Social Media Classroom – Training wheels that don’t come off.

The Social Media Classroom is a web service created by Howard Rheingold that provides a space for students to engage in many of the most popular social networking activities out there. It includes blogs, wikis, forums, social bookmarks, user profiles and chat. The goal is to provide a very low threshold environment for students and faculty to learn about and to use social media as a way of augmenting the media classroom

Scott Leslie set up an installation of Social Media Classroom the other day and offered for others to take it for a spin. I gave it a try and here is what I think.

The Social Media Classroom does exactly what it says that it will do. The user interface is quite impressive, making thing really easy to jump into.  Sarah Perez on ReadWriteWeb said that “its ease-of-use and educational slant make its introduction an impressive and potentially game-changing move for the educational system as we know it”. I think she would be right, if it were not for some big obstacles that the platform faces. These are:

  1. It seems to be closed off and private by default (although this may have just been the system I used). If outsiders can participate (as has been shown by Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman) magic can happen. We need to let the world see what students are doing in university.
  2. The “Social Media Classroom” is missing one little word in the title. A game changer would rather be a “Social Network Media Classroom”. Although students can edit their own profiles in the Social Media Classroom, there is no way to form groups or to add people to their network. The network is often the most powerful part of any social media applications and it is a terrible oversight to not include it.
  3. The training wheels don’t come off. This application is great for students who do not know of, or use social media tools. However, it sucks for those that do. They are not able to use their current networks or applications. Most people who have blogs would want to use their own blogs for a class. Or use their own social bookmarking service. These people (the ones who would be very useful in this environment as they could guide their peers and instructors in the use of social media) will feel alienated and resent having to use the Social Media Classroom. If an education-based social media application is ever to be successful it has to provide an easy way for experienced students to show others the tricks of the trade and for novice students to take the wheels off of the bicycle and use real tools when they are ready for it.

The bright side is that these are relatively easy things for the social media classroom to fix. Jim Groom is already taking care of the training wheel problem at UMW blogs with his BuddyPress, FeedWordPress, WordPress and mediaWiki experiments.  UBC’s OLT also has some of this in the works. I’m sure that Drupal is powerful enough to do the same for the Social Media Classroom. The network part simply takes adding some features and making it open… well that should be just flicking a switch.

The Social Media Classroom is a good service and I really wish that more people had taken Scott Leslie up on his offer of trying it out on his hosted server. If you are in education, check out Social Media Classroom. Despite all of my complaints above, I would still far rather use it than any course website that I have ever used (Blackboard or otherwise).  With a few simple, yet fundamental changes, it could just be a game changer yet.

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19 thoughts on “Social Media Classroom – Training wheels that don’t come off.

  1. I haven’t played with SMC since its days in beta, but since it runs on Drupal it would be trivial to address your points (if it hasn’t been done already).

    1. Private by default – that’s just a checkbox in the access control panel, allowing Anonymous users to read content. Other modules (see 2 below) can then be used to optionally restrict access to content that may be sensitive or private(ish).

    2. Organic Groups – a fantastic module that lets people create groups on any basis – can be configured so that students can create, find and join their own groups. And it can also provide a “hub” for the group, listing all relevant activity on one page. Social networking, done easily. It can also be used to restrict access to content to just members of specified groups, if so desired.

    3. There are powerful RSS aggregation modules for Drupal that would be able to suck in people’s feeds from wherever they’d rather publish content – I whipped up some prototypes of Eduglu using Drupal to model the behaviour, and it worked quite well. But not everyone is comfortable publishing in The Big Wide Open, so they can also publish content within the Drupal site without requiring anything external.

    The one big drawback I see with Drupal for student work is that it’s harder for students to get their own stuff OUT of the site when they’re done. With WordPress, they can just export their content and take it with them. Much harder for them to do that with Drupal, causing some potential pain at the end of a student’s tenure.

  2. I agree with your points. When Howard first started this, with MacArthur grant money, he said specifically that his students were intimidated by the big open and that he wanted to give them experience with the tools within a closed classroom context. He’s executed on exactly that. Well done.

    And that’s great for the beginning, but as you said, at some point the training wheels should come off.

    I’m with D’arcy that getting the data out of drupal should be an option. I also like WPMU installs better for this.

    I’m curious about the adoption patterns with SMC. Structuring it around a class makes the faculty the target market for change. I hear, all the time, that they are so difficult to convince. Blackboard has had more than a decade and no small amount of money and they are still struggling with faculty uptake.

    In terms of adoption patterns, again, I think WPMU is more interesting here when it can be offered to the students and the faculty get pulled along.

    And, btw, as much as I appreciate Howard and his work, I’m not sure comfort with the tools is the main issue. Students twitter, they just call it status. The don’t use delicous, but they do social bookmark videos for facebook all the time.

    I think what is missing is the perceptual context of using these tools. It’s missing with students and most faculty. The students don’t need another hammer, they need examples (as you said) of how to use the available hammers to make different things.

    It’s easy for us to get lost in the technical plumbing of this stuff and forget the sociology – faculty or students – that will drive it.

    I think we’re pretty close to the point – drupal or WPMU or something else – where the tool is not the issue. People, like me, will continue to try to make things easier technically, but the people/adoption hacking that gets us to critical mass is where we should be playing.

  3. Thanks Kevin and D’Arcy for your comments. I agree, that WordPress may have been a better platform for this (give me four months and some funding and I know I could build it out of WordPress except better).

    I was talking about his with Jocelyn tonight and her comment was “is SMC really that different from blackboard?” Maybe in theory it is… but in practice… from a student’s perspective? Will they see that this is a different paradigm or just a new skin for old news?

    Kevin has a good point Facebook is the one social media that all students know really well and it is one that people in edTech scoff at all too readily. Perhaps, training students in social media takes training them to use Facebook as a learning resource and then moving them on to better tools once they are frustrated with the limitations of the platform.

    Finally, I like how D’Arcy says that most of this can be fixed in SMC. Hey, it may not be perfect, but it is one step closer and free… a price that Universities have got to start appreciating.

  4. We’re at a point where the exact tool selected really doesn’t matter very much anymore. Any of these communities can be built in pretty much any open source web platform. The key is that it’s open source, so it’s easily modifiable (or at least modification is _possible_), and the ownership of the software and community is located within the institution, rather than at a corporate headquarters.

    That said, most of the most active communities on are closed to outsiders – walled gardens for use by the class. And I’m fine with that. The goal isn’t to publish content to the open internet. The goal is to engage students, in creation, discussion, and reflection. If they need a walled garden to do that effectively (and there are several excellent reasons for needing privacy for a community) then so be it. If they’d like to do it in the open, that’s just a checkbox on a settings page.

    That option isn’t available for users of The Big Commercial LMS Platform. If it’s in an LMS, it’s closed. End of discussion. And people only gain experience in using the LMS, in farming for Maggie.

  5. Excellent points, Andre– the point of training wheels is that, by design or us, they should make themselves irrelevant. SMC sets up the wheels, but that’s it.

    The answer perhaps is not a technical one (though I found the drupal environment the usual nest of tangled modules, permissions, etc). A simple approach might be creating the scaffolding activities that let people move beyond SMC, e.g. “now that you’ve learned a bit about social bookmarking inside the SMC, le’t see how it works beyond the walls…”.

    Yet still (or likely my own ignorance), drupal lacks the same kind of syndication/export paths (yes I know there are feeds) that allow content to flow outward as the Reverend Groom has demonstrated in WordPress.

    Again, a Training Wheel system should have a path to loose the wheels; Lance would look pretty silly (and not be all that proficient) climbing Mont Ventoux with them on.

  6. The training wheels are more pedagogical and philosophical than technical – if we believe students must be sheltered, protected, and helped, we are leading them to depend on us. How do we then push them out of the nest? Do we? Should we even build the nest in the first place, or do the students come with their own? Do they build one together? How many metaphors can I mix into one melting pot?

    And Drupal can expose all kinds of fancy schmancy feeds – per-author feeds of any tag, per-category feeds of items posted when the moon was rising in Aquarius, per-author-per-tag feeds sorted by star ratings, etc… It’s not the technology, it’s what you do with it.

  7. It is extremely easy to open up SMC, and there are lots of plugins that could let you bring in your own blog, etc (we are adding RSS import soon in fact which will take care of 99% of social media import)

    The real issue is that most teachers need a walled garden, are required to have a sandboxed walled garden. And so, this is why it is default

    Also, RSS feed options abound for exporting content out of SMC. Services module us also available for REST access.

    Again, the problem is that most teachers in the US cannot use external services, nor expose their student’s identity and data. There may be exceptions but they are not the rule. And so, this is more of an institutional problem, than a problem with SMC, which can easily be made open

  8. Ps. we are working out making groups possible.

    I would talk to Howard Rheingold about why we did not include the “network”. So far, not to many teachers have asked us for this functionality, but if the community of social media classroom users start asking for it, I think we could eventually include it.

  9. @sam thanks for your input. Your team has created an interesting and necessary platform. I am also ecstatic that you are working on fixing the problems that I have noticed.

    I know that exposing student’s data to public is a touchy subject and I am glad that you have implemented the best workaround that I can think of… “click here to open your blog” (as Jenna and Howard highlight in her post… although I think the checkbox needs to be more visible). Give the students control over their own privacy.

    As for the network, most teachers don’t see that as important, but as a student (and Jenna or any other students that read this let me know if you agree) I think it is vital. Having easy access to other people is the point of all this… isn’t it? Social Software would lose all of its meaning if it did not connect people to each other.

  10. Andre, I agree. I think schools would accept connecting students with other students to start out with.

    I recently toured 3 vocational schools, and they don’t even allow students access to *images*, let alone other people/social networks, etc. There is a LOT of fear among educators and parents about commercial social network sites.

    Some of these schools have a history of incidents (like students threatening each other, violent deaths, etc) that originated in online networks, and justify this fear in their minds.

    This is the common climate and set of attitudes into which you’d have to try and introduce social media. It is rejected on an institutional level.

    Some of the best progress may end up coming from supplmental programs that exist outside of school systems, such as programs that teach kids to use social media as a part of problem solving with mentors as guides. this could even become part of a new type of collaborative “part time job” for students in High School for instance.

    I agree about connecting kids with each other, and I think that institutions are the bottleneck here. Definitely not Social Media Classroom, which could easily be configured to connect to all kinds of networks right now. If educators were *allowed* to do this, there would have been a huge demand for it, and we would have built it in from the beginning.

  11. What a grand conversation. I agree, Andre, that it’s spiraling along.

    Question: do we see SMC as occupying an intermediate state between LMS and open network? The mix of selected tools and modifications seems to describe a spectrum touching on both poles.

  12. @Sam thanks for all the explanations. Knowing that you are behind Social Media Classroom gives me great hope for its success.

    @Bryan I think that you are exactly right. SMC sits in between an open network and the LMS. Looking at it now, that is probably a very good feature. I think schools will inevitably open up (or die, as I predicted in my Terry Talk). Thus the most cost effective thing for a school that wants to be closed to do is to throw their money behind SMC. Then, when they come around and see that being closed is stopping them from providing a tremendous amount of value (as Brian riffed off of my post here) then they can open up with the flick of a switch.

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