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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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September052008

Collaboration in a Crucible

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the ways various social media tools can be used for student collaboration and knowledge production, most of the time as a neutral observer. This week, though, I found myself thrown into the middle of the action as a group of volunteers scrambled to prepare online tools and resources for Hurricane Gustav. The experience has reminded me of the importance of the importance of picking digital tools that best suit the task at hand, while at the same time serving diverse learning styles.

Some of you may know that I’ve been involved in a number of online volunteer activities related to emergency response, including the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. But it’s been a few years since I’ve had to jump into action like that. So when I decided to organize volunteers last weekend first around Hurricane Gustav and now Hanna and Ike, I had to assess as quickly as possible what tools would do the job best.

During previous efforts, much of our work involved citizen journalism - pulling together photos, text and video captured by people caught in the middle of the disasters. During Katrina, volunteers also created a wiki for organizing vast numbers of online resources, plus a technical initiative to make data sets of missing persons be more accessible to the Red Cross.

But three years is a long time on the Internet, so I decided to organize our latest activities around a social network called The Hurricane Information Center, built using the free social networking platform Ning. After setting up the social network with a number of widgets for displaying hurricane-related news and resources, I put out a call on Twitter for volunteers. By the time Gustav reached shore that Monday, more than 500 people had signed on to participate, building a massive wiki, Google Maps overlaid with evacuation shelters and other relevant data, Twitter alerts from the National Hurricane Center, and a number of other resources.

Fortunately, Hurricane Gustav wasn’t the beast we feared it would be, but soon it became apparent that at least two more storms were on their way: Tropical Storm Hanna and a potentially very dangerous Hurricane Ike. Unfortunately, we put together the initial project in such haste that it was structured only for one storm, so we had to scramble and reorganize our wiki and other tools to accommodate multiple storms. And the new storms cover a wider geographic area, adding to the complexity of the project and the number of volunteers needed. As I write this, volunteers are working on collecting information on shelters, evacuation routes, building new Google maps and the like.

This is where things got complicated. Some volunteers have dived in head-first with Ning, creating discussion spaces to organize and coordinate their activities. Others, meanwhile, have preferred to use the discussion pages on the Wiki, since it’s easy to maintain checklists there and edit them collaboratively. In other cases, email discussion lists have popped up, so users don’t have to sign into a webpage to keep the conversation going.

Somehow, we’ve managed to keep this everything and running, despite the use of these distributed tools having the potential to work at cross-purposes. But as I’ve watched the volunteers collaborate, their varying learning styles have become apparent, demonstrating just way everything evolved the way it did. Some haven’t wanted to proceed until they’ve mapped a particular activity visually, for example, while others would rather talk it through in a chatroom. Some take a tinkering approach - try something on-the-fly and fine-tune it, while others prefer to have each step of a project mapped out in detail before proceeding. None of these perspectives is better than another; it’s just the ways different people work best.

All of this has me thinking again about using social media in the classroom. I’ve always encouraged teachers to experiment with a variety of tools, doing projects that might incorporate student generated video, collaboratively written texts, etc. Sticking with one type of project at a time is so much easier to manage, of course, but if you only get to do one or two of these projects during a given school year, do you end up neglecting students who might learn best from using digital media tools in a different way? Is the alternative - creating larger-scale projects that involve an ecosystem of multiple social media tools - just too complex and chaotic to be realistic in a classroom setting?

Honestly, I’m not sure. If students are given a clear goal and can see how the various tools complement each other, then it’s certainly possible for a classroom (or many of them) to work together, divvying up tasks and creating content infinitely more powerful than if just one social media tool had been used.

I’d like to hear from you. For those of you who have done social media projects with your students, have you stuck to one tool at a time or have you blended multiple tools together? Was the outcome what you expected? Would you do it the same way next time? -andy

Filed under : Social Networking

Responses

Hey Andy,

Great article and thanks for the volunteer work that you are doing. In answer to your question as to how others are using social media we are working to integrate social networking technologies into one cohesive platform for use in the the classroom. This will allow students to become creators and not just consumers of the technology. Through the use of well organized curriculum, a solid foundational tool and diverse plugins we think this can be achieved.

Robert from cybernetkids.com

Hi Andy,

I really enjoyed this post. Using Web tools in the classroom is such a new and exciting thing, and teachers must be careful to use them approriately. I am currently working on developing a new blog for NFIB’s Young Entrepreneur Foundation and have found your blog useful in deciding how to build the blog up.

Thanks,
Julie
http://youngentrepreneurfoundation.wordpress.com/

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