Facebook’s Groups for Schools – could it become a research tool?

Posted by Rory on April 13th, 2012 @ 9:51 am

On Wednesday Facebook announced Groups for Schools,  which allow people with an active school  “.edu” email address to join groups at their college or university. What caught my eye is that Groups for Schools also allows sharing of files up to 25mb.  The announcement says that file sharing for these groups “will make it even easier to share lecture notes, sports schedules or class assignments”.  So Facebook clearly intends Groups for Schools to have an educational function in addition to a social role.

Dropbox competitor?

John Constine at Techcrunch wrote a post focusing on the file sharing capability of Groups for Schools, and speculated about whether it could eventually evolve into a competitor to Dropbox.

From teaching to research?

I’d like to take that thought a step further and ask:  what would it take for Groups for Schools evolve into a research tool, i.e. could it be useful for collaborative research in addition to the more limited role in teaching and learning implied by Facebook’s suggestion of how it can be used now?

First, many files used in research are larger than 25mb.  So for Groups for Schools to become a viable tool for sharing research, it would have to accommodate uploading of much larger files.  Since that would involve a cost to Facebook, Facebook would have to charge for large files, just as Dropbox and other file sharing services do. That is not impossible, but it would require a major shift in Facebook’s business model.

Second, most academic researchers are concerned if not obsessed with security. Facebook  starts at a disadvantage here since (a) it does not have a great reputation for security, and (b) is associated with ‘social’ exchange rather than serious scholarly endeavor, so that many if not most scholars are likely to view Facebook as an inappropriate repository for their data.  In addition to overcoming this negative perception through, presumably, lots of marketing, Facebook would have to add security layers to the file sharing, which again would entail additional cost and complexity, and is not in line with Facebook’s current business model.

Third, many scholars need to share their research not just with people in their own institutions, but also with collaborators in other institutions, hence with other .edu addresses.  So to effectively support file sharing for research collaboration Facebook would need to find a way around this restriction.  Technically that is certainly possible, but from a practical point of view it would run directly counter to the whole thrust of Groups for Schools.

Conclusion

Those three hurdles are each significant, and pose challenges Facebook would have to overcome, but they are not insurmountable.  It will be interesting to watch the evolution of Groups for Schools and to track whether and how Facebook develops its latent collaborative research capabilities.