Social Networks & Collaborative Teaching Sites

9 Feb

Today over at Religion in American History, John L. Crow has an interesting post about “Social Media Tools for the Classroom.” He identifies a real issue: historians of American religion seem to lag behind others in fields committed to adapting and integrating the latest digital resources. Working with primary and secondary sources means that we deal with a variety of  materials that could (and probably should) be presented digitally. I think for many of us the issue of textuality remains essential–much of our work is smoother when we can easily annotate hard copies. In some ways even the digital distribution of documents through e-reserve sites fails to successfully integrate digital solutions into the classroom. Sure, it’s better distribution of digital versions of texts, but students inevitably print their own copies and then discard them at the end of the term. The opportunity to collaborate on the process of annotation and to easily share multiple readings is lost as we continue to rely primarily on hard copies of our sources.

Crow offers one potential solution for teachers who want more collaboration on timelines. Dipity.com, as Crow explains, “is a social networking and group collaboration website that allows users to interactively create timelines.” Fundamentally, what is right about this site and right about wanting to use it in the classroom is that it makes students participants in the process of making new historical knowledge. Timelines–especially those for unique or under-studied topics–are valuable contributions to the field, and placing them where the public can see and use them is a great service.

Is this the digital revolution in the classroom?

But if we want to make more progress we need to correctly diagnose and understand the issues here. So while I commend Crow for his encouraging post, I disagree with his premise that Dipity is really a “social networking” site. I don’t mean to quibble, but Dipity is a web application that performs one task quite well. It can integrate with your Facebook account and connect you to other Dipity users, but the only purpose of Dipity is to make timelines. We’ve got two problems, I think. The first is how to network effectively with our students. Facebook continues to be the social network of choice today, but it is weak when it comes to providing a secure, private network for the kind of relationships students and teachers have. In my previous post I said that I wanted to avoid repeatedly dividing or segmenting my identity. Relying on Facebook to network my classroom means I will have to do more division, not less. Should I use a single-purpose site like Dipity without Facebook connect I also run the risk of multiplying my online identities. Neither of these options is particularly inviting and Dipity’s use of other social networks to build collaborations remains quite problematic.

Second, Dipity is just one service and what we really need is a suite of web applications to integrate to social networks to provide a clearly educational environment. It’s not enough to simply have social networks or web applications. We need them to communicate effectively and to facilitate educational goals and not social networking’s goals. Moreover, we’re missing many web apps that would be valuable to a suite of tools. I might begin building one by adding a writing collaboration site such as Writewith.com or Typewith.me, and I’d definitely want a citation plugin like Zotero. What the academy lacks, however, is an open-source platform to select and integrate a variety of educational tools. Moreover, we don’t even have a way to easily facilitate the creation of new tools that we might want. A virtual, collaborative PDF annotation application would be one tool I’d like to experiment with (although you can do this in Zotero and Google documents). What would you want to have?

Sure, it’s fine to laud new tools when they emerge, but we’re still struggling with ways to organize their entry into the classroom. We can deal for the moment with either being more open about connecting with our students on Facebook or with a growing number of different sites, usernames, and passwords, because those are not insurmountable hurdles. Unfortunately, they both suffer from the same problem–failing to integrate the academic tools we need with the social networks where are students are. The academic tools need to offer such connectivity and be flexible about the ways we network with them. There’s a  market for the creation of powerful education web applications, but I don’t think we’re demanding it loudly or clearly enough. We must identify our needs and then work with those with the skills to build and maintain them.

Some universities have been lucky enough to make steps in this direction by using CMS such as Blackboard. [And individual instructors can now build sites using this technology at coursesites.com, although I have privacy concerns about how it might use our courses there.] These sites attempt to make a private network for course content where there are a variety of collaborative tools. Unfortunately, they cost a lot of money and are plagued by technical issues. I wouldn’t necessarily wish the particular challenge of Blackboard on any teacher who wasn’t at least moderately tech savvy. Cost issues are rampant in web applications, too. Some are free, but others want to charge users for anything more than a free account. How should instructors use pay sites? Should their universities pay for a subscription (when that’s possible) or should students shoulder this as part of the cost of the course (like a textbook)? Issues of cost seem secondary, however, to the primary concern: can these sites and technologies improve the quality of instruction?

Many of us believe they can and will. Yet we all seem to be waiting for those few who have been brave enough to experiment with these new techniques to forge the path for us. This is mistake. Do we need to have the evidence of the benefits in hand before we move forward? I think we can’t wait for the superior tools “out there” in the future, but perhaps by using the imperfect one now we can be better equipped to know what our ideal should be. And if we can’t find experts to help us reach those ideals, perhaps we should follow Jason Heppler’s advice and learn to build things. And yes, I did just end by saying: If you build it, they will come.

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