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"Creepy Treehouse" effect: Twitter & Facebook suck when they're required by your professor


Fresh from the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Wired Campus" column comes the amazing discovery that college students DO NOT want to become friends with their professors on Facebook and they don't want to get "tweets" from their twittering profs.

When Professors Create Social Networks for Classes, Some Students See a 'Creepy Treehouse'

A growing number of professors are experimenting with Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking tools for their courses, but some students greet an invitation to join professors’ personal networks with horror, seeing faculty members as intruders in their private online spaces. Recognizing that, some professors have coined the term “creepy treehouse” to describe technological innovations by faculty members that make students’ skin crawl.

Here's an (abridged) definition of "creepy treehouse" from Jared Stein, director of instructional-design services at Utah Valley University:
  • n. A place, physical or virtual (e.g. online), built by adults with the intention of luring in kids. Example: “Kids … can see a [creepy treehouse] a mile away and generally do a good job in avoiding them.”
  • n. Any system or environment that repulses a target user due to it’s closeness to or representation of an oppressive or overbearing institution.
  • n. A situation in which an authority figure or an institutional power forces those below him/her into social or quasi-social situations.

Having been a college professor, I can testify that the only group more likely to deceive themselves about being young and hip are people who work in ad agencies.
Maybe profs are hip and young compared to their chronological peers. Or maybe having a captive audience of 18-21 year-olds tends to give you the false impression that you're fascinating.

I created private usenet groups to catch the spillover from class discussions, particularly my graduate seminars, at Case Western Reserve Univ in the early '90s. I asked each student to post once during the month for the experience, even if it was just with a question or a "hello world, I got online" message; after that participation was voluntary.

It appears that you can make your students join your Facebook network, but you can't make them like it. You can only make them dislike you. A story in the Guardian called Students Tell Universities: Get out of MySpace! explains that:
E-learning gurus want to exploit their students' passion for the new generation of interactive online communication tools - collectively known as web 2.0 - to deliver academic content. Not content with podcasting mini-lectures to students' mobile phones and i-Pods, they are hijacking the internet telephone system, Skype, and invading FaceBook.

But a research exercise ... has just revealed, amazingly, that students want to be left alone. Their message to the trendy academics is: "Get out of MySpace!"
Stein and his colleagues who study online learning suggest that college professors check out alternative social media systems designed specifically for educators. Those systems allow for the spontaneous and instantaneous communication Twitter etc. provides -- without bringing the stink of work into the playroom. Stein offers one solution proposed by Utah Valley Univ. student Tyrel Kelsey:
Students reject creepy treehouses for one reason: they are creepy. I think a better approach to education is the idea of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) … which [students] can invite the professor into when they feel comfortable doing so.

Question: so what do you do with courses in which the media IS the message, as McLuhan so presciently said.

Increasingly the purpose of courses in journalism, media studies, and communications is to teach students the skills to use this technology, just at journalism students were once required to learn to read the shorthand of teletype or record and edit radio broadcasts on reel-to-reel tape.


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Anonymous August 19, 2008 at 9:24 AM  

I agree with your assessment. The answer is not to join the students in MySpace or Facebook - let them have their space for defining themselves and posting their party profiles.

But if you need something to handle the spillover of discussions from classes, what I'd recommend is an internal, secure social network for the school. Make it an academic thing...

Teachers can use open source social networks like Ning to customize what they need. Or, they can use an open source LMS like Nixty (

Better yet, if a school is looking for an LMS, make sure to choose one that comes with a secure social Scholar360 (

Anonymous August 19, 2008 at 10:11 AM  

The best answer: use the right tool for the job; match technologies to the teaching objectives.

LilaTovCocktail August 19, 2008 at 2:47 PM  

Jared, thanks for your comment. I learned a lot from your blog.

LilaTovCocktail August 19, 2008 at 2:59 PM  

Thanks for giving us some names of alternative social media tools.

I wish I'd had "secure social networks" available. At the time (1991-1995), usenet and bulletin boards were the only real options other than email (and I didn't want class emails getting all mixed in with their normal inbox content).

There were some definite drawbacks to the usenet groups, particularly regarding privacy. The class usenet groups were supposed to be available only to the CWRU community, but that meant they could be read by anyone on campus, from the provost to the janitor.

Sometimes students forgot this and wrote fairly personal posts, particularly in my women's studies classes, where there was often an autobiographical element to the writing assignments.

I was always afraid someone would post something that would come back to haunt him or her.

Sarah Stewart August 23, 2008 at 5:45 PM  

I planned to have a group blog for my senior students this year but they declined because they had already created a bebo groups for themselves, and they made a point of saying they didn't want me to join - so now I am desperate to see what they say! :)

What I am finding, slowly, that students ask to link with me in Facebook once they have qualified and left the institution. And I think (although I do not actually know) it is because time puts a distance between me and them so that they start to see me as a professional colleague rather than a lecturer, and this makes a difference to their attitudes about socially networking with me.

Anonymous September 23, 2008 at 8:52 PM  

Hmmm. I'm a recently graduated student, and I've been discussing the pros and cons of tutors using social networking.

I don't think it's as bad as you make out.

Done correctly, I think a small group (for example) on Facebook would work well for a particular unit of work. We all know internal systems can be cluttered and not very user friendly (anyone use Blackboard?!). So why not make a Facebook page with links to course materials.

And while you're at it, make all your students sign up, so if you need to contact them all, all it takes is a group Facebook message. I don't think I'm too far out of line if I assumed students check their Facebook more often than their campus emails. I know I sure did.

It's when tutors get actively involved in the other sides of Facebook life it becomes a problem. I don't want my tutors popping up in discussions about house parties, pub crawls or whatever.

But if they're good tutors (and good people) they wouldn't do that anyway.

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