getting students off of Maggie's farm

I stumbled across an interesting cross-blog conversation about Social Media Classroom and similar Learning Management Systems (LMS's). I have been, and continue to be, a strong and vocal supporter of Social Media Classroom (SMC), Howard Rheingold's Drupal-based, open-source educational technology intended to support participatory practices in formal learning settings.

Most significantly for me, it was participation in SMC that led to my passion for all things open-source. This is not a trivial thing: If participation in an LMS fosters a disposition toward increased openness, collaboration, and sharing, then it's clearly putting its money where its mouth is.

Blogger and computer scientist Andre Malan writes that he recently took SMC for a spin around the block and found it impressive in some ways and lacking in others. He writes:

  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.

D'Arcy Norman, writing from the University of Calgary, responded to the above points first in the comments section and then in a full post on his own blog. Norman doesn't have a problem with fostering student engagement within "walled gardens"--he writes:
The goal isn’t to publish content to the open internet. The goal is to engage students, in creation, discussion, and reflection. If they need a walled garden to do that effectively (and there are several excellent reasons for needing privacy for a community) then so be it. If they’d like to do it in the open, that’s just a checkbox on a settings page.

And, in the most spectacular finish to a post I've so far read anywhere, by anyone, Norman ends with this:
That option isn’t available for users of The Big Commercial LMS Platform. If it’s in an LMS, it’s closed. End of discussion. And people only gain experience in using the LMS, in farming for Maggie.

Norman is right and he's wrong. A closed LMS that lacks the capacity for open participation in a larger community turns learners into day laborers reduced to carting bushels of cognitive work from the fields to the barn and taking home only what they can hide away in their pockets. But in many ways, a "walled garden" isn't much better. Not to overstretch the metaphors here, but legend has it that Prince Siddhartha spent his youth inside of a walled garden. The kind of participation his surroundings supported was absolutely voluntary, and probably felt authentic, in the main. But when he left the garden, everything he knew to be true was true no longer.

One of the big failings of educational institutions is that they too often offer a beautiful walled garden. Inside the garden, food is abundant, and everybody eats equally well. (Well, that depends on the garden you've walked into, how you got there, how long you can stay, and whether you have comparable walled garden experience in your past.)

Sure, participation in a closed system engages students "in creation, discussion, and reflection." This is, I agree, a necessary component of higher education. But I disagree with Norman that this type of participation is sufficient. In fact, creation, discussion and reflection are only useful learning experiences insofar as they support learners' ability and willingness to engage with wider, more public, and less protected communities of practice. This means that publishing content on the open internet should--indeed, must--be a key curricular element. The internet isn't a garden; it's an ecosystem complete with backlots, busted glass, some ragged sunflowers and lots of rich material ripe for harvesting--but only if you've learned what it takes to grow and then harvest that material.


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