Friday, July 17, 2009

getting students off of Maggie's farm

I stumbled across an interesting cross-blog conversation about Social Media Classroom and similar Learning Management Systems (LMS's). I have been, and continue to be, a strong and vocal supporter of Social Media Classroom (SMC), Howard Rheingold's Drupal-based, open-source educational technology intended to support participatory practices in formal learning settings.

Most significantly for me, it was participation in SMC that led to my passion for all things open-source. This is not a trivial thing: If participation in an LMS fosters a disposition toward increased openness, collaboration, and sharing, then it's clearly putting its money where its mouth is.

Blogger and computer scientist Andre Malan writes that he recently took SMC for a spin around the block and found it impressive in some ways and lacking in others. He writes:

  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.

D'Arcy Norman, writing from the University of Calgary, responded to the above points first in the comments section and then in a full post on his own blog. Norman doesn't have a problem with fostering student engagement within "walled gardens"--he writes:
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.

And, in the most spectacular finish to a post I've so far read anywhere, by anyone, Norman ends with this:
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.

Norman is right and he's wrong. A closed LMS that lacks the capacity for open participation in a larger community turns learners into day laborers reduced to carting bushels of cognitive work from the fields to the barn and taking home only what they can hide away in their pockets. But in many ways, a "walled garden" isn't much better. Not to overstretch the metaphors here, but legend has it that Prince Siddhartha spent his youth inside of a walled garden. The kind of participation his surroundings supported was absolutely voluntary, and probably felt authentic, in the main. But when he left the garden, everything he knew to be true was true no longer.

One of the big failings of educational institutions is that they too often offer a beautiful walled garden. Inside the garden, food is abundant, and everybody eats equally well. (Well, that depends on the garden you've walked into, how you got there, how long you can stay, and whether you have comparable walled garden experience in your past.)

Sure, participation in a closed system engages students "in creation, discussion, and reflection." This is, I agree, a necessary component of higher education. But I disagree with Norman that this type of participation is sufficient. In fact, creation, discussion and reflection are only useful learning experiences insofar as they support learners' ability and willingness to engage with wider, more public, and less protected communities of practice. This means that publishing content on the open internet should--indeed, must--be a key curricular element. The internet isn't a garden; it's an ecosystem complete with backlots, busted glass, some ragged sunflowers and lots of rich material ripe for harvesting--but only if you've learned what it takes to grow and then harvest that material.


  1. I wasn't meaning to say that a private classroom-only walled garden was sufficient - in most cases I think it is far from it - but it is orders of magnitude better than what we are able to offer as educational experiences using an entirely closed system.

    I completely agree that it would be ideal for much of the interaction and publication to be completely open and fully part of the internet (and human societal) ecosystem, but there are cases where that's not desirable, or even counterproductive.

  2. 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

  3. Thanks for the SMC updates Sam. I must admit that it is getting harder and harder to stay abreast of all of the different open sources collaborative platforms which are being used by educators. I wrote some about SMC and other platforsm in a previous post that you might find interesting. What I really hope to do in the next month or so is pull together a clear vision of the different assessment practices supported by the different platforms and the communities who use them. I am going on sabattical in the spring and one of my central goals will be a comprehensive summary of what is happening in this regard across these different communities, including SMC

  4. As usual, you are spot-on, Jenna. It's not me, but the universities that require the walled garden as a default. It's not up to me, the instructor, to disclose the identity of students without their permission. As Sam noted, any student can make any page in the SMC public by checking one box in the access control tab. And the training wheels environment came directly from student feedback - so many students complained that not only was I requiring them to learn in a new manner, and to learn new media along with the subject matter and the more collaborative and inquiry-based learning, but they had to learn different user interfaces and use multiple log-ins. I don't think "training wheels" is as descriptive as "on-ramp." And that's where the scaffolding comes in - introducing Web 2.0 versions. But really, it's easy to criticize if you don't have to work with the constraints of a 10-week quarter! Getting students who have never done it before to wiki, blog, forum, and bookmark is a LOT. Moving them from the on-ramp to roll-your-own is more work. If going directly to rolling your own Web 2.0 tools works for a teacher, go for it.

    The Blackboard analogy that Malan used is so far off that I don't want to take the time to deal with it point by point. Let me just say that the difference between closed, proprietary and free and open source is significant. And unless Blackboard has improved significantly, maybe Malan doesn't know the difference between a really bad forum interface and a less-bad one.

  5. Thanks Jenna for continuing the conversation. I agree with you (as does Jim Groom on D'Arcy's post) that creation, discussion and reflection are neccessary and not sufficient. Although things have come a long way, it is very important not to just sit back and say "job's done". Having a good garden is the first step, but letting people in and out is the next one. After that of course there will be more steps, most of which we cannot see at the moment.

    To Dr. Rheingold I do understand the institutional pressures to create walled gardens (I have been involved in coding a few of these gardens myself). Yes, walls are neccessay in some circumstances. However, I also firmly believe that walls should not be the default. If it is default, then I feel like the "on, off" button needs to be really, really big.

    I also understand the need for training wheels. Most students just don't get it at first and the point of any system is to make things easier for them. Although I have never taught a 10 week class using these technologies, I have played support for some and have thus witnessed first hand how some students struggle and also how some students take to these technologies like fish to water. Systems like SMC are neccessary. I still feel however, that "training wheels" is a better description of SMC than "on-ramp" because although it is teaching students to drive, it is not immediately clear how they will actually get to the highway (or how they will take their car with them). Sam Rose says it is possible, but the application will never be an "on-ramp" without clear signage pointing them towards the open road.

    Finally, of course I don't think that SMC is anywhere as bad as Blackboard is. My analogy is meant to show the similarities, not to say that the two are in any way equal. I really think that my feelings as far as that are concerned were well summed up in the final paragraph on my post:

    "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."

    Now that people like D'Arcy Norman and Sam Rose have assured me that those changes are simple, I am very excited about SMC's potential.

  6. Andre, thanks for the feedback. I would like to suggest if you have a chance, and are interested in using SMC, that you might join us at

    If there is significant interest in having a version of SMC that is more open by default, than closed, then we would like to start a path towards addressing that over the next year or so. Same thing with import/export of data and content, and remixing with other sites services etc. So far, the problem has been that most High School, and College level educators are stuck with specific rules that prevent them from exposing student's identities, which is part of what brought about the SMC in the first place.

    However, if there are many real world use cases for educators that require open systems, and integration with popular web services, a branch of SMC could be created that allows for this.

    One of the items we'll explore in the future will be utilizing the Services module for Drupal, which would potentially allow data to map to practically any other service online, and most sites (like media wiki, wordpress, etc) via RESTful URL's

  7. I want to second Andre's point about the on-ramp. In my learning sciences graduate courses in the spring, I used Howard and Sam's civic engagement exercises from SMC to move our class discouse into a more public space. Quite a few of the students were reluctant to dive in, and found even editing wikipedia entries to be quite intimidating. However, the fenced off garden of our local install of socialmediaclassroom created a nice context for students to learn the basics of professional social media. I encourage but did not require them to move on to a more public forum. Some of them (like Jenna) already had; others did gradually over the course of the semester, some never did but I expect they will soon as they see their clasmates gaining an audience and a voice that they would take years to attain via normal conference and publishing venues.