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.
Structure of the course
The syllabus identifies the following three objectives for the course:
- The class will develop competency in the use of blogs, wikis, distributed classification systems, and RSS feeds.
- 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.
- 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.