I've been participating in a pair of hosted communities at Social Media Classroom (SMC), an open-source web service that offers social media tools for educators and students. If you've been following my posts on sleeping alone and starting out early, you probably already know that if it's open source, I'm gonna be on it like Henry Jenkins on fan practices. (For proof of my open sourceness, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Actually, though, it was the experience of working with SMC that led me to my open-source fervor. When I first joined the community, I didn't even really know what the open source movement was. The experience convinced me that open source software and its younger cousin, open education, have tremendous potential for teaching and learning.
Okay, first, some background. As the main site points out, Social Media Classroom was started by Howard Rheingold, through a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Arts Collaboratory) award, and is supported by lead developer Sam Rose, among others. The Drupal-based service can be installed for free, or SMC developers will host a community site for people who don't want to install their own.
Okay okay okay, that's the background, but here's what's awesome about the project itself: It sets up a goal of opening up education by offering spaces for sharing, collaboration, and remixing of class content via forums, blogs, wikis, chat, social bookmarking, widgets, and a load of other features. The "Invitation to the Social Media Classroom and Collaboratory" offers this description of the project:
It’s all free, as in both “freedom of speech” and “almost totally free beer.” We invite you to build on what we’ve started to create more free value....This website is an invitation to grow a public resource of knowledge and relationships among all who are interested in the use of social media in learning, and therefore, it is made public with the intention of growing a community of participants who will take over its provisioning, governance and future evolution.
To that end, we’re launching an instance of the Colab as a community of practice for learners and teachers, educators, administrators, funders, students of pedagogy and technology design, engaged students who share a common interest in using social media to afford a more student-centric, constructivist, collaborative, inquiry-oriented learning.
Not to beat a potentially dead horse, but: promise, tool, bargain, you guys. The promise comes in showing community members that their engagement matters. Clay Shirky argues that in order to get a social group off the ground, the founders need to engage as much as possible (or as much as is required) to convince the community that their participation will be noticed and will make a difference. Focusing on the photo-sharing site Flickr, he argues that building up a critical mass of engaged members took a lot of early legwork:
Like the proverbial stone soup, the promise would be achieved only if everyone participated, and like the soldiers who convince the townspeople to make the stone soup, the only way to hld the site together before it reached critical mass was through personal charisma. Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, said she'd learned from the early days that "you have to greet he first ten thousand users personally."
When I joined Howard's SMC group, I posted an introduction to myself which got a near-immediate response from Howard Rheingold himself. I was all, "omg Howard Rheingold TALKED to me! *swoon*" And you know what happened next? I headed right back in to join in on other conversations on the site--because, after all, HOWARD RHEINGOLD WAS PAYING ATTENTION. The community is still small enough that a core group of participants are able to recognize and engage with each other in a highly personal way.
For Howard, promise and tool appear to be linked. As a new-ish open source project, SMC is not perfect; but as my sensei Dan Hickey has pointed out, "open source software succeeds by failing"--and Howard and Sam have been enthusiastic about getting community members to identify problems and offer suggestions. In fact, my experience is that if you point out something that's not working, they fall all over themselves to try to find solutions. This means that part of the promise of the site is that members can help refine the tool itself. (Hey, Howard and Sam: Do you think you could add a "search" feature so I can find past posts more easily?)*.
Okay, that's promise and tool. The bargain is something like this: We'll offer you a space to create a vibrant, active collaborative learning community, and we'll respond quickly to problems or suggestions; and your job is to fill in the vibrancy, the activity, and the collaboration. Which is exactly what's happening in the SMC site for two of Dan Hickey's classes in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. (Alert readers may remember that this is the program I'll be joining as a doctoral student in the fall.) What's neat about this space is that even though the classes are held in a physical learning environment exactly 1008 miles from my house, I get to participate in discussion about the readings, join in on collaborative activities (like working together to build a pathetically measly Wikipedia entry describing the field of Learning Sciences), and--if I write something especially awesome, get included in class discussions even though I'm not actually present. To quote Eddie Murphy, What a bargain!
A map depicting the shortest route from my house to Indiana University
In making the graduate-school decision, I recently talked with a third-year doctoral student at a school other than IU. She told me that she recently got into an argument with a professor and challenged a key idea he presented about education.
"...and I realized," she said, "that I'm starting to feel like I can engage with professors, like I know enough now to challenge them."
Maybe I'm just too mouthy for my own good, but though I haven't officially begun doctoral work yet, I've been challenging--engaging with, asking questions of, pushing back on ideas of--professors on SMC for the last year. What I didn't realize until talking to this student is that my experience is not common.
And this is what's neatest about Social Media Classroom: It's a space for thinking about how participatory culture and social media can change how we think about expertise, knowledge, and community. It's no longer that a handful of experts can, should, or do hold expertise in their head and dole it out as they see fit; in a participatory culture, knowledge is distributed across media environments and can be accessed by people who buy into the promise, tool, and bargain of those social spaces.
It's working, so far. So far, it's working. And it's why my crew (Dan Hickey, IU doctoral student Michelle Honeyford, ELA teacher Rebecca Rupert) and I are planning to work inside of this platform in the service of exploring Spreadable Educational Practices. Keep an eye on this space for updates on our work on SEPs, that most awesome of projects.
[Update: as proof of concept, Sam Rose responded to my request to add a "search" feature within minutes of my publishing this blog. The beginning of his response:"Thanks Jenna!! FYI, there is a search feature up at the top if the site (over to the right) :-)"]