A MySpace for Schools
As usual, education administrators are finally seeing potential in a "newfangled" tech toy even as it begins to dip in coolness. A UK company has developed a social networking tool similar to MySpace and Facebook, and schools are slowly but surely adopting it.
Some schools ban social networks for wasting classroom time or to protect students from weirdos. But, as part of a wider trend toward less top-down teaching, other institutions are putting tools like MySpace, Bebo and Facebook on the curriculum -- and teachers are saying: "Thanks for the add."
Recent efforts to outlaw the Web 2.0 sites so beloved by teenagers include a congressional bill that would throttle funds to schools that do not restrict access. But Elgg, open-source social networking software developed at the University of Brighton, has been designed specifically with academic uses in mind.
Students, tutors and researchers each get a profile page, a blog, photo sharing and friends lists, and they can create and join on-site discussion communities. Some of these features might cause tutors to balk, but Elgg's creators say the collaborative, conversational exchanges in which today's students have become so fluent outside class are the best way to deliver learning inside it.
"The virtual learning environment model used by nearly all universities these days is based on the traditional tutor-led, course-structured mode of learning and doesn't easily allow for significant participation by students or for crossing course boundaries," said Stan Stanier, the school's learning technologies manager, who oversees a 33,000-member Elgg installation. "Higher education is meant to be an environment for student-centered and collaborative learning."
Broadly, Elgg represents a shift from aging, top-down classroom technologies like Blackboard to what e-learning practitioners call personal learning environments -- mashup spaces comprising del.icio.us feeds, blog posts, podcast widgets -- whatever resources students need to document, consume or communicate their learning across disciplines.
I am not affiliated with Elgg or its creators; the story is not so much the tool itself, but schools' belated willingness to explore social networking.