Creepy Treehouse

I’ve just learned a new technology term – “creepy treehouse.” I first heard the term via an article in Inside Higher Ed on Blackboard building an application so it can be accessed from Facebook.

In doing so, the company is implicitly conceding that students are less inclined to flip through Blackboard pages to kill a few spare minutes. “This is specifically to take advantage of the fact that college students spend a tremendous amount of time on Facebook,” said Karen Gage, Blackboard’s vice president of product strategy. “I think that what we know is that socializing with your friends is more fun than studying.”

Well, duh.

“Let’s face it,” the app’s introduction page says. “You would live on Facebook if you could. Imagine a world where you could manage your entire life from Facebook — it’s not that far off!”

Oh, I can’t wait. Why would I ever want to leave Facebook for even one minute?

“You have to access a different system to get your course information and you don’t always know when something new has been posted or assigned, so it’s difficult for you to stay on top of your studies.” (Only if your face is so constantly stuck in Facebook that you don’t have a life.) “We get it. That’s why Blackboard is offering Blackboard Syncâ„¢, an application that delivers course information and updates from Blackboard to you inside Facebook.”

Okay, maybe that actually sounds kind of helpful, being able to push readings and assignments to a place where students can be reminded of them. But I was mostly struck by one of the comments on the article: “This is creepy treehouse.”

A creepy treehouse is a place built by scheming adults to lure in kids. Kids tend to sense there’s something creepy about that treehouse and avoid it. Hence, a new definition: “Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.”

It’s an interesting take on that vaguely unsettled response we sometimes get from students when we try to be too cool, try too hard to seem fun and playful, when we make familiar toys unpalatably “educational.” Setting up an outpost in an attractive playspace with an ulterior motive is just . . . creepy.

And maybe students want a different space when they’re working. On our campus students come to the library to study. They like being surrounded by books, they like the sense that this place is different than their dorm room. Sure, they goof off and check their Facebook profile and sometimes catch a few z’s. But when they’re working, they enjoy being in a place that dignifies their work, and they like the ambiance of seriousness, one that connects their work with a larger purpose. They’re writing about ideas in space filled with words and ideas, and they become connected. It’s a very different kind of social network, one where they become part of an age-old conversation.

This is not to say this academic conversation is not playful – we learn by playing, and at its best, our learning is play. Philosopher Michael Oakeshott said it well in his essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.”

In its participation in the conversation each voice learns to be playful, learns to understand itself as a voice among voices. As with children, who are great conversationalists, the playfulness is serious and the seriousness in the end is only play.

Maybe the library itself is a place for that form of play, once students get clued into the fact they can join the conversation. Then we won’t have to build a creepy treehouse to entice them in.

photo courtesy of noricum

Some of this post was previously published at infofluency.