The advent of the internet, and in particular what we are calling Web 2.0, has so significantly changed our relationship to information and personal learning opportunities outside of formal education that we’re beginning to see a set of software tools emerge that are profoundly altering both learning processes and outcomes. These tools allow us to see the start of a radical evolution in education that will bring such dramatic changes that we’ll soon be at a point where we won’t be able to imagine education without them.
What makes this coming transformation both so fascinating and so compellingly logical is the way in which the web has changed our personal learning opportunities. In particular, when we started to participate in creating—not just accessing—information, something amazing happened. A world emerged in which “we” (or people like us) were creators. We could start a blog; we could upload and share photos and videos; we could even build an encyclopedia.
The technology that took this amazing change and multiplied it tenfold is an underlying theme of this article, which will range across social networking, Web 2.0, the emergence of educational networking, and what I see as the first real area of significant adoption for educational networking: professional development for educators. I’d also like to briefly discuss Elluminate’s LearnCentral offering, a significant new platform for professional development in education that I am involved in.
Social and Educational Networking
It’s important to acknowledge up front that, while the phrase “social networking” has a history that predates the internet, for most people the term retains a specific connotation of a certain kind of website—MySpace, Facebook, and the like. Social networking sites have worried many educators (and parents) because they often bring with them outcomes that are not positive: narcissism, gossip, wasted time, “friending,” hurt feelings, ruined reputations, and sometimes unsavory, even dangerous, activities. It seems likely that the phrase “social networking” carries so much baggage that it would actually impede its productive use in the context of education.
For many people, then, it may come as a surprise, that there is actually nothing inherently negative about the technology that’s the basis for social networking. Social networking sites, at their core, are just aggregations of a set of Web 2.0 building blocks—forums, directories, “friending,” chat, etc. Just as you can build either a casino or a school with basic construction materials, the materials are not the issue. It’s the end use for which they are assembled and fitted. The first sites that were constructed using Web 2.0 building blocks were, as often as not, “casino-like,” leading to the impression that social networking was a time waster at best, and an unsafe place to be at worst.
But there’s no reason why the same building blocks that built those social networking “casinos” can’t be used to create schools, libraries, meeting halls, or teachers’ lounges, which is exactly what we’re starting to see happen today. It’s even arguable that these building blocks are more effective as educational tools than as social ones. Therefore, to help alleviate any confusion or negative preconception, in this article I’ll use the term “educational networking” instead of social networking when I’m specifically calling out the educational value and use of Web 2.0 technology.
The other reason I’ll use the phrase “educational networking” is that the hybrid form of social networking that is being built for education is actually different than the direction that public “social networks” are likely to take. The combination of social networking technologies with the learning tools of online teaching platforms will create a distinct use of technology that merits its own designation.
Web 2.0: A Perfect Fit for Educators
Social and educational networking both come to us courtesy of Web 2.0. For a number of reasons, I believe that Web 2.0 is the perfect environment for educators, which is why forward-thinking school systems and academic institutions are working hard to make it a part of their practices. This new web is going to dramatically alter the 21st-century landscape in education, shaping how students approach learning, how educators approach teaching, and, increasingly, how educators are interacting with, and learning from, each other.
Web 2.0 plays to the strengths of educators—curiosity and a love of learning—by opening the doors to collaboration and participation. It encourages and facilitates the natural desire to share what you know and to learn from your colleagues. And fully embracing Web 2.0 is a logical extension of the attempts that so many educators have made to use the internet to connect, collaborate, and create since the first days of bulletin boards and listservs. So for many educators, it’s an incredibly exciting time. But it may also be confusing and even intimidating to a larger number.
Web 2.0: An Information Revolution
Web 2.0 has moved the internet from our traditional one-way information flow to a two-way “conversation” in which the Three R’s have been supplanted by the Three C’s: Contributing, Collaborating, Creating, through mediums such as blogs, wikis, and Twittering.
Certainly, Web 2.0 has opened the flood gate of a dam on creativity that we weren’t even fully aware existed, and the explosion of content creation is an indication of the latent energy that’s released when anyone and everyone is able to participate more actively in the different spheres of their lives.
Yet for many educators, because of privacy, professional, and boundary concerns, there was an understandable and even appropriate inclination to view the social networking that Web 2.0 fostered with skepticism. These concerns masked the amazing potential that social networking technologies had to offer, and we’ve only recently started to get over them as the educational networking success stories begin to emerge. Now, educational networks are, bar none, the most likely web platform for facilitating Contributing, Collaborating, and Creating in the meaningful way that educators have always looked for.
Using Web 2.0 for Educational Networking: Ning and Classroom 2.0
Many readers, no doubt, have some familiarity with Ning and/or with Classroom 2.0, the educational network I founded. Ning began life as a general purpose development platform for web services. But in early 2007, it changed its model to focus on allowing users to start their own social networks. Shortly after this, I started Classroom 2.0, a social network for educators interested in the use of Web 2.0 in education. In fact, the goal of Classroom 2.0 was to provide educators themselves with an ability to quickly see how personally transformative it could be to build or be a part of a personal learning network online.
Classroom 2.0 began to blossom fast, and the excitement it engendered was very real. (The network has grown to tens of thousands of members.) Based on the success of Classroom 2.0, Ning brought me on to evangelize the educational use of its product, which I did for 18 months. I believe that this helped to promote a rapid expansion in the use of Ning for educational purposes, and there are currently hundreds upon hundreds of vibrant educational networks on Ning.
The creativity, the willingness to reach out for help, the desire to share that I see in these other networks and in Classroom 2.0 are awe-inspiring, and they are in large part of the basis for my belief that educational networking is the face of the future. Nowhere, I think, will it be more inherently valuable for education than in the realm of professional development.
24/7 Professional Development
Through educational networking, educators are able to have a 24/7 online experience not unlike the rich connecting and sharing that have typically been reserved for special-interest conferences—except that geography is no longer a constraint, the critical mass of interest needed can be much lower, and the time and cost to participate (both for the teacher and the school) are both affordable. With educational networking, educators can participate in a conference at their own time, place, and pace. As long as they have access to the internet, they’re there.
With educational networking too, there’s a higher probability of the following:
1. Educators will be able to participate in the events that will actually make a difference for them, their students, and their institutions.
2. Continuous learning can be encouraged and accomplished.
3. Staff members or administrators who are prohibited by law or policy from leaving their facility (as is often the case for principals) can still participate in a robust set of professional development opportunities.
4. Changing regulations, requirements, standards, and best practices can be maintained.
5. Educators will be able to meet the demands for customized approaches that meet the specific needs and learning styles of all of their students.
Given the costs of organizing and managing professional development meetings, you’re not likely to hold regular meetings around very specific topic areas that may only attract a handful to an event, yet that may be of vital interest and importance to the educators involved in those areas.
Once professional development activities can be conducted online and do not require many of the hard costs associated with physical events, discussions or meetings on more and more “specialty” curricular topics are going to take place, to the great benefit of both educators and their students.
Other benefits to educational networks have been identified by those who use them. Educational networks enable positive peer support and provide much needed encouragement. They keep teacher practices up-to-date, increase teaching time (versus going off-site for professional development classes), and promote job satisfaction. In addition to the professional development opportunities from educational networking, we can also expect to see very tangible benefit to the profession of teaching as well, especially with new educators. In a profession that can be profoundly isolating and lonely even though teachers are in the midst of interacting with students all day, educational networking holds a significant key to improving opportunities to find both emotional support and support for exploring new ideas. Educational networking may, thus, prove crucial to teacher retention and recruitment strategies, especially those aimed at newly minted teachers, who are already used to social networking and its promise of continuous connection.
The power of educational networking to truly make a difference should help to bring about an entirely new world when it comes to professional development.
By now, I hope I’ve laid the groundwork for seeing the potential to make educational networking an important environment for professional development. The next step is to recognize that the social networking tools that we have been morphing into educational networking have not specifically been designed for this use. Now it’s time to start adding new technologies and tools that speak specifically to the needs of educators. From my own direct experiences with Classroom 2.0 and other networks, it has been clear that there are several missing pieces in social networking that are needed for robust educational networking. I want to focus on three in particular, as they provide the greatest opportunity for immediate results and have been the focus of the development work I’ve been involved in on LearnCentral, a social learning network where educators can connect with colleagues, share content, build online portfolios, access resources, attend events, and collaborate in real time. LearnCentral is sponsored by Elluminate, where I serve as the social learning consultant. The missing pieces that LearnCentral fills in are listed here:
1. The ability to collaborate with others synchronously as well as asynchronously
2. The ability to create a personal profile built specifically around educational and curricular specialties and interests, making it easy to find other people, resources, events, and discussions around that same categorization scheme
3. The ability to easily find store, manage, and share content
These three features now begin to define educational networking separately from social networking and are at the heart of LearnCentral. So let’s talk a bit more about them.
First, collaborating in real time. One of the most powerful aspects of professional development is the give and take among participants—the delightful moment when several hands are raised at once by those wanting to make a point, when people care so intently about what someone else is saying that the ideas start flowing like mad or when the side conversations spill out into the hallways during the break. While the asynchronous nature of educational networking is important (how much easier it is to go back and review materials, and mull them over at your own pace, when they’re continuously accessible online), when asynchronous learning is combined with synchronous tools, such as the web conferencing technology that is part of LearnCentral, educators can have the best of both worlds: the immediacy and connections of in-person events with the sustained discussions that take place over time.
Second, the ability to easily search out and connect with those who share common needs and interests. As much as I love my Classroom 2.0 network, it’s very hard to actually search for another educator through it. With generic social networking tools applied to education, it is possible to search for and find forums and other resources that appeal to like-minded individuals or to put queries out there in hopes that someone will respond. But these are not especially effective at really finding those educators with specifically common interests. By allowing individuals to categorize themselves and their contributions in an educational framework, LearnCentral supports both proactive searching by topic, geography, and teaching level, as well as helping to surface these connections regularly to the user for more serendipitous connecting.
Third, today’s educational networking sites have a hit-or-miss approach to organizing and sharing content. LearnCentral’s “portfolio” system is built around making it possible to store lesson plans, resource documents, photos, videos, presentations, or any other object in such a way that, first, it’s a content filing system for an individual educator and, second, that it’s a way to make content available for others to use by also specifying the level of sharing (through the Creative Commons licensing system) that is allowed for that content. Those contributing content resources can categorize them by subject area and grade applicability and can tag them for cross-search purposes.
All of these features of LearnCentral combine to create a network that utilizes the best features from the generic social networking sites and clearly shift the direction of development in a way that creates and defines the new model of educational networking. While educational networking has potential in a broad range of arenas, the most immediate and powerful use we see for the new LearnCentral platform is both formal and informal professional development.
See You Online!
One of the amazing impacts of Web 2.0 for me is watching longtime educators have their own personal learning transformed by the new tools of web participation—especially as they discover professional development venues on the web that help to release the inclination to help others that so often prompted them to become teachers to begin with. Their own experiences with Web 2.0 in this regard dramatically shape new expectations for the types of opportunities they are going to take part in—and the types of opportunities they will provide for their students.
As noted, where we have seen immediate, and overwhelmingly positive, use of educational networking is in the professional development activities of educators, which has largely informed the writing of this article. Over time, educational networking will have many uses in and out of the classroom, uses that involve educators, students, parents, and others within the community.
As we move through the 21st century, it’s essential that our educators themselves experience the Web 2.0 world in order to understand the cultural impact that it’s having. Web 2.0, after all, is the lens through which their students will approach learning. Our most important technological tools reshape our expectations and change what’s possible, and this is especially true of Web 2.0. I don’t need a car, for example, to travel; I can walk. But when I have a car, it opens a new and exciting set of possibilities for me to magnify my travel potential. We don’t have to be in the Web 2.0 world for the educational experiences to take place. But when we’re there, the scope of what we can accomplish is greatly magnified. If we’re serious about “No Teacher Left Behind,” we have to be serious about the role that the internet will play—and ensure that our educators are fully versed in Web 2.0.
Educational networking is allowing educators to learn things, which traditional professional development has always afforded them, and to learn about Web 2.0, which is having such a profound impact on learning in the 21st century. LearnCentral is providing educators with the benefits (and excitement) of informal networking, along with that ability for organizations to formalize their approach to online professional development.
I hope I’ve held your attention long enough to have given you a glimpse of the tremendous opportunities ahead through educational networking. Should you have any ideas or questions, I hope you’ll get in touch with me. I encourage all of you to sign up for LearnCentral at www.learncentral.org.
Thanks, and see you online!
Steve Hargadon is Elluminate's Social Learning Consultant and the founder of the Classroom 2.0 social network (www.classroom20.com). He runs the Open Source Pavilion and speaker series for the North-American NECC, CUE, and T+L edtech shows, organizes the annual EduBloggerCon, and holds a series of free workshops (Classroom 2.0 LIVE) around the United States to help in-the-trenches educators learn about the uses of Web 2.0 in the classroom. He is also a blogger at www.stevehargadon.com and a columnist for School Library Journal. He has consulted for PBS, Intel, Ning, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, CoSN, and others on educational technology and specifically on social networking. His interview series can be found at www.learncentral.org, www.Conversations.net, and www.EdTechLive.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Web 2.0 Building Blocks
Here’s a brief roundup of the features, or tools, that comprise Web 2.0 and that are commonly found in social and educational networks. By looking at them within the context of education, their usefulness for teaching and learning are pretty dramatically apparent.
Profile Page: In educational networking, the profile page is a purposeful representation of who you are that provides tangible and identifiable benefits to professional connecting. Not only does the profile page fulfill some of the tasks that a resume would, but it also provides a portal view to the content you’ve created or participated in on the network, becoming a dynamic e-portfolio.
Friending: While “friending” can have a terrible connotation, if you think “colleague,” this will quickly fall away. Now you have professional colleagues, and, if it’s not quite the same as eating lunch with your fellow teachers each day in the teachers’ lounge, your online colleagues may be more likely to share your direct interests and understand your specific challenges.
Forums: One of the great features that Ning networks strengthened was the discussion forum, through which discussions could take place over time (asynchronously) and were threaded (making them easy to read and follow). Having conversations gathered in one place where they’re easy to read and search takes discussion forums to a new level and often makes them the heart of an educational network.
Photo/Video/Audio/Document Uploading: The tools for uploading “resources” such as photos, videos, and documents take on new meaning in educational networking, enabling the kind of sharing that is so powerfully ingrained into the teaching profession. Uploading a lesson plan and tagging it so it can be easily found by others provides a platform for great collaboration.
Directory: While not formally called “directories,” in many networks, the combination of member listings with the ability to search for members based on their profile information helps members find each other and create a “colleague” relationship.
Event Calendars: Using this tool for educational purposes (e.g., highlighting professional development events or valuable broadcasts) makes an events module of significant value to an educational network.
Groups: Groups (smaller versions of networks) not only provide a way for existing affiliations or associations to expand, they also allow for new connections to be created, grown, and sustained around more thinly sliced interest areas, timely events, topical issues, ad-hoc projects, and much more.
Chat: Chat can provide a surprisingly meaningful way to use informal communication to get to know someone a thousand miles away. In a network made up largely of asynchronous communication tools, it provides the opportunity for immediate, synchronous responses and dialogue.