Social Software: A CCNMTL Case Study

[Ed. Note: Originally part of Musings blog, a precursor to EnhancED.]

A review of social software with examples of their use at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning and how they affect the culture of the department and how social software is leading a major shift in educational and instructional technologies. Transcript is from talk given at the Digital Library Seminar Series on September 23, 2005.

Introduction: Living With Change

Much of this presentation grew out a meeting with an external advisory committee for one of our grants. The agenda for that day included a short presentation about the Center. Naturally, I used my slot to describe how wonderful we are. During the Q&A period, the discussion turned to the future of technology in education, whence, I made the bold statement that we were at the crossroads of a major shift in the use of technology in education. That was how I was feeling that day and the more I thought and talked about it, the more I believed myself.

Transformative technologies, like the WWW, Tivos or iPods, slowly gain ground, evolving and then blossoming into new shapes and frameworks. But to most people, these new frameworks appear suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when they are quickly hyped and adopted by the media. This sudden appearance can be alarming, disorienting, and can disturb stable technologies. I feel something similar has been happening to technology in education that will only be appreciated in hindsight or in some cases not appreciated at all.

...now we can also offer tools that facilitate and encourage collaboration.The transformative technologies I am focusing on today, IM, wikis and weblogs, are loosely categorized as social software. Much has been written recently on social software, but during that grant meeting, it became even more clear how things were changing. At CCNMTL, we can persuade instructors to be more involved in student learning, to be the "guide on the side," but, more importantly, now we can also offer tools that facilitate and encourage collaboration. Are tools like first generation course management systems too rigid? Do they enforce the "sage on the stage" metaphor? I think so. But suddenly, we have alternatives that in the long run may prove to more fruitful. Let's take a look at some of these tools.

Creating an Active Community with Instant Messaging

Instant Messaging (IM) is a communication tool residing somewhere between email and a phone call. By now, almost everyone knows about the ubiquitous use of IM among teenagers, the dangers of private chat rooms, and over-used emoticons. After knowing that, why would anyone use such a tool other than to try and keep track our your out-of-control teenager?

Well, we have found instant messaging to be invaluable in our office setting. Let me first describe our physical settings. When we designed our office spaces in 1999, we made a conscious design decision to create office spaces void of walled offices and/or cubicles. Our goal was to create an environment more akin to an architecture studio where sharing of ideas, information and emotions was easy to do. This studio-like atmosphere creates an opportunity for quick conversations to solve problems, to generate interests, and to get information quickly. We do have some offices, mostly for administration, and we do provide very comfortable headsets for our programmers so that they can get in the flow without too much distraction.

Soon after we created our spaces, we encountered the concept of "war rooms," where the research claimed a doubling of productivity by those working in open spaces. See article on a much quoted paper from December 2000:

We do not use the term "war rooms", but live happily in our studio-like spaces. (When we start assembling Trident submarines, we'll use the term "war room".)

The description of our offices is to set up the analogy between our physical spaces and our online spaces. We find that IM is capable of supporting some of the best aspects of the studio environment in the online space. IM is used for completing quick conversations, quickly finding the right person with the needed information and more.

Why has IM developed such a useful niche for our communications system? It is free to use with competing clients, including clients that aggregate different IM systems. Most of the CCNMTL staff have accounts with AOL's IM, but there is no special preference. The clients are simple to use and after you have built a list of your colleagues, known as a buddy list, organizing your buddy list by types of buddies, such as office, family, friends, simplifies things. We can even compare the very useful IM status line to the sign-out board of many offices. By making good use of this feature, you can manage interruptions while providing colleagues information on your whereabouts. I keep numerous canned messages for the status line that describe my potential availability to respond, including one that I use when Butler Library has another fire alarm.

There are numerous way that we use IM and advance features like audio and video conferencing create even more interesting possibilities, but let me focus on two basic uses that we have found extremely useful:

Dragging multiple colleagues from your buddy list into a chat makes it possible to quickly resolve issues without having to arrange a meeting. So many of our interactions are of the type that require a quick resolution understood by all parties. IM makes that possible in a way that email's asynchronous ways can fail. Email is a ping-pong game compared to the immediacy of IM.

Much has been written about social networks and their ability to unearth needed information from the right node in the network. With IM you can see this in practice everyday. Most often, typical transactions require a single network hop: I ask the person whom I believe knows the answer to my question and they respond and the transaction is over. But sometimes, I choose incorrectly and the recipient of my IM does not know the answer, but in turn, he or she asks the person they believe might offer the correct information. So on and on. In this way, the answer to my original question may come from one of our colleagues (the local network) or it may come from someone that works for a software company in Ohio who happens to be on the buddy list for one of our colleagues at CCNMTL.

These examples are just two samples of how we use IM. Of course, there are problems with IM. Distractions are plentiful to keep you from your work, but with a little bit of common sense discipline, the tool does make the online space more like a community. It is a matter of choosing which community is the right one at any given time.

Wikis and Weblogs Change the Horizon

Please, grant me the serenity to accept the pages I cannot edit, The courage to edit the pages I can, And the wisdom to know the difference --The Wiki Prayer

(derived from the Serenity Prayer - Reinhold Niebuhr 1892-1971)

Wikis and weblogs are content management systems with different business rules. Wikis tend to be collaborative free-for-alls, hence the need for a wiki prayer. Weblogs, or blogs for short, are increasingly assuming space formerly occupied by personal web pages. Blogging software provides a simple mechanism for individuals or organizations to publish thoughts, ideas, and rants that are easily archived, catalogued, and, more importantly, often solicit commentary.

There is something about wikis that drive some people nuts and others into a state of ecstasy.At CCNMTL, we have been using wikis for a few years to document our projects, but with a wiki per project, each wiki was an island. About a year ago, we went through a period we called the "the grand Wiki unification," consolidating our wiki space using the MediaWiki platform, the same software that is behind the popular Wikipedia site.

There is something about wikis that drive some people nuts and others into a state of ecstasy. Why does it drive some people crazy? There is no concept of hierarchy; there is no protection of ownership; wiki markup is like steno for HTML tagging. Why does it drive others into a state of euphoria? Because there is no concept of hierarchy, ownership, or HTML tagging. You get the point.

We have found that wikis are best used for projects that require compilation, from numerous contributors, into a loosely organized set of web pages. Some examples are:

- Wiki demo: project documentation and specification from Film Glossary
- Wiki demo: group writing assignments (Social Justice, Reading Writing Women [protected])

The underlying wiki philosophy encompasses the three Cs: collaboration, construction and community, an excellent starting point for any classroom situation.

Blogs are more for the individual and given the vast media hype, I will assume that most of you are familiar with blogs. What you may not be familiar with is how they are assembled. Demonstrating two examples, a typical blog and an atypical blog site, will provide some scaffolding for your greater explorations.

- Weblog demo: typical weblog (musings...)
- Weblog demo: atypical weblog, weblog as a CMS (University Seminars site)

But, if I am to be successful today, you should feel the urge to start your own weblog. How do you begin? I am going to show you how to create your own weblog in less than five minutes that looks just great.

- Blogger demo; sample blog

Let me also leave you with my version of the wiki prayer for bloggers:

Please, grant me the serenity to comment gracefully on others' blogs, The courage to write my own blog, And the wisdom to know the difference. -- The Blog Prayer

RSS Feeds

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) allows web content to be syndicated using XML. That's a simple definition, but a powerful one. RSS makes it easy to reuse web content. Software that aggregates RSS feeds are called news readers. An example from a student's perspective might be the compilation of RSS feeds from different course sites that provides the student a clear picture of assignments, test dates and other important deadlines for the semester.

RSS news readers have recently been added as features within web browsers such as Firefox and Safari, negating the need for stand-alone new readers. Using a browser's bookmark folder, a collection of RSS feeds can be easily accessed and reviewed. Additionally, web sites, like Bloglines, aggregate your favorite feeds with the benefit of providing access to your compilation from any computer you use.

An obvious example is a site like the New York Times which provide a whole page of RSS feeds for subscription. But at CCNMTL, we have also created RSS feeds from many of our internal applications. For example, our Project Management Tool, our wiki and Diary.

- RSS Demo: CCNMTL examples

We have also experimented with existing projects. One of those is the Sonic Glossary. We have generated podcasts from the entries using the required RSS 2.0 feed with iTunes extensions.

- RSS Demo: RSS and podcast for Sonic Glossary

So, earlier I tried to convince you to become a blogger. I am going to take another few minutes and make you a podcaster as well.

- Feedburner with Blogger demo

Conclusion: Living with Change

It is my sincere hope that the hour and a half that you have spent here will allow you to see this world with a different perspective and that in some small way, I have been able to motivate you to look at how some of these applications can leverage the way you work or play. I hope you also come to the same conclusion that many of these application are agents of change in radically different ways. They have the ability to change the landscape in uncertain ways. In a recent article by J.C. Herz, she writes:

"...value exists less and less in the pure data or information and more in the implicit, in people, in their context. At the same time that this is a great opportunity for the process of learning, it also runs up against the culture of engineering, which is the culture of a lot of the people who hold down the fort with information structures--the computer science majors and the engineers. ... But what we're seeing on the network is that so much of the value of the information is actually the flow of the information. It's the vectors and the trajectories and how things grow. It's organic... When you build a system ...--whether that's a mailing list or a blog or a wiki--so much of the value is what emerges from the activity around that tool. It's not in the spec; it's not in the code."

Let's summarize her statement as: it's the activity, not the code!

The weblog and other material created for this session will be available for you to review and to comment. We especially invite you to comment on what we have shown you and how it is relevant in your world.


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