Blog Post

Social Media Classroom: Howard Rheingold Invites a Community of Practice to Participate

Years ago, my husbandstarted cracking up in front of the computer. At night, our television was off,the house was quiet, and while my son slept and I studied, my husband sat aloneat his computer and laughed.   

But he wasn't alone. Or washe? When you have instantaneous access to people around the world that share aninterest in politics, history, art, music, literature and discourse, alonenessbecomes an artifact of a simpler time. What my husband was doing was connectingby way of an online social network. When I sat in my study and heard him laugha few rooms away, I had the distinct sense I was missing the party -- even though hisbody was the only one in the room.

These are things HowardRheingold (Tools for Thought, 1985; Virtual Reality, 1991; The VirtualCommunity, 1993) understood as far back as 1985 when he became involved in theWell, a computer conferencing system. Anyone who asks searching questions aboutvirtual networks will eventually end up reading Rheingold's work, so when Ineeded to understand this parade of virtual friends that became part of myhusband's daily conversation, it was Rheingold's chapter on real-time tribesthat helped bring the weird factor back down to earth. The sheer humanity of hisapproach to virtual networks is what made him stand out in a crowd of peoplewho tended to focus on the technology.

During the past two decades,Howard Rheingold has become an iconic fixture in the virtual community sphere,a point of interest that reaches above and beyond (and well before) the Myspaceand Facebook phenomena. In 2002, Rheingold published Smart Mobs: The NextSocial Revolution, a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the "always-onera." In many of the articles written about Smart Mobs, writers quoteRheingold's description of the "thumb tribes," people who text message eachother at break-neck speed to create collective action on a moment's notice.

These text-messaging, laptop-totingtribal members aren't necessarily sophisticated consumers of social media, though,an observation Rheingold made when he began encountering them in classrooms atUniversity of California-Berkeley and Stanford. "I assumed they were Millenials,"says Rheingold, describing the plugged-in 20-somethings we assume are always a technologicalstep ahead. But students drew blank looks when Rheingold asked them to useblogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other social media tools in class.

This would have to change.

"Originally, I wanted tocreate a social media classroom that would provide an on-ramp to Web 2.0tools," says Rheingold. "Yes, they can IM and they're inseparable from their laptops and cell phones, but when it comes to wikis, blogs, RSS feeds fororganizing their research, social bookmarking-these are things they need to betaught."

Point made. When we think about the ability to produce and consumeinformation, we need to follow the text. Today, that means following the wordsto the immensely popular read/write/web world of social media. Unfortunately, bringing Web 2.0tools into the classroom can be an agonizing experience for educators and adisorienting one for students. Too easily, students can spend much of theirtime trying to learn how to work the tools, and for educators with a lowgeek-factor, the learning curve cuts too deeply into the syllabus.

Rheingold hopes to changethis with his newly launched Social Media Classroom. As aHASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media & Learning competition winner in 2007, Rheingoldset out to create what could well be a game-changer for participatory learningand the evolving frontier of digital-friendly pedagogy.

But before discussing his SocialMedia Classroom, Rheingold poses a few of society's hottest digital questions:"Do these different social media tools help the way we think? Are theybeneficial or destructive to our social relationships? Do they increase ordrain away social capital from our societies?" These tools, unfortunately, donot offer black-and-white answers, and Rheingold's answer to his own questionsis, "It depends."

A few months ago, Rheingoldled a forum over at, where students and scholars discussedparticipatory learning. One of the most striking threads of the forum was theemphasis on physical characteristics of face-to-face learning. Close thelaptops! Move the desks to create a circle! Promote eye contact betweenstudents! It may come as a surprise that an early adopter like Rheingold hasreservations about the latest technology. "Better tools do not by themselvesmake for better pedagogy," he says in one of his video blogs. A critical eyefor the tools, a deep understanding of the potential, and a focus on teachingmake Rheingold poised to change the way we practice and discuss Education 2.0.

So what does make for better learning? One of the larger objectives ofRheingold's Social Media Classroom is to create a community of practice forthose who want to discuss participatory media and best practices, among othertopics. Only a few hours after the official launch of Social Media Classroom,the community forum was populated with dozens and dozens of people.This should be no surprise -- Howard has more than 4,000 people following him onTwitter, over 3,000 subscribing to his Smart Mobs blog, and over 1,600 friendson Facebook.

Over the next few weeks,months, and years, this community of practice will grow knowledge through SocialMedia Classroom's connected hub of participatory learning. They will engage studentsin forums, wikis, chats, blogs, microblogging, commenting, video sharing, social bookmarking, and RSS feeds. In Rheingold's words, they will"support a movement away from education as delivery of knowledge towardeducation as critical, collaborative inquiry -- a student-centric pedagogy thatengages students in actively constructing knowledge together, rather thanpassively absorbing it from texts, lectures, and discussions."

Given that Social MediaClassroom is free (as in free free),open-source (Drupal-based and built by the talented Sam Rose), and public, itwill only be a matter of time before it becomes a cornerstone of Education 2.0. Cleverly, it is not intended to compete with content managementsystems such as Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai. Rheingold's SocialMedia Classroom can supplement these systems, offering a more sophisticatedconnecting hub where students can co-mingle participatory learning and socialmedia. As Rheingold has so diligently observed, social affordances are key tocreating a vibrant community. If the tools are awkward, dispersed, clumsy andconfusing, the online space will be a ghost town, uninhabited and uninspiring.

Social Media Classroomoffers those social affordances and something even better. Soon, Rheingoldplans to have a hosted server for educators, so teachers can download Social Media Classroom and avoid the all-too-common bureaucratic ITobstacles that hold educators back from using innovative tools.

If you are aneducator, or know someone interested in social media, spread the word. Andfollow the trail of other early adopters to are there waiting for you.

To watch Howard Rheingold's video introducing Social Media Classroom, click here.  



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