I've been in conversation with lots of educators recently about strategies for developing and supporting collaborative communities of teachers within various social networks online. Most recently I am talking with IU Mathematics Education Professor Cathy Brown about the lovely site that she has created in Moodle to support the math teachers who are teaching at the New Tech High Schools in Indiana. We are going to meet to see if some of the ideas we have been developing about participatory activities and assessment might help NewTech teachers use the site to do what they are doing--Helping integrate mathematics into interesting and engaging projects. Because Indiana is now rolling out End of Course assessments in Algebra (along with English and Biology) I assume that these teachers are under significant pressure to show not only that thier students are passing (required to get credit for the course) but exceling. This creates an important tension that gets at the heart of what we care about here at Re-Mediating Assessment.
Though I'd like to say otherwise, there is unfortunately no perfect tool--no single network that magically fosters community, cooperation, and collaboration. Part of this is due to the fact that all platforms are designed to support only certain kinds of engagement and therefore have benefits and drawbacks inherent to them; the other factor is that too often, people try to bend a community to the affordances of the technology instead of finding a tool or set of tools that align most closely to the needs of the community.As for platforms, I have bounced around a lot from several which have distinct advantages and disadvantages. I want to take a minute and share my experiences and them make the point I want to make.
I used SocialMediaClassroom for my graduate classes in Spring 2009 and that was very informative and help.. One of the great things about using it was that it hooked us up with it sponsor, social networking pioneer Howard Rheingold and his deep and interesting community who kibbutz at his installation of SMC at http://socialmediaclassroom.com/. It also hooks you up with the open-source Drupal community, which also has a lot of potential. It was a bit buggy, which was not surprising at it was an early stage open source program. Sam Rose did a tremendous job setting it up and was really helpful both in getting it installed and then working out the many bugs that resulted from my ignorance. MacArtur’s Digitial Media and Learning initiative funded the initial development, and are using it in the DML hub which is also important
This summer I have been using Indiana University's OnCourse CL, an online collaborative learning environment designed through the open-source Sakai Project. OnCourse brings the whole Sakai community and is very stable. Now that it has e-portfolios and wikis it has a lot of potential for the kinds of participatory activites and assessments that are so important to me. Stacy Morrone has pushed hard on the e-Portfolio features and they really have tremendous untapped potential. A big personal advantage for me in using OnCourse is the tremendous support that I get from the IU staff who are quite committed to it. The Learning Sciences graduate program just got a grant to expand our online course offerings, and we aim to use this to build a strong community of scholars around these courses, and will be using OnCourse.
The big drawback with OnCourse is that it is so closed--it only supports participation from IU affiliates and therefore restricts participation across multiple institutions. Case in point, I was planning on having my students in my Cognition and Learning course seek feedback from at least one outside expert or peer on the e-Portfolios that each of the students are drafting. The author of our textbook Roger Bruning has even agreed to review some. But for non-IU folks to do so they have to register for guest accounts. I have to do the same all the time so I can view my class as a student (another hassle of OnCourse) and I know it is a huge hassle. I have to get a new password every time. So I really can't include that in the course requirements as it will cause a revolt and a lot of headaches. Of course, the beauty of the Sakai platform is that I should be able to build and mount my own version for this. I will keep you posted!
For the last year, we have been working with an ELA curriculum designed by Project New Media Literacies, a project headed by media scholar Henry Jenkins and funded by the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Our collaboration with Project NML revolved around a site in Ning which, like Moodle, is very popular with teachers. (Ning has dominated the "best educational use of a social networking service" category of the Edublogs Awards for the last two years: In 2008, 9 out of the 10 finalists were Ning-based, and in 2007 all ten finalists were based in Ning.) Our thoughts are influenced as usual by Clay Shirky. In Here Comes Everybody he pointed out that "there are no generically good tools, only tools that are good for certain purposes."
The point I want to make here is that focusing too much on the actual hub ends up as technological determinism--and leads to efforts to squeeze the community into the tool instead of using the tool to support the community. We must be much more focused on the participatory cultures and practices that the networks support. Often, this means supporting layered use of various technologies, according to the interests, needs, and dispositions of community members. In fact, the most important evidence that you have established a participatory culture around a network is that the practices you are fostering in your network spread to other networks. In other words, if you lurk on other networks, you should see reference to your network and practice.