Tag Archives: learning

How does social media educate? – iDC wrap up

Here is my summary of this month’s discussion at the iDC forum. The archive of the discussion can be found here.


It’s time to wrap up this discussion on the question of ‘How does social media educate?’ I would like to thank everyone who contributed to it, even by lurking! As the moderator, the one responsible for reading everything and trying to engage all opinions, I am thankful because I probably benefited the most from these exchanges. At the same time, I want to apologize if I somehow failed to fulfill my duties responsibly.

Below I offer a summary of some of the main themes I took away from the discussion.

What is social about social media?

The conversation started by questioning the term ‘social media’ itself, and wondering what the word ‘social’ is supposed to be telling us if all media is, by definition, already a social construct. Perhaps the redundancy is a good reminder that the assumptions behind the word ‘social’ are precisely what we should be dissecting. As Latour says in his book Reassembling the social, those who treat the social as a black box “have simply confused what they should explain with the explanation. They begin with society or other social aggregates, whereas one should end with them” (p. 8). In other words, one should not take the word ‘social’ as something no longer in need of explanation. When looking at various instances of the application of sociable web media in education, we need to take these social aggregates as points of departure, as what needs to be explained in the first place.

The goal, then, is to trace the interactions of humans and technologies as they go about redefining the social, inventing new forms of sociality. Just as the concept of ‘virtual reality’ (with its own set of assumptions, contradictions and delusions) helped us to question what was real, ‘social media’ should help us question what is social, how the social is being put together in the world of education.

The politics of networked participation

Interpreting the meaning of new social assemblages is not a neutral exercise that can be accomplished by means of scientific inquiry exclusively. We rely on ideologies and metanarratives to explain the impact of new media on society. Throughout this discussion, there was much debate about which framework is best suited to explain new social assemblages. There was even some arguing over which assemblages (corporate, independent, etc.) are more worthy of analysis!

One side seems to espouse a Lyotard-influenced framework that sees the increasing role that digital media play in our societies as solidifying the spread of a capitalist culture that commodifies *knowledge* by transforming it into *information* that can be easily exchanged and consumed. To us, the educational applications of sociable web media should not be analyzed without considering the ethical implications of capitalism and a market economy. This is not to say that the architectures of participation that social media engenders cannot present an authentic challenge to the dynamics of the market, even right in the middle of corporate-controlled platforms. But to fail to acknowledge the context from which these technologies emerge can only result in incomplete analyses.

Learning 2.0 – Opportunities and challenges

Depending on how it is applied, social media can be a site for a liberatory or an oppressive education. As educators and learners, we need to be aware of our own practices, simultaneously teaching and learning ‘with’ and ‘against’ social media. Simply embracing new technologies or taking for granted the pedagogical assumptions behind the new ‘Youniversity’ is not enough. The fact is that we live in a world where education is not a ‘good’ distributed equitably or always for the benefit of the learner, and some applications of social media will continue this trend. Increasingly, the ‘public’ education system is being used to separate the unproductive members of society (the ones that need to be ‘managed’ by the growing private incarceration business) from the productive ones (the ones who demonstrate compliance and aptitude for jobs in the service industry). The kinds of social media applications the latter are more likely to see will probably be in alignment with the needs of a control society:

“In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business.” (Deleuze (1995), Negotiations, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The ‘constant student’ is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Social media can be used to ensure that education for the constant student becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which –more importantly– can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ life of the individual.

Daily Kos: They Hate us for Our Freedom (the Assessment Movement in Higher Ed)

Social media literacy

For a long time, educational technologists have put their faith in technology as a way to change education, and even the world. Access to the technology is seen as the magical solution that will end disparity:

Web 2.0 can benefit the world’s poor – SciDev.Net

Unfortunately, for the reasons discussed above and during this whole month, access is not enough, and narratives of bridging the ‘digital divide’ do not help us better understand how digital technologies such as sociable web media contribute to the commodification of education.

The work of a new generation of educators and learners shows us that social media can be used to promote positive change in the world. This work demonstrates that the issue is not universal access, but rather the strategies through which those who benefit from access to social media are able to transform those benefits into benefits for the greater society, extending the value of social media beyond the privileged minorities that have access to it.

And so I end by recapitulating some of the skills I mentioned earlier in the discussion that I think we need to develop as part of a critical literacy of social media:

  • The ability to articulate the difference between open (FLOSS) and proprietary social media platforms (including how to tell when the former mutates into the latter, and what to do about it).
  • The ability to determine when it’s appropriate to use open (FLOSS) or proprietary social media platforms to promote social change with maximum effect.
  • The ability to understand the social agency of code of a particular technology, i.e., how the program promotes, constricts or redefines social functions through its affordances.
  • The ability to identify the benefits of contributing to a social media environment that operates as a gift economy versus a market economy (including the ability to identify social media environments that operate as both simultaneously).
  • The ability to articulate in personal terms how networked participation is changing the relationship with one’s local environment, and be able to calculate tradeoffs and assume responsibility for one’s choices.

I hope you can help us continue to refine these, within or outside of the iDC forum.


Video Games, Authority, and Problem-based Thinking

Gta[UPDATE: Raph Koster has replied to this post over at his blog, and Gus offers some interesting thoughts as well.]

The September 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine (contents not online, unfortunately) has a piece titled Grand Theft Education: Literacy in the Age of Video Games. It is a conversation between Jane Avrich (author and English teacher), Steven Johnson (author of Everything Bad is Good for You), Raph Koster (video-game designer, including Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies), Thomas De Zengotlta (author, teacher) and moderator Bill Wasik (senior editor of Harper’s).

The participants were asked to discuss how video games could be used to teach literacy. The guys (Jane is allowed to interject here and there) immediately get to the task, envisioning various kinds of possible games for this purpose, including a zombie game where you have to type a word correctly in order to off a Z. But the conversation does include more interesting nuggets. For instance, the group wonders about the changing definition of literacy, and what current technologies are doing to our literacy practices:

KOSTER: …To me, there’s a question hanging over our conversation, which is: What kind of writing do we hope to teach? We might like to teach kids to write like Proust, but no one writes like Proust anymore. Appropriation and annotation are becoming our new forms of literacy. Think of blogs, for example: most blog posts are reblogs, they’re parasitic on things other people have written. It’s a democratized writing, a democratized literacy. (p.39)

Not sure I see the connection between democracy and literacy as appropriation. If anything, it reminds me of certain critiques of technology (such as Rivers’) which argue that our current technosocial systems stamp out individuality and are responsible for the erasure of the individual by the mass. One could argue that appropriation and annotation are the natural forms of a mass literacy, operationalized through the extreme individualism of the blogosphere (masses are not collectives as much as they are homogenous collections of isolated individuals). That resulting kind of democracy, therefore, is one which blocks authentic difference and makes the masses more susceptible to control. And speaking of control, the Harper’s group briefly touches upon the issue of authority:

WASIK: But you’re suggesting that increasingly it’s the social network itself, through reputation systems or what have you, that is acting as the authority?

JOHNSON: This is especially true in the online network games, too, which are really the most influential games in the world right now. Raph, actually, helped to create some of the biggest ones. With Ultima Online and other online games, we’ve had the rise of guild structures, these distributed systems for collaborating. A player who wants to slay a particular dragon will need to get twelve people together, and put one in charge of this, another in charge of at. (p. 37)

The kind of authority described here, however, is very simplistic. It is more interesting to explore the question of how in social media (and networked games) the masses are not susceptible to a central form of authority, but to a distributed form of control emanating from the mass itself, from what are considered to be ‘objective’ rules and values. It’s rationalism all over again, with logical thinking as the only valid method for interpreting the world. At one point, the Harper’s group confronts this problem:

ZENGOTITA: … But when the players go out into the real world, I think there’s a real danger—and I see signs of this in my students, and young people in general—of failing to understand not just the complexity of the real world but also its mystery. I’m using “mystery” as opposed to “problem” on purpose: problems have solutions, mysteries don’t. People are profoundly mysterious entities, I think, and understanding them in the real world involves understanding that you’re never going to entirely understand them.

KOSTER: To bring solely a gamist perspective to the world is a really big mistake. But of course this perspective predates video games. It harkens back to behaviorist psychology, and a variety of unsavory political movements as well.

ZENGOTITA: It’s systems-based thinking, model-based thinking. I can’t claim that Donald Rumsfeld or Robert McNamara were products of video-game education. But they show all the symptoms of it. (p. 35)

Zengotita sets up a dichotomy between problems that have solutions and mysteries that don’t, and points out how the gamist perspective inculcates problem-solving skills but not the skills required to live with the ambiguity of complex ‘mysteries.’ The thing with rationalism is that it inverts the problem-solution relation in such a way that only problems that have solutions it can handle are made relevant. Problems, in other words, are subordinated to solutions. This makes, ultimately, for a very impoverished relationship with reality. As DeLanda (2004) warns: “The crucial task is to avoid the subordination of problems to solutions brought about by the search for simple linear behaviour” (2004, p. 171).

Interestingly, while this threat was identified early in the Harper’s piece, the participants quickly move on to describe more ways in which games can teach literacy. It is as if we are required to surrender our agency in a technocracy, and while we can make observations, we are beyond questioning the progress of technology. So what if video-games produce more Rummi’s?

(Disclaimer: I own a Gameboy)

I’d love to hear from the literacy and gaming people what they think about the Harper’s piece or my reading of it.


De Landa, M. (2002). Intensive science and virtual philosophy. London; New York: Continuum.

Creative Commons photo credit: gregoryperez

More on Dissertations, Blogs, Knowledge, etc.

In case you missed the excellent comment thread, both authors of the article and rubric I used in my recent post about the blog as literature review replied (within days!) to challenge some of my assumptions. Thank you, David and Penny!
David pointed out that, in fact, my post was not so much about the literature review per se but about the process of scholarly communication in general. It’s true that what I am really interested in is how the ‘typical’ dissertation fails to facilitate this communication process, and how new technologies can recover some of the benefits of this process. Ultimately, however, I think we are all in agreement that this has more to do with how the affordances of the technology are being realized through certain actions in certain contexts than with any intrinsic properties of the technology or the process.

Another reader, pedagogic (apprentice), referred me to an earlier (pre-blogs, or at least before the time when blogs were mainstream) article that corroborates some of the things I suggested were broken, and that social software could help fix (if the will was there). The article is Education Should Consider Alternative Formats for the Dissertation (Duke and Beck, 1999).

These authors begin by establishing what we expect the dissertation to be:

…the prevailing view of the dissertation has alternated between that of the dissertation as a “training instrument” and that of the dissertation as an “original and significant contribution to knowledge” (Berelson, 1960, p. 173). Presently, the consensus seems to be that the dissertation should be both of these things. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 31)

One could add another goal, fostering scholarly communication, to that list. It is in relation to this goal that Duke and Beck identify two major shortcomings of the dissertation: limited audience and dissemination, and lack of generalizability.

They begin by pointing out (as I did in relation to the lit review), that the audience for a dissertation is extremely small:

Theoretically, the dissertation is a public document, usually available from a University library to anyone who requests it. But in fact, the readership of this “public” document is small in number and intimate in character. In most cases, the only readers of a dissertation are the three or four members of the writer’s committee… Even if technological advances in the future facilitate more rapid retrieval of dissertations, there is no guarantee that the documents will have a significantly larger audience… In order for dissertation material to be received by a wider audience, it must be reworked and altered from its original dissertation form. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 32)

They also point out the failure of many dissertations to result in published work:

Indeed, many dissertations in our field, as in others, are never published, in the sense of being distributed widely in a public forum. We do not have current statistics as to the number for which this is the case, but as of 1973 from one quarter to one half of dissertations across fields never resulted in a published paper. (ibid)

As I suggested in my earlier post, blogs (and other social software) could foster scholarly communication by facilitating the dissemination of dissertation materials.

The second obstacles relates to the lack of generalizability of the dissertation writing process: “except for the very rare case of someone who has multiple doctorates, one writes (at most) one dissertation in one’s life. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 32, emphasis in original)”

Why not, Duke and Beck suggest, write something in a manner or format similar to how the scholar will conduct her research in the future?

With an ungeneralizable genre comes a missed opportunity for transfer of knowledge and skills that will actually be of benefit to students in the long a term. Indeed, for some time, many scholars (particularly those in the sciences) have argued that the dissertation provides poor training for future academic writing. (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 33)

To the extent that research will increasingly happen within an open/distributed framework, and be distributed online, I think it makes sense to recognize blogging as a potential environment for writing and sharing a dissertation.

Duke and Beck ask those who would evaluate the format and content of a dissertation to consider two questions:

  • Will the format of this dissertation make it possible to disseminate the work to a wide audience?
  • Will writing a dissertation in this format help prepare candidates for the type of writing they will be expected to do throughout their career? (Duke & Beck, 1999, p. 33).

Accordingly, one possible alternative for the traditional dissertation is the one that Krathwohl (1994) suggests:

write the dissertation as an article (or series or set of such articles) ready for publication, [using] appendices for any additional information the committee may desire for pedagogical and examination purposes” (p. 31).

Are we that far from blogging when considering such approaches? Couldn’t blogging serve as the preparation process for generating those articles that will (hopefully) be accepted for publication, that final step of vetting and validation?

But scholarly blogging has the potential to be more than just a publishing process. Like Latour suggests, “textual accounts are the social scientist’s laboratory” (2005, p. 127). My blog is my lab, in a sense, where developing my arguments is an iterative and open process. Yes, it’s embarrassing when some experiments (some arguments) fail miserably, but overall I think the benefits of conducting research in the open outweigh the risks.

I would like to think that this discussion of blogging and dissertations is merely one of form v. content, but somehow in the back of my head I can’t help but hear Lyotard’s questions: “who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what is to be decided?” (1984, p. 9).

David ends his comments by posing a set of questions to me, which I turn would like to pose to you:

  • What additional design features would a blog have to incorporate for it
    to become truly scholarly communication?
  • How can you design it to
    encourage selectivity of sources and warranting of selections?
  • How can
    you encourage blog authors to move beyond providing mere summaries of
    the literature they discuss?
  • How do you design to encourage critical
  • How you design to encourage robust, critical discussion of
    scholarly and practical significance? Or are these even things that you
    can design? Or are they beyond your control?

I’m sure some of you out there have interesting ideas about this. Please share them with us!


Boote, D. N. & Beile, P. (2005) Scholars Before Researchers: On the
Centrality of the Dissertation Literature Review in Research
Preparation. Educational Researcher 34(6), p. 3-15.

Duke, N. K. & Beck, S. W. (1999). Education Should Consider Alternative Formats for the Dissertation. Educational Researcher, v. 28, no.3 (Apr., 1999), p. 31-36.

Krathwohl, D. (1994). A slice of advice. Educational Researcher, 23(1), pp. 29-32, 42.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



Wiki Evaluation Methods

(Updates at the end of the post) I’m trying to put together some criteria for the summative evaluation of wikis as a learning technology in higher-ed courses. Perhaps you can take a look at what I have just brainstormed and provide some suggestions.

First, a quick search for materials on evaluating wikis in educational
settings produced only two substantive resources:

Do you know of any

What I really want to do is to put together an instrument that learners
can respond to quickly and that will generate some useful data on how
the wiki was used in the classroom (without concern for the subject
matter of the class).

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:


  • wiki type (use Wiki Tipster taxonomy)
  • number and type of users


  • Volume:
    1. how many pages were created?
    2. how many edits were made?
    3. how was the creation of pages and edits distributed throughout the semester (number of new pages and edits created per week)?
  • Page Activity:
    1. which pages were edited the most?
    2. which pages were edited the least?
    3. what was the average number of times a page was edited?
  • Collaboration Index:
    1. what was the average number of users that edited a page?
    2. which pages were edited by the most/least number of users?
  • Participation Index:
    • how
      many edits and new pages are attributable to n segment of
      the class?
  • Additional questions (Likert-scale questions):
    1. I have used wikis before.
    2. I feel I was an active contributor to the wiki.
    3. I feel that all members of the class contributed to the wiki proportionately.


  • what pages or sections of the wiki did you find most valuable? why?
  • what pages or sections of the wiki did you find least valuable? why?
  • what obstacles did you encounter during your participation in this wiki? were those obstacles overcome?
  • do you feel the wiki contributed to the learning experience? how so?

Sample data

The above would allow us to tell a story along these lines:

“The wiki in question can be classified as a Group – Terminal – Organize/Classify wiki. There were 30 users (25 students, 2 faculty and 3 TAs). In total, there were 67 pages created and 1,763 edits made (see attached chart for breakdown of page creation and edits by week). The most edited page was FinalAssignment . The least edited page was Pizza. Pages in this wiki were edited an average of 3.2 times. Each page was edited by an average of 0.86 users. The page edited by the most number of users was Pasta, edited by 15 users. The page edited by the least number of users was Pizza, edited by 2 users. Ten percent (10%) of the class was responsible for 60% of the edits
and 40% of the new pages. Only 5% of users said they had used wikis before. Eighty percent (80%) of users feel they were active contributors, but only 20% feel the class contributed to the wiki proportionately.” [a summary of the qualitative data could then follow]

Certainly, this would not be the whole story behind the use of a wiki, but it would provide a snapshot of the experience–specially when comparing different wikis across different courses. In other words, the purpose of the survey is to serve as the launching pad for more detailed research.

Here are my questions:

  • what other questions would you ask? (keeping in mind that we want the least number of questions but the most valuable data)
  • how easy or hard would it be to mine the quantitative data from the wiki’s logs?
  • has anybody else done similar things that I can look at?



This is what I’ve found in terms of tools to mine data in MediaWiki:

Other Resources

(many of the above can be found in Wikimedia’s Toolserver)

Also, see Jonah’s comment below.

Teaching Social Software with Social Software: A report


This post discusses some of the lessons learned during a graduate course I taught at Teachers College, Columbia University. Social Software Affordances was offered during the Fall of 2005, and 13 graduate students from the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education (CCTE) program at TC enrolled in the course. The main goal of the course was for students to acquire proficiency in the use of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and distributed classification systems while engaging in a critical analysis of the affordances of social software (what the software makes possible and what it impedes). The class also asked students to apply their newly acquired social software skills and knowledge to promote a social cause or project of their choosing. The dynamics and outcomes of the course are discussed below.

Important Links

Structure of the course

The syllabus identifies the following three objectives for the course:

  1. The class will develop competency in the use of blogs, wikis, distributed classification systems, and RSS feeds.
  2. The class will perform a state-of-the-art review of social software tools, applications, and theory, focusing on a critical assessment of the affordances of social software.
  3. Class members will conduct an individual exercise on the potential of social software to effect change at a personal and social level.

The class functioned as a distributed research community. There were some classroom sessions, but most of the work happened online. Students were responsible for collecting information about social software, sharing it with their peers, organizing it, and analyzing it individually and collectively:

  • A distributed classification system was used to aggregate and organize information.
  • RSS feeds were used to share that information with everyone in the class.
  • Individual blogs (each with its own RSS feed) were used to analyze and comment on the research and readings.
  • The class as a whole edited a wiki project that was collectively defined. [I believe that a similar structure could be applied to a course on any subject matter, by the way.]

Together, the class addressed questions such as: What is ‘social’ about social software? How is the notion of community being redefined by social software? How is social agency shared between humans and code in social software? What are the social repercussions of unequal access to social software? Additionally, each student undertook a project which tackled the question of whether social software can be an effective tool for individual and social change.

Although all the class activities and tools functioned in conjunction, in the interest of organization I will discuss each one separately.

Distributed Research: The Power of Many

The distributed classification system referred to above consisted of using del.icio.us to bookmark items related to social software with the tag ‘ccte.’ The resulting (and ongoing) collection can be seen at http://del.icio.us/tag/ccte/ (add this RSS link to your aggregator to subscribe to the feed). All students were expected to contribute items throughout the semester. Students were also expected to subscribe to the RSS feed generated by del.icio.us as a way to keep track of all contributions. Class members then explored the items they were interested in and discussed them in their individual blogs, often in the context of the books assigned as course readings (listed in the syllabus).

One student remarked on the significant impact that distributed classification and aggregation had on his daily online activities:

During the course of the semester, I have come to realize that aggregators have changed my social interaction with computers a great deal… I am pleased to report that I am spending much more time constructing information by writing emails and making web pages than I have been in the past. This is largely due to the fact that I spend much less time surfing for information. (link)

But beyond the benefits of better information management, the real purpose of this exercise was to turn students into contributors, not mere recipients, of knowledge about social software. Each student became a researcher who could add something to our study of the topic (while at the same time build their own collection of resources tagged according to their individual classification schemes). Of course this required that I, as the instructor, be willing to give up the role of being the sole source of information. But in fact this was beneficial for me as well, as I became exposed to more research, resources and ideas than I could identify on my own. My interest and knowledge of the topic, in other words, was augmented by the contributions of my students.

Blogging: Finding an Individual Voice

Contributing to a pool of resources was one thing, but a detailed examination of social software required a more individualized space for reflection, which is why everyone in the class was asked to maintain a blog throughout the course (only two students in the class already had blogs). Of course, this activity was also intended to expose students to issues of identity, voice, posting frequency, community formation, etc. that accompany the use of blogs. In his individual self-evaluation at the end of the course, one student summarized the experience of being introduced to this new form of communication:

For the first time, I really delved into the world of blogging, examining blogs of many types, reading ‘blogs of note’ and award winners. I really enjoyed the convoluted paths wound from one blog to the next by clicking on blog rolls. Eventually I started to get a feeling for how things worked. I explored the possibilities for add-ons for my blog. I added Sitemeter to measure traffic, included syndicated feeds from del.icio.us and feed digest, and customized the templates from each to match the look of my site… I started to get anonymous hits and comments on my blog. Even though there were not many, it was very exciting. I began to see the addictive nature of blogging, and the excitement of participating in a large, distributed conversation.

The blog also served as a journal of each student’s engagement with the readings. Instead of a fixed reading schedule, I experimented with letting students read and report on readings in the order that interested or made sense to them. My hope was that by reading a review of a book or chapter posted by one of their peers, students would be motivated to read that section as well (if it matched with their individual research interests at the moment). The motivation would be different than in the case of me telling students what to read, when. This strategy worked fairly well, although based on student feedback, I might supplement it with a ‘map’ of readings and topics to let students better determine what they should read if they are interested in a particular topic. I might also create wiki spaces in which to collect reviews and comments of the different readings, to provide a sense of synchronicity and continuity.

As far as other suggestions for improvements in the area of blogs, Alex Halavais suggested that students should tag their blog posts as well. I think this would help students recognize the connection between their own blog posts and emerging folksonomies, and I hope to implement this strategy in the next offering of the course.

Wikis: Synthesis and Collaboration

While individual reflection was encouraged through blogging, I thought it was also important for students to synthesize their knowledge in a wiki project that they could author collectively. After some debate, students agreed to start a wiki to collect social software design patterns. Jonah Bossewitch, a student in the course, proposed that our efforts be combined with those of the Annenberg Center’s Social Software in the Academy Workshop. The resulting Design Patterns of Social Computing Wiki attempts to capture the essence of various problems in social software and illustrate best practices and good designs that have been employed to tackle them. We consider this a work in progress, and hope that other interested parties become involved in this ongoing project, which could be a useful resource for the research community.

Issue Entrepreneurship: Putting the ‘social’ in social software

I wanted the course to be more than just a review of social software and a theoretical discussion of its affordances. In my own work (c.f. Mejias, 2005, A Nomad’s Guide to Learning and Social Software), I argue that the true potential of social software lies in helping us figure out how to integrate our online and offline social experiences. Thus, social software must live up to its name by relating to the individual’s everyday social practices, and inculcate a desire to connect to the world as a whole, not just the parts that exist online. Furthermore, in order for software to be truly ‘social,’ it must help develop in the minority who has access to the technology a responsibility for converting its benefits into benefits for a larger part of society.

With this goal in mind, the class was asked to address the question of whether social software can be an effective tool for individual and social change. Each learner undertook an ‘issue entrepreneurship’ assignment (c.f. Agre, 2004, The Practical Republic), which involved identifying a social cause the student was interested in and using social software tools to attempt to make a meaningful contribution to the cause at three different levels: the personal, the local, and the global. Learners used their individual blogs to post updates on their progress, inviting comments from their peers. This was by far the most difficult project of the course, but perhaps in the long term the most rewarding as well. Students were informed that they would not be graded on whether they succeeded or failed in making a meaningful contribution to their cause, as long as they documented their experience and could discuss how social software contributed to their success or failure.

Projects ranged widely in nature and scope. Here’s a brief summary (I’ve included links only to the projects that are further along in terms of progress; more information can be found on each student’s blog, listed in the Course Blog):

  • An information clearinghouse and online community for science educators in the developing world
  • An initiative to promote podcasting as an educational technology at Teachers College
  • An online community space for the Youth Venture Media Network (link)
  • A proposal for an online network of exchange student alumni to promote global citizenship among teens and college-aged students
  • A group blog and information feed for raising awareness about bilingual education in New York City (link)
  • A wiki/knowledgebase for West Siders for Responsible Development, Inc., a group protesting plans to build two towering buildings on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets (link)
  • A proposal for a community wiki for people interested in Israel and various aspects of Jewish life
  • A blog and a wiki to promote awareness of accessibility and assistive technology issues at Seton Hall University (link)
  • A proposal for a Distributed Community Bookshelf system to encourage the sharing of knowledge and resources in a community-minded and environmentally-friendly way (link)

The goal of the project was to get students to think about using social software to promote social change. It was expected that students would find major obstacles in the way, as meaningful social change is hard work. In fact, many projects failed in their first iteration, and students had to re-conceptualize their proposals. I tried to make these frustrations part of the learning experience, as well as the realization that there is only so much that the technology can do (part of our discussion of the affordances of social software). As the following testimonials attest, students consider their projects far from over, but at the same time they are willing to continue to work on them after the semester is over because it is something they feel passionate about (to paraphrase the rhetorical question posed by one student: ‘Why do we need a class to get us involved in this type of activism?’):

I am proud of my efforts thus far to introduce West Siders to the potential benefits of social software. At the same time, the process of change has been slower and more frustrating than I anticipated. If a primary goal of this project was to learn firsthand how hard it is to build networks and foster change using social software, that goal was certainly achieved. (link)

Another student remarked:

Even though it’s the end of the semester, I feel it’s just the beginning of my issue entrepreneurship project. It makes sense (to me), though that only after putting some time and thought into studying how social software works, that I would be ready to use it effectively to pursue my issue. (link)

One student had this to say about the process of re-conceptualizing his proposal:

So I started my ambitious (albeit empty) Science Demystified Wiki and sent out e-mail notices to persons I felt [would be willing to] join the forum. I was however quickly humbled after receiving a few responses, most of which were surprisingly discouraging. However, after reading some literature – especially Barabasi’s book: Linked – and being enlightened on how sustainable networks are created and maintained, I realized why creating such a forum from scratch was going to be virtually an impossible task. The best option for me then was to join an already established network, participate actively and meaningfully so as to gain credibility, and possibly move towards carving a niche out of that network which will then ultimately grow to become a formidable resource as earlier envisaged. (link)

One advantage of blogging about their projects as they unfolded (as opposed to waiting until the end of the class to present them) was that students recognized that they were not the only ones encountering problems, and they were able to support and critique one another. One idea for improving this project is to include, as part of the readings for the course, a text on managing change (something like The Tipping Point, perhaps).


As the diversity of the work produced and the depth of student’s observations indicates, I think the course was successful in what it set out to achieve: to provide students with hands on experience of social software, to get them to think critically about its affordances, and to allow them to experiment with using it to direct social change. As way of conclusion, I would like to quote from various final observations that students made (some of them are in haiku form, an alternative option I offered students to summarize their thinking):

How is the notion of community being redefined by social software?
With social software
Closeness is not about space
But shared needs and goals (link)

Can social software be an effective tool for individual and social change?
Certainly. Apart from broadening individual perspectives and as such leading to attitudinal and behavioral change, social software is also being extensively used to organize pressure groups whose collective voice often result in societal change. (link)

What aspects of our humanity stand to gain or suffer as a result of our use of and reliance on social software?
It is the construction of ourselves in relation to our new concepts of communities that will be most affected by our reliance on social software. (link)

What are the social repercussions of unequal access to social software?
access isn’t enough,
’cause the curve is steep and linked
Mister Long-Tail Man. (link)

How is social agency shared between humans and code in social software?
Social agency is shared between the individual and the software by splitting the task of establishing and maintaining bonds between individuals. (link)

One student summarized her progress thus:

Today I can call myself a reflective social software user. I’m able to decide which social software tool (or combination of tools) is better in a specific situation based on the pros and cons of each one of them. However, I cannot say that I’m a specialist in this field: only now I understand that I have more questions than answers. (link)

I am looking forward to teaching this course again, after making some improvements based on student’s feedback.

The author wishes to thank the members of SSA05 for making this a great learning experience.


Technology, the culture of testing, and obstacles to school change

Will simulations be the next form of standardized testing?

There has been much talk in recent years about the use of simulations
and gaming in education, both for children and adults. The best
educational simulations and games —we are told— embody ‘active
learning’ (learning by doing, or the formation of knowledge through the
subjective cognitive experiences of the learner as opposed to the
passive consumption of information or facts). They also provide a safe
environment for testing problem-solving techniques without the risks
that we encounter in the ‘real’ world.

Talk about the use of simulations as a method of assessment is more
prevalent in the corporate training world than in K-12 education (see this example from Microsoft), but the application of simulations for testing seems to be an obvious one:

Simulations are expanding the computer-based testing horizon. They’re delivering benefits across the board that are ushering in the next generation of testing. Test-takers benefit from simulations because simulations assess skills, not just knowledge. Further, simulations provide a higher level of test security because the exam is not simply constructed with multiple-choice questions that may be memorized and exposed. (Wenck, 2005: Simulations: The Next Generation of Testing)

I would like to explore some of the implications of using simulations
as a means of assessment. While simulations are often presented as the
antithesis of old methods of evaluation, I would like to warn against
uses of simulations that merely replicate, with some modifications, the
norms of traditional testing. Specifically, I want to examine the way
in which both traditional testing and simulations shape the learning
process by normalizing values and creating expectations of how things
ought to work outside of the learning environment.

Continue reading

A Nomad’s Guide to Learning and Social Software

UPDATE: For those who rather read the article online, I have pasted it below.

Back from Barcelona, where we had a wonderful time! Currently swamped with work and life, so the summary of the congress is going to have to wait a bit. However, I wanted to share the link to an article I just wrote for Knowledge Tree. The following is from their abstract:

Innovations in educational technology are often seen as
opportunities to transform learning, and social software (blogs, wikis,
social bookmarking, etc.) is no exception. But are the tensions between
pedagogies and social software the result of attempts to make the
latter conform to traditional teaching practices, or are they signs of
real opportunities for rethinking learning processes?

In this article, Ulises explores the role that social software can play in new models of learning and participating in society. While social software can connect learners to new resources and to each other in new ways, he argues that its true potential lies in helping us figure out how to integrate our online and offline social experiences. Thus, social software must live up to its name by relating to the individual’s everyday social practices, which include interacting with people online as well as people without access to these technologies. He concludes that social software can positively impact pedagogy by inculcating a desire to reconnect to the world as a whole, not just the social parts that exist online.

Additionally, there’s also going to be a live panel with me and the other authors of this edition of the journal tomorrow, November 2. Unfortunately, since the main location is in Australia, the time is at midnight US EST. Perhaps a bit too late for most of you (and me!).

Continue reading