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Carnegie Mellon's Classroom Salon Encourages Collaborative Critique

Faculty members at Carnegie Mellon University testing a social networking site designed to spur readers' participation in discussions on articles and papers will be taking their experiment into classrooms of a Baltimore university to see how it can help students. So far, thousands of high school and university students have tried out Classroom Salon, which allows a reader to add comments, annotations, and tags to passages in text that can be read by others.

With Salon, students in a course can read assigned texts and then annotate them with online editing tools. These posts, which can be shared with the group, highlight segments that spark discussion, cluster similar comments, and identify which comments are most influential.


Three users explain how Classroom Salon has facilitated discussion about texts they've published on the site.

"Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have captured the attention of young people in a way that blogs and online discussion forums have not," said Ananda Gunawardena, associate teaching professor in the Computer Science Department, who developed the online service with English Professor David Kaufer. "With Classroom Salon, we've tried to capture the sense of connectedness that makes social media sites so appealing, but within a framework that allows groups to explore texts deeply. So it's not just social networking for the sake of socializing but enhancing the student experience as readers and writers."

Now a $250,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges will help the pair of instructors experiment with the program in classes at the University of Baltimore. The team wants to see if the site can help students who are in danger of failing introductory courses or dropping out of college. Next Generation is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Nancy Kaplan, professor and executive director of the School of Information Arts and Technologies at U Baltimore, will combine the service along with materials developed for Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative with traditional classroom instruction to create a new learning model for students who aren't necessarily doing well with standard approaches. The Baltimore school is an open-admission institution where about half of the incoming students fail to graduate within eight years.

"Studies show that people working in teams are able to arrive at better and more creative solutions than people working alone, and this is particularly true in reading and writing tasks. However, that collective effort is difficult to achieve in formal education settings," Kaufer said. "Class time is limited and most online course management systems tend to be driven by the instructor's questions. Classroom Salon, by contrast, makes possible more genuinely student-centered collaborative work."

Kaufer and Gunawardena suggest that at-risk students may benefit the most from Classroom Salon because it can be used to personalize instruction.

The National Science Foundation, incubator Innovation Works, and the Heinz Endowments have supported the development of the software.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication. We inadvertently reported that CMU's NGLC grant was $25,000 when it should have been $250,000. [Last updated May 17, 2011 at 1:36 p.m.] --David Nagel

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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