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'Socializing' the CMS

Looking for ways to bring some of the power of social networkinginto Ye Olde Course Management System? Start here.

'Socializing' the CMS

WEB 2.0 TOOLS like Socialtext are being used to redesign and evolve CMS systems byharnessing the bits and pieces created by learners in support of their own learning.

WHY HAVE SOCIAL NETWORKING sitesproliferated so quickly? While no one knowsfor certain, theories suggest that the popularityof these sites may be linked to features such asflexibility, easy access, spontaneity, and connectedness.Now, innovative faculty and businessleaders are looking for ways to bring someof that openness and spontaneity into ourrather staid and mature course managementsystems.

The challenges of creating new CMS systems or tweaking current ones lead quickly into queries about a) CMS designs, b) the features of social networking apps, and c) the role of attention in learning. With those elements in mind, take a look at how a CMS rooted in a learner-centered learning paradigm might bring some of that social Web 2.0 energy into our learning systems.

Design by Pedagogical 'Era'

The designs of many present course management systems are rooted in the faculty-centric knowledge transmission paradigm that includes the need for grades, faculty "lectures," consistent assessment criteria, and tools for tracking student participation. The designs of these systems naturally reflect the technologies and pedagogies of their particular "design time" or pedagogical era. In fact, many CMS systems note with appropriate pride that their systems originated with faculty designing for faculty.

Introducing new pedagogies . Despite the limitations (as seen from our present vantage point), our current course management systems have served us well in bringing desperately needed conveniences and efficiencies into higher education teaching and learning services. Moreover, these systems have been evolving as well, adding technology enhancements such as podcasting, voice tools, blogs, wikis, and synchronous online classroom applications. The enhancements, however, only give a polite nod to the new pedagogies that promote collaboration, constructivist strategies, content creation by students, and learning communities. This is not surprising because, as Stanford Law (CA) Professor Lawrence Lessig has noted, once a paradigm has been coded and systematized into software, it is almost like law. Designing a new CMS with a learner-centered paradigm as the primary design perspective may mean scrapping the old CMS systems. A CMS with the learner "onstage" involves moving all the faculty-directed communication to a back-bone core, while moving the learner's thinking and communication forward. This redesign could support applications that incorporate what we know about social and cognitive networking, advances in memory and learning, hyper-attention, and current and future technologies.

Designing Around Personal Learning Studios

Many of our current Web 2.0 tools, especially blogs and wikis, have flexible structures and multiple media support, plus linking, commenting, and messaging tools to creatively support the new collaborative and constructivist pedagogies.

Let's first consider the blog : Why is it useful? The blog is somewhat unique in that it is grounded in and "owned" by an individual learner while it invites comment, suggestions, additions, and challenges in one consistent "stream" or place. By capturing ideas as they form and shape within a person's mind (along with capturing the influencers of those ideas), a blog can shed light on our thinking and learning processes, making those processes visible and observable.

The key features of a 'social learning' CMS will be thatlearners are front and center, literally on the stage oflearning, following the direction of and being mentored bythe faculty member who is offstage in the director's chair.

The blog tool also is interesting in that it shares many of the features of personal social networking sites that give individuals a place to express their life experiences. Learners can share their thinking and experiences, including connections to resources, and connections to (and relationships with) other learners and their ideas. Blog and wiki technologies also support linkings between the blogs and other resources, and notifications of when comments and connections have been made. Thus, a learner's blog within a CMS can be a learner's personal mind space, or a "personal learner's studio," or PLS. Collectively, a set of learners' blogs creates a web of the cognitive growth of a course community.

Wikis share many of these same characteristics, but work as collective rather than individual spaces. So wikis can be mind spaces for groups, teams, and whole cohorts.

Another feature of individual learner blogs and group and team wikis is that collectively they can provide important feedback to the faculty mentor. Blogs generally include contextual information: where learners are working, and what else might be going on in their lives. Blogs often include activities and thoughts that otherwise would not be included, and thus reveal influences that would be missed. The faculty member can add feedback/comments in these areas, as well.

Redesigning and Evolving Learning Apps

All of this brings us back to the question: Given the world of new "social" pedagogies and their accompanying technologies, how can we proceed with the redesign and evolution of our current learning systems?

Best-of-breed tools. A strategy being used by some innovators (both individuals and institutions) is to create their own smaller, focused CMS by selecting tools that are "best-of-breed" applications. One tool being used to explore this shift to more focused systems (or to complement a large CMS system) is Socialtext. Socialtext is an enterprise-wide Web 2.0 application represented as capturing "the best features of wikis and blogs, enabling people to form groups flexibly, and build lightweight structure on the fly."

Howard Rheingold, blogger and pioneer in the social implications of computer networking, uses Socialtext for his social media courses at UC-Berkeley. Via the software, his courses are basically streams of communications with his students that enable them to collaborate on course activities. Learners edit text, add comments, hold discussions, and link to other documents, graphics, or internet sites, with few constraints on structure.

According to Ross Mayfield, chairman and president of Socialtext (and well-known blogger), blogs and other Web 2.0 applications are powerful simply by dint of the openness created by their core structure. Mayfield stresses that blogs and wikis demonstrate the "power of mass productivity" for creating significant works that might otherwise never be created. He points out that Wikipedia, for one, is the result of harnessing the "bits and pieces" of willing volunteers. Today, in our higher education teaching and learning environments, the bits and pieces created by learners in support of their own learning can also encourage the conception of significant learning resources-- while supporting successful and desirable learning outcomes, too. In fact, a learning application that can not only support, but promote these types of creative outcomes would be a powerful and desirable learning tool!

Pedagogical Challenges of Attention

Another catalyst for designing a CMS around learner blogs (or something similar) might be the role of attention in learning. Rheingold, for one, has noted in a personal conversation that attention is a fundamental building block for learning. Yet attention is now a scarce commodity. In today's face-to-face classrooms, the "default" action, Rheingold maintains, is for students to have their laptops open and be multitasking, leaving little attention or mind space for the classroom activities. Observing these habits is part of what led him to conclude that students have a "strong sense of entitlement to put their attention where they want it to be." Translation: It's now more difficult than ever to get students to direct their attention where a faculty member thinks it should be.

What type of attention? Part of his challenge, Rheingold adds, is to create classroom events that are "at least as interesting as the rest of the internet." Similarly for the online environments, our challenge is to design systems that fit where students' minds are now and where we want to guide and support their learning toward. Rheingold also refers to the concepts of hyper-attention vs. deep attention discussed in work by K. N. Hayles. Hyperattention is the type of attention many of us exhibit while surfing the web or multitasking, while deep attention is required for sustained concentration and focus (for writing, creating, and complex problem-solving). Hayles' research suggests that it is critical for the new pedagogy to help students develop skills in both attention types, and to be aware of when these approaches might be most appropriate.

It is intriguing to consider how blogs or personal learning environments (PLEs) might be useful in capturing and serving students' various periods of hyper-attention and deep attention. Hayles' work suggests that learners are particularly engaged when they experience feelings of "autonomy, competence, and relatedness," feelings often encouraged by Web 2.0 applications.

Learners are particularly engaged when they experiencefeelings of 'autonomy, competence, andrelatedness'-- feelings often encouraged by Web 2.0 apps.

The Keys to the Social Learning CMS

Clearly, the key features of a "social learning" CMS will be that learners are front and center, literally on the stage of learning, following the direction of and being mentored by the faculty member who is offstage in the director's chair. The faculty instructor creates the core script while the learners improvise and interpret the core script in their individual and group blogs, and in larger group gatherings that are (again) directed and overviewed by the faculty. The learner is not isolated in his blog, but links to and connects to the resources and ideas evolving in fellow learner blogs.

Another key feature of the new "social learning" CMS: a content repository for core concepts and classic discipline resources initially selected by the faculty for the core script. This content repository will also store and link content identified by and generated by the learners in the process of learning. In addition, a "social learning" CMS will have a set of tools on hand that support all the media forms of communication we now expect, such as synchronous collaboration tools, quizzes for practice, and discussion forums or conference areas and the necessary administrative tools.

Many of our current CMS systems do include features that begin to tap into the power of social networking but, right now, these features are more in the background. WebStudy, for example, houses the beginnings of learner blogs in student home pages. Currently, these pages are supporting the building of learning communities while the student forum tools serve as blogs and places for "learner stories."

LEARN MORE: Campus Technology 2008

This month in Boston, Gary Brown (director of the Center forTeaching, Learning, and Technology at Washington State University)will lead an intensive workshop on "Using Worldwarefor Student Success in the Classroom and Beyond." Join us forthe Campus Technology 2008 annual summer conference,July 28-31.

Autonomy, competence, and relatedness.What, then, is on the horizon for our learning systems? Learning environments that encourage feelings of "autonomy, competence, and relatedness" may guide us where we want to go. It is these characteristics of Web 2.0 applications that tap into creative energy and joyful learning. In the end, moving back and forth between individual thinking/reflecting, and group commenting/creation, just may result in the serendipitous conjunction of learning and tools that we're looking for.

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