Social Media Classroom — Training wheels that don’t come off.

The Social Media Classroom is a web service created by Howard Rheingold that provides a space for students to engage in many of the most popular social networking activities out there. It includes blogs, wikis, forums, social bookmarks, user profiles and chat. The goal is to provide a very low threshold environment for students and faculty to learn about and to use social media as a way of augmenting the classroom.

Scott Leslie set up an installation of Social Media Classroom the other day and offered for others to take it for a spin. I gave it a try and here is what I think.

The Social Media Classroom does exactly what it says that it will do. The user interface is quite impressive, making thing really easy to jump into. Sarah Perez on ReadWriteWeb said that “its ease-of-use and educational slant make its introduction an impressive and potentially game-changing move for the educational system as we know it”. I think she would be right, if it were not for some big obstacles that the platform faces. These are:

  1. It seems to be closed off and private by default (although this may have just been the system I used). If outsiders can participate (as has been shown by Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman) magic can happen. We need to let the world see what students are doing in university.
  2. The “Social Media Classroom” is missing one little word in the title. A game changer would rather be a “Social Network Media Classroom”. Although students can edit their own profiles in the Social Media Classroom, there is no way to form groups or to add people to their network. The network is often the most powerful part of any social media applications and it is a terrible oversight to not include it.
  3. The training wheels don’t come off. This application is great for students who do not know of, or use social media tools. However, it sucks for those that do. They are not able to use their current networks or applications. Most people who have blogs would want to use their own blogs for a class. Or use their own social bookmarking service. These people (the ones who would be very useful in this environment as they could guide their peers and instructors in the use of social media) will feel alienated and resent having to use the Social Media Classroom. If an education-based social media application is ever to be successful it has to provide an easy way for experienced students to show others the tricks of the trade and for novice students to take the wheels off of the bicycle and use real tools when they are ready for it.

The bright side is that these are relatively easy things for the social media classroom to fix. Jim Groom is already taking care of the training wheel problem at UMW blogs with his BuddyPress, FeedWordPress, WordPress and mediaWiki experiments. UBC’s OLT also has some of this in the works. I’m sure that Drupal is powerful enough to do the same for the Social Media Classroom. The network part simply takes adding some features and making it open… well that should be just flicking a switch.

The Social Media Classroom is a good service and I really wish that more people had taken Scott Leslie up on his offer of trying it out on his hosted server. If you are in education, check out Social Media Classroom. Despite all of my complaints above, I would still far rather use it than any course website that I have ever used (Blackboard or otherwise). With a few simple, yet fundamental changes, it could just be a game changer yet.

Related from around the web:

http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2008/08/20/social-media-classroom/

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