header image
Howard Rheingold is a teacher, scholar, technology writer and social media theorist. He co-founded pioneering online communities such as the Well and Electric Minds, has edited publications such as the Whole Earth Review and HotWired, and has authored a number of books on technology, social software and online community (his latest is Smart Mobs). Rheingold teaches courses in Social Media and Virtual Community at Berkeley, Digital Journalism at Stanford, and is visiting Professor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.

Rheingold is a recent winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning competition, and has used the money he received to develop “social media classroom.” This is a free, open source, Drupal-based project that provides teachers with an integrated
  set of social media tools, including “forums, blogs, comment, wiki, chat, social bookmarking, RSS, microblogging, widgets, and video commenting.” Social media classroom exists as a downloadable teaching platform and integrated set of teaching tools, but there is also a hosted version that requires no installation. In the spirit of open source projects everywhere, Rheingold has established forums and a community of practice so that developers, users and teachers can discuss social media classroom, and determine its “provisioning, governance and future evolution.” Rheingold has produced a video describing how it works.

In this interview, Rheingold talks to Chris Werry about the social media classroom project and about open source alternatives to traditional learning management systems. Chris Werry is associate professor of rhetoric and writing studies at San Diego State University.
  CW: My first question concerns the background of the Social Media Classroom project. What led you to build it, and what was some of the thinking behind it?
HR: I'm not a life-long teacher. I've been teaching in classrooms for about five years. I have a daughter who was a senior at Stanford when I first started teaching there, and I was surprised to learn that my students weren't all like my daughter – which is pretty much the stereotype of the web-savvy digital native. In fact, except for a few who knew more than I did, most of them had blank looks on their faces when I said, “I expect you to start blogging next week, and the syllabus is a wiki and I expect you to help edit it.” And I learned that even though they have their laptops, and their Facebook, and their World of Warcraft, a surprisingly small number are really adept in the rhetoric of online media and social media.

So I started thinking about integrating training [in social media] into my teaching, and putting pieces of it together. I used a forum here, and a wiki there, and I started using blogs, and I became attracted to Drupal, as it’s open source and free, and there’s a significant community out there. And it’s now inexpensive enough to get your own server, and not have to deal with the IT dept at your own institution. So I got a server for seven dollars a month, and installed Drupal and began playing with it. But it quickly became clear to me that this was tricky even for someone adventurous, especially for someone who just wants to use social media in education. So I applied to the digital media and learning competition, and was fortunate enough to be one of the first grantees. I spent the money they awarded me on a programmer, who helped me create the social media classroom. The objective was to create something that you didn’t have to be geeky to install - plus a hosted version so you didn’t have to be geeky at all - that included what I felt were the most important tools for classroom use, which were forums, wikis, blogs, social bookmarking and chat (back then, 2 years ago, when I started planning this, chat seemed important, but I see now that we’ll have to move toward something like twitter) – all in a browser based platform with a uniform user interface so that behind one tab there’s a wiki, and behind another there’s a blog, so you can easily switch from one medium to another. So in a nutshell that’s the background to the social media classroom project and where it came from.

Figure 1. Tabs can be used to provide an integrated set of options on every page
  CW: You mention two aspects of social media classroom that seem particularly interesting and novel. First is the way it lowers barriers to access, especially the hosted version, since you don’t even have to install anything to use it. Second is the way it integrates many new media tools into a single, easy-to-use platform. Have you seen results related to these two innovations?
HR:As usual we underestimated the amount of time it would take to do what we wanted to do. So the hosted version wasn’t really available until the middle of the spring semester. So I’m really waiting until September for the 40 or 50 people who have installed hosted instances of the CoLab to actually start using it with classes. So I think the main answers to your questions will come in the fall, when people really start using it with full classes. So far they are just configuring it and playing with it with a few students, but we’re going to have to wait until the fall semester to get a real answer.

CW: The hosted version could make a wonderful model if other universities took it up – I really wish our university had something like this. Or perhaps your university could expand the project -

HR: - well, it’s not hosted at my university. I’m paying for a server out of the award money, and that server will run out some time next spring. I figure that by then either there will be an enthusiastic community that will help me support this, or I will find another grant from somebody somewhere to pay for the hosting. It’s not that expensive, just a couple of hundred dollars a month for 60 or 70 different classrooms using it, so it comes to about five dollars a month per class. I’m hoping that I will find someone who will volunteer to take it over, and that we can move it to somebody’s server somewhere, or that we get another grant to pay for that. But you know none of this would have happened if I wasn’t in the habit of leaping first and looking for a parachute second.   

CW:  There seems to be growing interest in Drupal in the composition and rhetoric community, particularly amongst those who focus on computers and writing. It's usefulness as a tool for publishing, teaching and community organization is being explored in some important new projects.  So it might be worth exploring some ways of collaborating.

HR: I would love that. The socialmediaclassroom.com web site provides the back-story, some scaffolding, some lesson plans and material for teaching about social media. Having worked on this for over a year, and having spent all the money, I will continue to evangelize about this, but I'm hoping that it's going to pick up its own evangelists from other people who are using it.

My particular talents do not include dealing with institutions. In fact I got the message not explicitly, but I think implicitly, that MacArthur [the MacArthur Foundation] was interested in funding what I was doing in order to give people a work-around from their lock-ins with course management systems like Blackboard. We have a situation in many universities where they have a contractual monopoly.

  CW: You've been involved in some really pioneering online communities, for example the Well and Electric Minds. You coined the term “virtual community,” and you’ve done a lot of work describing and theorizing online community. Did that experience inform how you approached the design of social media classroom and the kind of things you have tried to do with it?
HR: Absolutely. For one thing, forums – sometimes known as discussion boards - are not hugely popular. I mean all the attention is on blogs and twitter. But my experience for years, in large groups, having conversations about multiple topics, is that the discussion forum really has a place, particularly if you are going to have a group of people have an ongoing discussion about multiple topics. That fits a class pretty well. And my experience with those led me to be dissatisfied with the kind of forums on systems like Blackboard, or the existing forums for Google. Because I felt that what we had experienced even twenty years ago on the Well, really had not been duplicated by so many of the modern web-based forums.

For example, the system should remember what you have read, and you should be able to just click on a link that says “show me the next unread post.”  And the user ought to be able to control what they see and what they don't see. I may only want to follow 3 discussions in 4 different forums, and put the others in the background. Those really fundamental affordances are missing from a lot of other online media. And of course on the Well, even though it was a long time ago, and it was just text, we had multiple media available; that is, we had the discussion forum, but we could also send each other instant messages when we were online synchronously. And I felt that this combination was important. But as I mentioned before, when I started doing this two years ago, I thought that the synchronous medium, particularly for a back-channel on the classroom, ought to be something like chat. But twitter has become so popular and useful since then, that I am now working with the last of our development funds on incorporating a micro-blogging tool, so that we can have a twitter-like feature as well.

CW: Traditional learning management systems tend to limit interaction, and to some extent enclose classroom communities. Teachers can't usually see or interact with other teachers' classes, students can't usually see or interact much with each other, and they can't really contribute much to the learning spaces that they use. It seems to me that social media classroom, by contrast, is very much a read-write learning space – it's open in terms of its development, but also its design. Has this informed the teaching you’ve done with SMC?

HR: I've taught four courses with it. First of all, you have to respect students' privacy - as a matter of ethics, but also as a matter of policy, you can't force students to reveal their identities to the world, although you can ask them to do that. One of the classes I teach is digital journalism. With journalism students it's useful for them to start learning how to blog in public. On the other hand, there's also real value for a group that only meets for a quarter or a semester and is trying to form community-like bonds, to have private space. So I have a mixture of public and private space. I make my syllabi public, but I keep the student blogs and forums private. One of the affordances that I thought was important to build into social media classroom was the access control tab that you get when you edit any page. It gives the creator of a page, whether it's a forum post or a wiki page or a blog comment the option to make it available - or not - to the outside world. I think writing in public is not only a tremendous learning exercise, but also an important introduction to the way the social media world works.

CW: It seems to me that this fine-grained control that you give teachers and students is another innovative aspect of social media classroom --

HR: -- Many people have asked me if they can participate in my social media classes, and I've replied that I don't think we're ready for this yet. But eventually I think it would be nice to try that, to have others join in. One thing that we've added, that you may have noticed in the forums, is video comments. I'm looking forward to seeing how that works with students as well - I think it might be a great way to getting better acquainted faster.

CW: There's a conversation taking place in rhetoric and composition regarding how to build broader, more sustained support for open source alternatives, and I think social media classroom could be a significant part of that conversation. How do you see open source technologies impacting higher education more generally - are there areas that you think are particularly interesting, and are there particular challenges or obstacles you feel need to be addressed?

HR: One of the opportunities is, of course, escape from the lock-in of expensive and somewhat obsolete systems like Blackboard, as well as access to the community that evolves the software. A community of open-source programmers can also evolve software much more rapidly than proprietary institutions can. So I think that’s important.

Also, for so much of the world, where people are gaining internet access, the availability of free software and access to a support community is a real plus. An obvious obstacle is that great programmers are not necessarily even competent user interface designers. The usability of open source software sometimes leaves something to be desired. There needs to be more user interface volunteers in this ecosystem, in order to make things easier not just for users, but for teachers as well.

  CW: I have a couple of questions about your decision to build social media classroom using the drupal publishing platform. First, it seems to me that exposure to drupal may help add relevance to the experience of students in that they are learning in, and gaining familiarity with, an online environment that has widespread use outside the university – in all kinds of areas, from community organization, to corporate web sites, to journalism and government. And this contrasts with traditional learning management systems that students will never again encounter in any aspect of their lives. Do you think this adds value to students’ experience? And second, does using social media classroom, which is itself an example of remixing, help cultivate a kind of reflexivity, or help students reflect on the interfaces and tools they use?
HR: They are certainly not shy in complaining about things that don’t work for them. One of the things that prompted the social media classroom was the student complaint, “not only are you teaching in a new way, but we’ve go to learn all of these new media, and there’s a different interface for the wiki, and a different sign in for the forums.” So the uniform user interface [we developed] was a direct response to that feedback. On the second issue [transfer of skills] -  I think of social media classroom as an on-ramp to the world of web 2.0. If you’re confused by the way the online world mostly does things, which is to adopt free applications from many different sources, then if you learn how these work in this kind of training-wheels environment, you can go on to roll your own. So that’s the hypothesis. Having just started, I don’t yet know how this will work in the future for them. But my assumption is that having learned to use a forum, a blog, a wiki, etc., in a controlled environment, they’ll be able to use a web service with a different user-interface much more easily.

CW: Do you notice any patterns in terms of the people who have adopted SMC so far – for example, in the kind of institutions or disciplines they come from, the pedagogies they use, etc.?

HR: They have been coming from all over - all kinds of institutions, large and small, from all over the world. So far I’m really pleased with the mix.

CW: Do you plan on doing any studies of social media classroom – of its usage, effectiveness, etc., partly to gather information on it, but perhaps also to get more support and funding in the future?

HR: I’m hoping that the community forums will begin taking up some of these issues. I don’t intend for this to be my full time job, although I intend to be around to evangelize and support it part of the time.

CW: This raises a related issue, namely that of institutional support. It seems to me that you’ve done a fabulous job of building support for SMC “organically,” of getting the word out and building interest from a diverse group of educators. But does it also need disciplinary or institutional support, partly to ensure funding and longevity, but also to build legitimacy. Going back to Blackboard, for a moment - one of the issues I see is the very powerful institutional legitimacy it has acquired. Many of the teachers where I work teach at several different institutions, and it is just expected that they will use Blackboard, making alternatives difficult. 

HR: That’s an argument in my mind, and in the mind of many others, for totally avoiding institutional support, and going rogue, as they call it. If Blackboard was really about an evolving platform to support the needs of educators, then why do they have this monopolistic lock-in, and why are they intimidating and suing other people? My problem with institutions is that they’re sort of like the mafia, they make these deals which are not necessarily about the students…you know, if we can’t change the institutions, let’s just move around them…

CW:…But here’s what occurs to me, and it’s a half-formed thought. If teachers could say, when faced with the expectation that they should use a traditional learning management system, that an alternative system was supported by a disciplinary group - or imagine, for example, that the Writing Program Administrators’ organization did a study of social media classroom and showed that it supports pedagogies considered important for teaching writing - perhaps that would build support and legitimacy, and provide some cover for people interested in alternatives?

HR: Well, I leave that to others - maybe you? My strategy when introducing innovations to institutions is not to push the boulder up the hill, and sell the skeptics, but to find the enthusiasts and support them, and hope that their success will attract attention.

CW: That makes a lot of sense, and is probably less frustrating and painful than the alternative – although I’d like to think both are possible. And maybe they are?

HR: I agree. But – not my job! Even if I wanted to do it, I’m not sure I’m the person you’d want to hire to do it.

CW: Are there lessons or models that can be taken from the open source movement and applied to higher education? For example, Lawrence Lessig uses metaphors and models from the open source movement, and from web 2.0, and applies them to political reforms he’d like to see - he talks of “open source government,” and “read-write” democracy. Do you think there are models or lessons that can be taken from the open source movement and applied to higher education?

HR: That’s a good question – I don’t know whether I have the answer to that - I’d have to think about that some more.

CW: To come back to something I hinted at before, but didn’t state well: composition teachers often seek to cultivate reflexivity, to get students to critically reflect on the interfaces and tools they use to write – to look “at” well as “through” technologies. It seems to me that SMC may be well-positioned to help cultivate such a sensibility. For example, with traditional learning management systems you can’t really pull the curtain back and examine how they work. Or at least one’s ability to do so is limited. In contrast, with social media classroom you really can do this, and you can point to some of the applications of it in the world – you can say, “that’s a drupal-based site there, and it’s like and unlike our class site in the following ways.” Is that something that you see as one of the values of SMC?

HR: Yes, one of the reasons I chose the drupal community was in the hope that some of the open source spirit would infuse the classroom.

CW: You have a lot of experience building, writing about and participating in online communities. But most of that involved communities outside higher education. Have you found that there are particular challenges in trying to cultivate community in a classroom?

HR: The main problem in the classroom is that you have a quarter, which is 10 weeks, or a semester, which is 15 weeks; to form a community in that period of time is very difficult; although you can – it’s intensive.




social media classroom Howard Rheingold's home page Howard Rheingold's video log Howard Rheingold's Digital Journalism Class Rheingold's Virtual Community Class