When does an activity become educational? Is there something you have to do to turn an activity into one with educational value? I'm not sure. If education is the same as learning then I feel as though I'm learning all the time, although I never usually think of it like that. But it wasn't always like that. As a kid I was more interested in learning about things outside of school than within. Learning about things in school was boring but the things that interested me outside, well, that wasn't learing, that was fun. The educational context of school wasn't that attractive for me. With kids, often the best way to kill their interest in something is to say it's educational. I have a standing joke with my son (now 13) that whenever anything comes on TV for instance that's vaguely educational one of us quips, 'I'm learning!'. Something from the Simpsons I think. So much for the Simpsons generation. Thankfully my son is a lot cleverer, more learned (another Simpsons joke) that I was at his age.
There's a bit of a trend to look for the educational value, the educational angle almost, in new Internet technologies. A while back there was Napster, then Gnutella, and soon after folk started wondering if P2P technology could be used to share educational materials. Take LOMster or Edutella for example. More recently Podcasting, nothing more than sharing audio (mix tape anyone?) with the extra step of loading it onto your iPod, has gone all educational. Now BitTorrent gets the educational treatment. Of course there's nothing wrong with looking for the educational angle in these things and I dare say some innovative applications will come from such speculation. I just have a suspicion that by trying to find an angle in something that in itself has already successfully formed around a shared common goal, e.g the exchange of music and other files, then you'll lose the essence of success.
An example. I was at an educational technology meeting in the summer and attended a presentation on the outcome of a trial to connect distance learners via instant messaging. How could that not be successful? Everyone uses instant messaging, right? It's the ideal way of keeping in touch, especially in these days of spam-ridden email. Well you'd think so but the trial wasn't a success and do you know why? They could get enough active participation amongst the learners. A survey discovered that the subjects of the trial didn't find using instant messaging outside of their usual cause to do so (chatting with friends and family) was something they could sustain. The novelty wore off quickly. Outside of its usual context instant messaging wasn't as valuable. There will be exceptions to this naturally but as a generalization, context is everything. Change the context and you change the meaning.