Saturday, November 01, 2008

Thoughts on Social Networking in Education

(Originally posted on the Intel Senior Trainers network.)

I really enjoyed the discussion and feedback from my last post. I love that dolphin story, and after posting it here I've been telling it more often when I speak and people really seem to like it.

We are doing a Webinar together next week, and as a follow-up to my thoughts about Web 2.0 and education, I want to talk a little in this post on the uses of social networking in education, and to give some perspective on why I am so "bullish" on the topic.

When I started Classroom 2.0, there was some very serious pushback from the "edubloggers," who were pretty much the educational technologists who were looking closely at new media. The belief was that the act of blogging, and becoming a part of the blogging conversation, were important for teacher professional growth and to be able to understand the transformative power of the participative Internet. Quite honestly, this message was not resonating with most educators--on top of all else that you are doing, you needed (they said) to 1) take time out to learn how to blog, 2) read and comment on other bloggers, 3) blog "to the empty room" for 9 months or more until finally, 4) people would start discovering your writing, and you'd begin the process of building your own personal learning community. Talk about a lot of work, with a long-term promise that was hard to comprehend when standing at the starting line!

As part of an ed tech interview series I was doing at, I interviewed both Gina Bianchini and Marc Andreessen, the founders of something called "Ning." About eighteen months ago, Ning shifted gears in their core product and became purveyor of a service to "build your own social network." I immediately saw a huge opportunity to bring educators into the "discussion" without all of the work that was required in blogging. This wasn't a denial of the value of sblogging or of the personal transformations taking place for bloggers, but was, I think, a more realistic expectation of how the might start becoming part of the Web 2.0 world. There's a reason that MySpace has three times as many signups each day as there are people who start to blog--it's just plain easier to start, and you get feedback almost immediately.

But when I started Classroom 2.0, there was some pretty strong negative feedback from some of the more prominent edublogger voices in the community, who said, essentially, that my social network would make participation too easy. It would take away the personal benefit of the journeys that they had been on to get where they were. It was hard for them to see the benefits of Web 2.0 without the work that they had gone through to get there (through the snow uphill both ways...).

Pretty revealing of this was a comment from Will Richardson, maybe the most-followed "edublogger" at the time, some months after Classrooom 2.0 started. Will looked through the membership and said, plainly: "I don't know anyone here." What that represented to me was something amazing--that all kinds of people who hadn't previously been participants in the educational world of Web 2.0 had felt comfortable coming into the network. Classroom 2.0, or Ning, allowed someone to easily create a presence on the Web (in minutes), and then to both give and receive feedback within hours, not weeks or months. The threaded discussion forum is really the key, more than anything else, and it's part of what makes Ning and other social networking platforms in eduation so significant. While blogging, it can be argued, is very much a "look at me" medium, a threaded discussion is much more egalitarian and more conducive to "good" (tempered? thoughtful?) conversations. On a blog, the main author is on a pedestal, and blogs tend to favor posts which reflect the self-importance of the blogger or comments which tend toward extremism--likely because these are often the ways to get attention in a mass of information. The threaded discussion allows the asking of questions without the need to appear authoritative, the giving of responses that can be part of the answer, and where the contributions of many will ultimately produce a more nuanced, and thoughtful, outcome.

It's also been fascinating to watch educators, who have spent their lives evaluating other on their written output, gain an understanding of the value of somewhat spontaneous "dialog." One principal emailed me that it took her three hours to compose her first post on Classroom 2.0 because she was so worried about how others would perceive her writing. In a very healthy way, social networks in education still put a premium on communicating well and clearly, but favor content and contribution in such a way as to make "appearances" less important.

Another part of the great good that Ning and others have brought to education is the ability to recognize social networking as the the aggregation of Web 2.0 tools into a community and content creation environment, and not just sites such as MySpace and Facebook. In large part, this is because of the ability to create small, specialized networks as opposed to joining one large social networking universe. It's also because social networks are a new application, and the first uses of the application in the public eye were somewhat garish and unruly; but using the application to build something else, you can get a result which seems worlds apart from MySpace. If you look at Classroom 2.0, for example, or here at the Intel Community, you'll see a dialog which is so professional in nature that it's only real connection to MySpace are some similiar tools available to the users.

While the tools that are aggregated in social networks are not new, putting them together to build communities does make them somehow significantly more useful. In addition to the threaded discussion, the personal profile page has significance in education because it becomes a form of a "personal portfolio," where the contributions of the member along with their profile help to define them. The uploading of videos (and to a lesser degree, photos) become, in educational environments, more of a shared repository for the group than personal creative contributions. And the directory of members becomes the list of potential connections for reaching out to others with similar interests. Social network as professional development (which is what is obviously happening here) is not unlike the powerful but informal aspects of attending a conference: meeting others with similar interests, exchanging ideas, and sharing passions. What makes social networking for professional development so powerful is that 1) it's not geographically or physically bounded as a conference is, 2) it takes place 24X7, not just for a few days a year, 3) it allows for asynchronous contribution, so conversations can grow richer over time with more contributors, and 4) it allows for the "publishing" of material or contribution by those who would never previously have written an article for a journal or made a formal presentation at a conference.

The ability to gather like-minded or like-interested educators into social networks is clearly one of the pots of gold waiting for us at the end of this rainbow. If 12,000+ educators have been interested in enough in Web 2.0 in education to sign up for Classroom 2.0, think about all the other educators who care deeply about their history specialty, or their language teaching, or their math courses to create and gather in ways that were never really possible when constrained by time and geography. Social networking will potentially allow educators to more easily develop specialty interests that begin to influence their careers, as they become known for those interests in a way that was much harder when it required formal publishing or speaking.

And if we think all of that is incredible, I can't wait to see what this does in the classroom, as students also begin to be able to have voice and to collaborate in these same ways. There are great stories coming out of engaged classrooms where the tools of social networking are helping students to be more active contributors in meaningful ways, recording their work, and writing very publicly before their peers. When I was in school, the only people who saw my written work were my parents and my teachers. I wasn't getting real feedback, I was getting the feedback of someone being prepared to someday write for real-world feedback... probably years in the future. These students are learning to communicate with their peers, with adult facilitation and mentoring, in a way that only those who wrote for the student newspaper before were able to do. What a great world awaits us.