Social Software in the Classroom

by tom on September 7, 2005

Using social software in the classroom is an interest of mine. What role can social software play in an educational environment? Can it aid learning? Traditional technology employed in the class room – the chalk and board, and more recently PowerPoint have all been focused on aiding the teacher in explaining , and teaching. What is interesting is that some of these technologies not only impact that component but also the researching, collaborating and questioning element.

What follows are my thoughts on functions such tools can play, along with some examples that have been or could be adopted by teachers and students.

1. The Professor’s blog
These seem to be emerging most clearly in the law and economics fields. Brad Delong the noted Berkeley economist often ruminates on issues in between posting course updates. It seems to work not only as a message board for assignments but also provides an insight into off-the-cuff ideas that perhaps don’t deserve or get the Op-Ed treatment in a large paper but might provoke some students to engage more deeply into the subject.

The law world is permeated with blogs – I don’t know the timeline and who was first but with Lawrence Lessig a legal pioneer of open source and Richard Posner, the highly esteemed jurist legitimizing the blogosphere somehow makes it de-rigeur for others.
As to International Affairs. I wonder if Ann-Marie Slaughter’s blogging on America Abroad will do the same for the poli sci world.

2. The Class Blog
This is a development on the much disliked “discussion board” – a technology perhaps considered a percursor to the blog. These tools seem to have been the ultimate “extra credit” device populated by the loud student, feared by the quiet student and probably no less disliked by the Professor who has yet another task. How much this adds to the class beyond providing a storage mechanism for student projects I am not sure. Having participated in creating and operating a class blog, I saw some benefit in that everyone in participating by posting their work or questions relating to it allowed others to know more and perhaps collaborate.

3. The Class Wiki.
Not something I’ve done or seen. For me it is the obvious tool for a classroom. It permits students to collaborate as they learn, build on each others ideas, and form a based of knowledge for others. In a recent edition of the Higher Education Chronicle (subscription required) its use in a poetry seminar was enthusiastically endorsed. Could it work elsewhere

4. Collaborative or Social Tagging
This takes the collaboration idea from the web and moves it into the process of researching itself. A good tool is DELICIOUS Here the student can tag their research publically, exlpore the research of others and perhaps identify thinking he or she might not have come across.

5. IRC – Internet Relay Chat
The use of IRC to create the electronic version of passing notes in class interferes not with research but the teaching moment. Often termed a back-channel it is something that might be feared by the Professor who is concerned with losing the appearance of total engagement of his or her students yet it has apparently been shown to be useful as a learning device. I believe it works as it permits the quiet student who might not want to ask a question publically to a Professor to ask the same on a back-channel to a TA or anther student. The beauty is everyone can see the question and the answer. In wired class rooms it is something to look at instead email or baseball scores. Of course this tool can get out of hand – but much abuse or more likely misuse could be minimized by the recording of the electronic dialogue just in case. Right now it is mostly to be found in tech conferences as Liz Lawley a self-acknowleged back-channel queen ruminates on in this post. My experience with one is that in the situation where a speaker deserves 100% of the audience’s attention – He or she gets it, the back channel goes quiet. Where the speaker asks questions or indicates further research can be found at X, you normally find a particularly dexterous colleague will place that info on the back channel. Where their is some discontent with the opinions being expressed by the speaker a question might be formed by summarizing an exchange of ideas that occurred on the back channel that can be articulated in the “real” class room space by one of the more confident members.

As always, the success of this technology depends on how much it is embraced by the teacher. Without its full integration into the class it can become just another class requirement – an extra task for the student and teacher to fulfil and something that can fall quickly into disuse.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

TraceeNo Gravatar October 22, 2005 at 11:44 am

How about another sixth point: games for learning. Right now I’m at the Games 4 Change conference (
and I’m learning about a whole bunch of interesting games geared toward change, awareness, and learning for many people including children. Food Force ( is an example where children are exposed to an explicit example of what ‘humanitarian’ means… and it’s compelling/fun. Children learn the logistics and reality of the job along with the adventure and magnitude of the impact.


Scott T.No Gravatar November 21, 2005 at 12:21 pm

Another long standing and popular “professor’s blog” is Informed Comment by University of Michigan prof Juan Cole.


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