Social Software in the Academy Workshop: first Thoughts

ssawsign.jpg (MBertolini photo)
Back from SSAW in Los Angeles and I’m just beginning to sift through the many thought-provoking threads of conversations and demonstrations and presentations that filled every minute of those two-plus days. Talk about coming away from a conference with ideas, renewed energy and conviction….

These BLOGTALK-type conferences (small, one-panel-at-a-time, drawing from many spheres, and aimed at those who have been working with and thinking about social software for some time) are by far the most useful conferences I attend. I learn far more than I contribute, and I leave with a renewed sense that we’re on the right track AND that we have a long way to go before we sort out exactly what it is we are doing and where we need to go from here. The energy and brilliance of the graduate students presenting were matched only by the energy and brilliance of the designers and theorists and professors listening and questioning and presenting in their own right. Many conference moments worth mentioning–but I’ll save those for a future posting.

Whereas a year ago in Vienna I was one of a handful of classroom users of blogs in attendance, at the Annenberg Center there was a real range of teachers blogging or using wikis in their classrooms. With the numbers came a new, and healthy, degree of skepticism about the embrace of blogs in the undergraduate classroom. There were those who wanted hard numbers to substantiate the claims that blogs were effective vehicles for expression in classrooms, and those who wanted to know how they were evaluated, and those who wanted to know how edublogging was blogging at all. It was great to be pushed, to be asked some excellent and tough questions at the end of both my presentations.

piyaeugene.jpg(Photo by MBertolini)My students and colleague did a wonderful job explaining their experiences with blogs–so much so, in fact, that the crowd suspected that they weren’t real students at all but extraordinary exceptions! The group also half-suspected that the outcomes I have with social software in my classroom have more to do with me as a teacher than with the software or the act of blogging. Should blogging be left to the world outside the classroom altogether, a few wondered.

Excellent questions. Yes, we need Sarah and others to continue with their empirical research. Of course the success of any tool or any pedagocical approach has much to do with the teacher and with the way the learning collaborative is set up. Of course of course. What was interesting to me was that the whole notion of the learning community and how we set it up was NOT entertained by most of the presenters or the audience as crucial in the entire equation. For me, this is the lynchpin. And what separates the “good” teacher from the “bad” in a lot of cases: the ability to cultivate a creative, collaborative learning community. You gotta read Pierre L�vy’s Collective Intelligence. You have to read Rheingold and <a href=””target=”_blank”Jenkins, Bolter and Landow and Greene and Johnson , Manovich and Ascott for starters. Then read L�vy again. And think about the classroom culture–where you position yourself as teacher. Then you’re ready to pull blogs and whatever other kind of social software you like into the classroom if they will help you reach the learning outcomes you have in mind. Yes, I exaggerate… And yes, I know that my success with classroom blogs, multimedia authoring and podcasting has a lot to do with the way I teach, my personality, and my students. But it also has to do with the careful way I set up a learning collaborative–and this is something I repeat ad nauseum here on the blog and whenever I present at conferences or give talks–do our teachers read outside their disciplines and consider pedagogy? Communities of practice? For the mostpart, they repeat what they know, and since they have been motivated and successful in their educational endeavors, they figure the old models are the best models. And I’d say, yup, the oldest (i.e. Socratic) models are indeed what we need to remember, not the medieval ones.

For those who want to try out the collaborative learning model: At the opening of every course, the students create knowledge trees in which they explore their reasons for taking this course, the relevance of the material and the processes to their lives, and what they need to learn from and have to offer to the rest of the learning community. We spend the first week engaged in this writing and sharing and forming this community before we move onto anything else. If this preparation, and the preparation of the space that the blogging will occupy in the course are done well, then, just get out of the way of the students and let them do their work!

Many of us are coming to similar conclusions at this point in the evolution of classroom blogging–just today I see Aaron Campbell referring to a panel at Canadian Innovation in eLearning Symposium, and listing the notable points brought out in the final discussion between Jay Cross, Stephen Downes et al:

Some of the ideas tossed around that struck me as worth thinking about more were:

* The command-and-control model of education vs that of the ‘free range learner’
* ‘Process objects’ in addition to ‘learning objects’
* Critical Thinking + How to Learn = the two big goals of education
* Learning as technology-enabled but not technology-driven
* Schools as the most virtual, most artificial learning environments that exist
* Learning = Doing
* Weblogs are ‘transitional technologies’
* Learning as a ‘whole-body’ experience.
* Active virtual life increases f2f interactions

There is so much pressure placed on measurable results (and we all know why that is…) that we are losing the deep pleasure of messing around–serious messing around–of learning as a social activity, of learning as exploration, experimentation and a whole bunch of glorious failures. On the backchannel, someone at SSAW actually raised the question of “whether blogs lead to a kind of play school.” You’ve got to be kidding–blogs themselves don’t; bad teachers could. But put a blog into a good teacher’s hands, and see what she can do with it to promote all kinds of deep learning.

Blogs, because of their informality, their flexible, chameleon form, and the fact that they create an ongoing, individual and collaborative, learning narrative invite my students to explore the pleasures and real advantages of fooling around, together, seriously, with the materials of our subject matter. And the outcomes–however you wish to measure them–are pretty astounding.