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.


  1. Anonymous3:10 PM

    Hi Steve,

    nice post! I am using social networking and more specifically Ning for number of initiatives. One of which is Global Orphanage program that my non-profit Global Learning Foundation is running: .
    We are about to connect first group of orphans from the orphanage house in Azerbaijan to : . The purpose of this network is to be able to connect children in orphanages all over the world to run global online projects, network and also connect them with the supporters.
    I am looking for more international/multilingual tools/games/educational products that I can add to the site to make it more useful.

    Would like to stay connected.

    Best regards,
    Global Learning Foundation

  2. Anonymous12:39 PM

    I first became involved in Nings and blogging very late last spring while getting ready to attend NECC 2008. I live in western Nebraska where vast distances separate teachers making collaboration and sharing very difficult. In the Panhandle of Nebraska there are only 21 districts that cover over 15,000 square miles! In many of these schools there are only one or two teachers for each subject. You can probably imaging how few new ideas get introduced with such a limited number of teachers in each school.

    I was so impressed with how easy it was to connect with like-minded people on the Classroom 2.0 and NECC Nings that I decided to set one up for teachers in Nebraska. Teachers around here are unusally resistant to change. Many of the districts in western Nebraska do not promote using Web 2.0 tools. In fact, quite a few districts block many useful sites altogether. There are also a handful of schools that have little to almost NO internet access. (Yes, you read that correctly.Geographic location and budget play a role in this.)

    I sent out a mass email to teachers about six weeks ago announcing the Ning. ( So far it has not seen much success. I thought it Nebraska educators could build their own network they would be more likely to use it. I reasoned that if someone new to social networking jumped into Classroom 2.0 they might be completely intimidated.

    I have not given up yet. I think the Nebraska Educators Ning will continue to grow as more educators see the benefit of creating their own PLN. I see Nings as a 24/7 discussion forum; a place to share ideas, meet new people who have similar interests and ask questions. The problem I have is selling the idea of networking to colleagues who do not see the value in it.

    I have tried in my blog to express what social networking and my PLN means to me. I fought an uphill battle with IT because the Ning I set up was blocked. The filter was finally removed, but not many of my colleagues have joined me on the network. Perhaps it is blocked at their building? Perhaps they are too busy doing the same things they have done for years and they are too busy to realize we are living in a world where connecting to colleagues is so important. My PLN has made me a more well-rounded teacher. I rely on them for new ideas, suggestions, and informal PD.

    The last comment I would like to make is about blogging. I have become more reflective since I started blogging. I have also been able to connect directly with some of the movers and shakers in education. Blogging has given me a direct line to the people who have played a role in helping me form my philosophy of education. Not all teachers are as willing to comment on blogs (or write their own blog) as I am. They are intimidated by the big names in the edublogosphere and are not willing to make themselves vulnerable by commenting on the most popular blogs. This was also an issue in the Edubloggers' Cafe at NECC in San Antonio. Until teachers gain more self-confidence in the blogging world they will not participate.

  3. Anonymous4:34 PM

    Kudos to you for having the foresight to create the network and the vision to put up with negative criticism. Participation has to be easy to participate or most teachers never will join in. I like blogging but you're right that it's a lot of work and I can't honestly recommend that every teacher does it. Classroom 2.0, however, allows a person to drift in and out of conversations and find an audience immediately. Joining doesn't represent a commitment. You've made the revolution accessible.

  4. Steve,
    As you know, Classroom 2.0 on Ning worked for me exactly as you had hoped it would. It helped me take my first steps into the edusphere. From there I started blogging and podcasting and presenting and more. I really believe that Classroom 2.0, and your personal welcome set me on this great journey.

    I find it interesting that the "powers that be" were/are not into the idea of Classrom 2.0. It seems that the politics of the edubloglosphere are complex. It is ironic that the early adopters and evangelizers wouldn't be open to all methods of getting teachers on board. I just don't get that.

    One thing that made a huge difference to me when I first joined was your personal attention. Now that the network is so large and you yourself are "famous," I feel grateful that I got to know you when I did.

    Thanks so much for all you do Steve. You know I will always be one of your biggest fans.

  5. Steve, thanks much for this post. After a long meeting with my district long range tech planning committee, I needed to read this article.

    Since last June, I have been managing a tech integration cohort on Ning in my school:

    This site provides the "glue" we need between face-to-face meetings and is a very gentle step into more rigorous blogging. Professional blogging is not for everyone. I personally love it. I am a generalist instructional coach who is diving headlong into a technology initiative for my high school.

    However, my colleagues teach classes all day long. They want and need the collaboration that the web provides asynchronously, but they generally aren't "all in" to the level required by mainstream blogging.

    Most bloggers in education seem to be passionate education technology specialists. It is my bet that within two years you will find the teachers of the daily grind... the ones who reach 150 kids each day sometimes... will be connected via social networks like Ning.

    In the classroom... here are two to peek at: brand new, but the marine biology network features the author of the book we are reading/discussind/blogging about:

    I also have one for my Dual Credit Biology course: Of course, I would love any and all feedback on these networks from anyone who cares to peek in. ;-)


  6. Great comments. Sorry to be so long in responding!

    @Tatyana, I've sent you a message in one of your networks.

    @Beth: it can be hard to start a network from scratch. Often it helps to have an event or project which provides the impetus to join. Busy educators often need a really practical outcome to draw them into something new. But hang in there--I think you're idea is good and it will make a difference.

    @Matthew: thanks!

    @Liz: it's a mutual admiration society. :)

    @Sean: I think the incredible potential is exactly with the educators who aren't tech folks, and that you're right on. Love it.

  7. Hi Steve, I am convinced that Web 2.0 is set to transform the way Higher Education is imparted currently. It will also help the students get more accustomed to the Industry situations and working by collaborating with the Industry Mentors and educationists. It will improve transparency as fellow students, professors and friends will rate the authenticity and credibility of the student. It is very cost effective as the recruiters get campuses online, they get to choose from various campuses at the same time, several checks and balances and applied to refine the recruitment process.
    I am planning to set something in this regard myself.




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