Using social software in the classroom

Social software consists of web based applications which are generally free. They include blogs, wikis, bookmarking, photo and video sharing, social networking, microblogging, photo editing, mapping and poster making applications.

This posts lists and describes some of these applications, providing examples of how they could be used to make work in the classroom more relevant and engaging. Links to discussion and research papers are provided where possible.

Blogs.

moleskineBlogs are essentially journals which can be used to discuss a wide variety of topics. They cover politics, democracy, life, sexuality, society, travel, oppression, gender issues, freedom,  emancipation and much in between. Blogs are especially useful as reflective tools and have been used in a number of educational environments to get students to think deeply about their practice. Just why blogs are so powerful as writing tools is discussed further in this post. Educational blogging is growing rapidly, with educators using blogs to share ideas , augment face to face teaching  sessions and as e-learning sites. Blogging is used increasingly in classrooms in the UK and USA.

Ideas for using blogs in schools.

A class blog, overseen by the teacher and managed or students, works well in classrooms. Examples of creative writing, artwork, photographs by children, reports on sport, school outings and residentials supported by photographs, can be covered. Be careful not to show photographs of students.

Wikis.

Wikis can be seen as communal blogs. While blogs are largely personal, wikis are designed specifically for collaboration. They have been used to develop major resources like Wikipedia and WikiHow as well as on a smaller scale for sharing resources, collaborative research and as as e-portfolios. While wikis are usually open to the public, they can be private, as in the case of a wiki used as an e-portfolio in an educational institution.

Ideas for using wikis in schools.
Community History.

In this instance a wiki could be used to develop a community history project in a specific location. Older citizens have many memories and a great deal of knowledge about their community as well as artifacts of various sorts. These include old photographs, old tools and  even skills which are no longer be current, such as soap and butter making. A class project of this nature could involve input by children, the local town hall, the Member of Parliament, senior citizens, professional historians, genealogists and other interested persons. Schools  could invite senior citizens for a ‘seniors day’ where they can talk about past times. These talks could be recorded (audio and video) and placed on the wiki together with bios, photographs and favourite sings from bygone times. This kind of work gives children the opportunity to work first hand with information and communication technologies, developing their interviewing, recording, videoing, editing and writing skills.

Inter-school projects.

Wiks are also ideal as tools which enable schools to share information, ideas and practice. Take for example a shared project between schools in the UK, USA, South African and Australia. Sections of the wiki could be used by teachers to share ideas and good practice. Other sections  could be used by pupils to share experiences, photographs, music and different ideas about youth and culture and to do specific projects on curriculum areas, such as ethno-mathematics.

Photosharing.

2305106421While photo-sharing applications like Flickr are normally used for recreational purposes, they have the potential to be used a educational tools. Each class should have a Flickr site, which students can upload their digital pictures to. These could be pictures taken around the school, on class visits, residentials, and elsewhere. They could include pictures and videos of shapes for discussion during mathematics, mood, colour and shape for creative writing. They provide a useful photographic record for the class which could be used, amongst other things, for assessment.

Flickr encourages members to use the Creative Commons copyright convention to provide a clear indication of rights of use. Copyright is a major issue in a society where it is easy to copy and paste. Encouraging students to consider the kinds of copyright limitations they would like to place on their own photographs raised the issue of the nature, reason for and importance of copyright in an environment which is relevant and meaningful for those involved.

Flickr also supports geotagging, a process in which photographs can be linked to a map  to show exactly where they were taken. Geotagging can be used to teach a number of skills, the most obvious of which are mapping skills in geography.

Digital photography has changed the world of photography quite radically. The ‘art’ is open to more people given the development in camera phones and the fact that the cost of shooting is reduced without the cost of film, developing and printing. We also have access to cheap or free digital editing software, making it easy to work creatively by manipulating images. Sites like Flickr also provide a number of other services, including social networking groups and specialised printing services.

YouTube.

YouTube has a comprehensive collection of video material covering a range of interests. Use intelligently, it provides a powerful  resource for both teachers and pupils. Like digital photography, the development of cheap and easy to use video cameras has resulted in an massive increase in the number of ‘resources’ available. Some are dire, some merely poor, but a reasonable number are good, demonstrating just what can be done with a bit of imagination. The resources include music videos of various artists taken over a long period of time.

I was recently introduced to the music of the late Eva Cassidy, which includes a magnificent rendition of Judy Garland’s song  Somewhere over the Rainbow. I do not have any music by Judy Garland but was able to find a video clip of her singing this song. More interestingly, YouTube provided me with a list of other artists who have performed the song, which meant that I was able to listen to renditions by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Tommy Immanuel, Katharine McPhee,  someone called Israel Kamakawiwo’oke, Jason Castro, Doris Day, Connie Talbot (age 6) and Leona Lewis.  It struck me that this was a useful tool for music teachers.

Music Sharing.

iPod TouchThere are a good number of music sharing applications on the web. I use Last.fm, Blip.fm and Spotify, which are quite different from one another. I use Last.fm as a tool for developing personal stats of my listening habits with iTunes. However, it is also a social networking tool which identifies other subscribers  with similar music tastes as possible friends and allows one to highlight forthcoming gigs. It also highlights events in one’s geographical area where favourites will be appearing and recommends other artists similar to those one listens to. Thus, on identifying Eva Cassidy as a favourite of mine, Last.fm recommended that I also listen to Norah Jones, Dianna Krall and Amy Winehouse. A click on Norah Jones takes me to Last’s Norah Jones page and provides me with a list of her songs to listen to. One can also link material from YouTube to Last.fm, where they can watched.

Using this application has enabled me to expand my knowledge of music by introducing me to a range of other artists without my having to risk spending money on music which I might not like. At the same time, it does provide a way to purchase music which one likes by providing links to online music vendors.

Blip.fm is a lot of fun, enabling one to provide an online DJ service. Spotify enables one to stream music to one’s computer. Adverts can be avoided by paying a small fee. This post provides more information.

Microblogging.

Microblogging is particularly popular at the moment. Applications like Twitter an Plurk enable users to send short messages (maximum 140 characters) providing information about what they are doing or thinking, which can be seen by others. Links to stories and resources can be shared and photographs can be stored and shared via Twitterpics.  Small communities of followers (Twitter) friends and fans (Plurk) who can see and respond to each other’s posts develop, providing a unique yet powerful social network. Tweets and Plurks can be forwarded to other social networking sites like Facebook, where they are reflected on one’s profile. A major feature of microblogging is the ability to send short posts quickly and often, which provides a useful conversational stream. These enable one to develop a comprehensive understanding of virtual friends. Microblogging an also be done via mobile / cell phone using SMS, making it an anywhere, anyplace any time application. I recently read a tweet sent from an aircraft flying over the Rockies.There are a growing number of allied applications. In the case of Twitter, they include Twitearth (a location aware application which shows where tweets are coming from on a spinning globe), #hashtags, Twemes and Twitwall, the latter enabling one to write longer posts.

There have been a number of articles about the use of Twitter as a teaching tool, including this one by Steve Wheeler.

Podcasts.

This is a popular leisure activity, with podcasts covering a wide range of subjects. A number of schools in the UK are working with podcasts as a creative medium, and some boast their own ‘radio’ stations. The term podcast has become generic to includes both audio and visual mediums. It is very useful as an alternative platform for story telling, providing an alternative method for those who are not particularly strong as writers in the traditional sense of the word. At the same time, this medium requires and helps develop the skills which underpin ‘writing’, given that it involves a high level of reflection and planning, much of which is noted in some or other form, including storyboarding.  Listen to these podcasts created by students at WAlthsam Forest Academy. Podcasts are increasingly used instead of lectures at universities.

The potential of social software for learning and teaching.

The discussion above suggests that social software has the potential to revolutionise classroom practice. However, in the UK, many social networking sites are blocked to schools because of concerns about inappropriate content, paedophiles, cyber-bullying, stalkers and other (real and imagined) cyber predators.  This makes it impossible for teachers to access sites like YouTube and Flickr and to use content which they know to be appropriate and useful. Educationist Stephen Heppell has commented about a new digital divide which he describes as “far more serious than have or have-not computer ownership. It’s between those children for whom the whole power of new technology is locked down (ie offer limited access to web content and functions) so utterly, that they are left helplessly watching their computer screens, while others are forging ahead unfettered and unrestricted.”

Julie Nightingale points out that “Children need to develop IT literacy – the skills to enable them to operate safely and effectively in order to capitalise on the wealth of knowledge and opportunities offered by the online world. The parent who bans all online activity risks depriving their child of a tool that can enrich their education.”  Parenting expert Dr Tanya Byron speaks in similar vein, and suggests training for parents. Ideas about how to go about this are addressed in this article.

While it is important to keep children safe online, we need to move beyond the scare mongering and conspiracy theories that are quoted as gospel in so many schools and to look at this issue in a logical way which allows us move forward.  The knee-jerk, nanny state, lock-down policy so loved by the current government serves little purpose other than to to negate the effectiveness of the most powerful learning resource we have ever had.

Useful resources on social software.

Lee Lefever has developed a number of useful videos which explain a variety of social networking applications in an easy to follow way. I have provided links to some of these below.

Blogs in Plain English | Wikis in Plain English | Online Photosharing in Plain English | Social Bookmarking in Plain English | Social Media in Plain English | Podcasting in Plain English |

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