Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Social Networking as Professional Development

Will Richardson has written:"I've learned more in my four-plus years as a blogger than I have in all my years of formal education." He's not talking about blogging as a teaching tool--he's talking about blogging as a personal and professional development tool. And he's saying that it's been a better learning tool than all his formal schooling. How could that be?

It's because, for Will and many others of us, to blog is to be engaged in really meaningful conversations about education. Indeed, the tools of Web 2.0 (or the "read/write Web") often trigger a personal learning renaissance. I now engage daily with great thinkers as I use the tools of Web 2.0 to read, to listen, to interview, and then to blog myself.

But let's face the reality of talking about the value of blogging to educators. It's not easy. Most educators are far too busy to squeeze in another hour (or more) to each workday to 1) learn how set up a blog, 2) start writing in it, 3) comment on others blogs, 4) learn how to track the conversations that take place where they comment, and then 5) "speak to the empty room" for six months before their audience builds up. So, is there an easier way to experience the value of blogging and the read/write web? The answer is yes, and it's coming from somewhere I never expected it to: a social networking site.

I've watched the MySpace phenomenon, and have even gotten an account there--and while I understand the appeal of creation and connection that it provides, just haven't felt it was worth any time for me (the unsolicited "friendship" invitations from immodestly-dressed young women to this 45-year-old male are, let's face it, not believable and just plain creepy). When Facebook opened its doors to the general public, and because I have a daughter in college, I got an account to see what it was all about. I have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised. Facebook has none of the garish ads that make MySpace so busy, and the ability to connect socially in appropriate ways with total transparency is actually kind of comforting to me as a parent (I know more about what my kids are doing because of it than I did before). But as good as Facebook is for social interaction, it really isn't that great at facilitating an in-depth dialog. I started and joined several Facebook "groups," but there don't have any good tools for engaged conversations, and mostly the feedback I've seen from other participants is: "OK, I'm here. Now what?"

But then I tried Ning.

Co-founded by Marc Andreessen (of Netscape fame), Ning has evolved into a fascinating kind of "do-it-yourself" social networking site that probably didn't make sense to anybody except those working on it, but now that it is out is something of a "wow" experience. It could be, for educators and students, the perfect way to test out the waters of Web 2.0 quickly and easily. Ning's social networking platform introduces you to some of the most engaging aspects of the read/write web: social networking (of course), user profiles, blogging, forums, photo and video sharing, and even RSS!

Encouraged by a "Library 2.0" network that had been started at Ning (and that currently has over 700 members), I created a "Classroom 2.0" social network in a just few hours last Friday. While I would encourage you to join Classroom 2.0 just to see how it works and to network with some great folks who are talking about the read/write web in the classroom, here's the best part: you can now create your own social network. A class, a school, a district, a region, or any other group you care about can now be introduced to the benefits of engaged dialog on the web with very little work and safely. Profiles can be anonymous, and both the network creator and each user can opt to approve content and comments before they are posted. All that we have to do to make this completely student-friendly is to get Ning to allow educators to eliminate the default Google ads for bikini/singles stuff. (For $20/month you can turn the ads off, but they can do better than that for educators. I'm emailing them a copy of this post.)

So if you've been looking for an easier way to be part of the Web 2.0 revolution, give Ning a shot. See you there!