consumerism and healthier eating; peace in the Middle East and social justice; racial equality and spiritual tolerance; sensible drug policy and medical marijuana."
Then there is Hoban's reputation. He refers to himself as the Hip Happy Professor, and his personal profile on MySpace--which he makes clear is not affiliated with the university--features a background image of pot leaves, reggae music on the audio player and videos of himself and a young woman taking hits of marijuana and singing songs such as Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry."
Last October, a profile of Hoban and his "apologetics course on hippies" ran in Carolina Journal, a publication of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative group that criticizes what it considers to be liberal bias in higher education.
Hoban says he believes the content of the course and his own reputation are the real reasons for the administration's objections. "If I were teaching a creative writing course, I don't think it would be an issue," he says.
The other big issue, he says, is money.
NCSU uses two main course management systems: Wolfware, created by NCSU faculty and staff, and WebCT Vista, which is produced by a private company that Miller describes as "effectively the Microsoft of learning management systems." The university contracted with WebCT for $118,360 annually because "we realized there was no way we could keep up with the features and tools of commercial products," he says. As of this fall, 1,141 courses and 35,825 students use the program, he says.
For now, Perry says, administrators are looking into the legal issues involved and asking themselves, "Is this something we want to allow?"--but content has nothing to do with it. A meeting this Friday will bring Hoban together with university counsel and administrators. "Nobody wants to stifle any creativity," she says, "and we want to serve the students, so I think we can all sit down easily and agree to those things." But, she adds, "There are a lot of unknowns."
Hoban says he hopes NCSU's administration will embrace an innovative approach to education. "What would be wrong with being identified as a little bit hip and cool?" Hoban says. "Come on, guys, lighten up."