Blog Post

Howard Rheingold: Spending the summer running a five-ring circus

To recap, I foolishly proposed to develop an online tool for using social media (forum, blog, wiki, chat, social bookmarking, video sharing, microblogging) to teach students about social media (the issues of identity, community, public sphere, social capital, collective action that arise when so many people spend so much time interacting with each other in so many different ways online).

In order to achieve the goal of enabling others to use social media to teach about social media (or about any other subject), I proposed, and am now definitely well past getting started on;

1. Software development -- working with a Drupal developer to integrate all the abovementioned software into an easy to implement, easy to use environment. I can report with some confidence that this will NOT be the first software development project initiated by a non-programmer to come in on time, up to spec, and under budget. The scope of the project has not ballooned, but of course it's turning out to be harder than predicted to build some of the features I've insisted on. I also realized that I left out three essential categories in my proposal and budget -- user interface design, graphic design to go with the UI design, and a CSS programmer to put the UI together with the core installation.

2. Curriculum development -- I thought this would mean expanding the syllabi and lesson plans that I have been developing for the classes I teach on participatory media/collective action, virtual communities/social media, and digital journalism. But of course my experience with a kludged-together social media classroom and a year's worth of classes has led me to see that the best way to use this software with this subject and today's students is to radically redesign the way I teach -- moving as far as possible toward a student-generated, peer-evaluated, collaborative inquiry.

3. Resources -- I've been collecting links on a wiki for a couple years now. I add to it regularly. As soon as the SMC wiki module is ready, I'm moving the collection there. I'm consulting with a researcher about reorganizing, fleshing out, and adding to the present collection. The aim is not to be exhaustive, but to provide a rich set of resources, well annotated, for both beginners and more expert teachers -- and to grow a community of contributors who will expand the resource repository.

4. Community of practice -- When the first three elements are in place, ignite a community of practice that shares knowledge, establishes relationships, builds upon the resources I'm providing at the beginning. To that end, I've been talking about the SMC online and in person; every time I speak, I invite educators to email me to be put on a notification list. I have around 60 on the list now, and will actively seek more when I speak at other venues this summer. I'm thinking about a Fall launch. Maybe October.

5. Documenting the social media classroom and curriculum in a series of screencasts and videos.


Since we started in May, the Drupal developer, Sam Rose, and I have been in daily communication. When I blogged about the project, I was contacted by Brian Christiansen, who asked if he could help with some aspect of the project as an assignment for a course he was taking. I was also contacted by Max Senges, a post-doc with a special interest in knowledge-creation and pedagogy, who volunteered to help on the curriculum side. So the four of us have a weekly Skype conversation -- voice plus text chat -- about progress on the SMC. Brian reminded me that since we were creating a new forum module, it would make sense to put some attention into the user interface (which includes both graphic design and CSS implementation). Sam is a great developer, but not many great developers are also user interface designers. Those two specialties tend to think in different terms. And of course I had neglected to include user interface design, graphic design and CSS implementation in the original budget. So I get to pay a stupidity tax by taking those resources out of what I pay myself. We're planning at this point to have all the modules working together by the end of July. It will take some time to create screencast documentation that show learners and teachers exactly how to use each element, so I am not looking at releasing the SMC to the general public until the Fall.

I started playing with Drupal when I decided I didn't want to work with the constraints of University IT departments. I got a Dreamhost account for $7/month, and with some IMing with more knowledgeable friends, managed to install and configure Drupal. So when I proposed this project, what I had in mind was a pre-configured one-click install. Or at least a one-click install that came with explicit, illustrated instructions on how to configure it. But now it is becoming obvious that this is STILL too geeky for the vast majority of educators. So I need to look into ways to set up a hosted service. Maybe Amazon web services? Again, this wasn't in the budget, so I'll pay for it myself for the first year, and leave it to the community to finance after that. If the bandwidth bills are high, it means the SMC community is a success, so that community can take over responsibility. In any case, site hosting and bandwidth fees are dropping. Together with the free software, it ought to be within the reach of most educators who can afford an Internet connection.

The curriculum development is really the place where I hope to be able to answer the obvious question: "Why bother?" There is an abundance of social media, course management systems, etc., out there. But because I started out using social media specifically to add hands-on practice to the study of the theory of social media, and because I've engaged my students in ongoing discussion about which of my experiments engage their attention and stimulate learning, I've become convinced that the media themselves are best used in a pedagogy in which collaborative inquiry replaces the delivery of knowledge. Unlike many other fields, and probably because it is so new, cyberculture studies has a number of classic works, but there is no canon. Instead of standing in front of the class, telling, showing, and talking, in attempt to get across what I believe to be the essential elements of a body of knowledge, I intend to sit with the students in a circle and engage them on a collaborative co-creation of knowledge, centered on critical inquiry -- we start by asking questions, and then move to the texts. Student teams will volunteer to co-lead future classes and work with me prior to sessions. Teams will make their own initial pathways through suggested collections of texts on each class session's theme, will lead small group and whole class inquiry, and will initiate construction of a wiki page for their session's theme. Only teaching teams (3-5 students, depending on the size of the class) will have their laptops open (this is part of the attention training that I've documented in two previous videos, Attention 101 and Attention 102). Students in the team have forty minutes to teach. Two teams will teach during each three-hour class session. Students in each team rotate through the roles of discussion leader, note-taker, keeper of the lexicon, and link-finder. The team sets up a wiki structure before the class session, based on their choice of readings and the pathways of inquiry they choose to explore the texts. During class discussion, the note-taker records live notes on the wiki, the keeper of the lexicon identifies key words and phrases, the link finders search and add links. During the week following each class session, all students who were NOT on teaching teams are required to add to the wiki -- flesh out notes, make corrections, add new material, pose questions, add links. Each team is required to meet face-to-face with the instructor at least a week before their class session. For the first third of the course term, we will use a forum for asynchronous group discussions between class sessions, and part of each session's discussion will be devoted to selecting questions to pursue online during the following week. During the second third of the course term, we'll use blogs for students to discuss the issues and questions addressed in their individual voices -- and to comment on one another's posts. The wiki will be enriched with links to relevant blog posts and/or comments. During the last third of the course term, we'll use synchronous media -- chat and Twitter -- during class. At this point, all students can keep their laptops open, but those who choose to keep their laptops open are required to contribute to the online chat, the oral discussion, or both. The final exam will be based on the wiki knowledge that the students co-construct. And the wiki won't go away -- the second year that this course is taught, the students will begin with the wiki inherited from the first year cohort, and will be assigned to augment, challenge, add, enrich, change the ongoing knowledge repository.

The resource repository for educators is probably the easiest of the five tasks -- I just add stuff when I find it. I find new tools, articles, services every day through Twitter, RSS, forums, and mailing lists. The way I go about doing this hunting and gathering is the subject of the first of my videos -- an introduction to my life online, one about RSS, one about social bookmarking.

The screencasts and videos are the hardest work for me, personally. I need to storyboard, screen-capture, record audio, find CC-licensed stills, work with an animator to visualize some of the more abstract concepts, capture video of myself, and edit it. Lights, camera, microphone -- I'm pretty well accustomed to the basic elements. I did the early videos references above using iMovie. I've been moving to Final Cut, which I'm learning with the help of a tutor. Like software development, I've learned that video development usually takes a lot more time than originally estimated, even when that is taken into account.


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