I’m using Social Media Classroom for my Digital Libraries course this semester. Why? Why not. Yes, it’s a new tool to learn, my students aren’t familiar with it, so it will be a learning curve for all of us. But one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have a need to always be doing something new (a personality trait that got me into some trouble as a younger man, though probably also in part what pushed me into this profession), and I love shiny new toys. I started participating in ITS’ now-interminable Sakai pilot in its second semester — and as much as I like Sakai, the novelty has worn off for me, so I’ve been dabbling in other tools. Paul and I used Ning for our Library 2.0 course. I used Blogger and Google Groups for my undergrad Retrieving and Analyzing Information course one semester. Plus, in the context of my Digital Libraries course, a new tool provides an opening for a discussion of application architecture and design. And, as an aside, Sakai does not provide that opening in quite the same way — it might have a few semesters ago, but not any more. I asked my DL students on the first day of class how many of them had used Blackboard and Sakai: all of them had used Blackboard, and more than half had used Sakai. There are several instructors using Sakai in SILS — I know of 2 other faculty members, and 4 adjuncts or PhD students — but still, I found that interesting.
So anyway, I’m using SMC for my DL course. I’ve had a hosted version created, rather than setting up an install — though Don has started an install on ibiblio, and Paul and I have discussed doing our own SMC site hosting on ibiblio in the future, if this semester goes well. The course site is here, incidentally.
Yvonne told me that some of her colleagues would be interested in hearing about SMC, so she convinced me to blog about my experiences and thoughts on using it. So this is the first of what I plan as an ongoing series of posts throughout this semester on the subject.
Here are my first impressions. SMC basically contains 5 tools: a wiki, a discussion forum, a blog, a chat environment, and a social bookmark tool. The wiki is, well, a wiki, and basically what you’d expect, except that it uses a rich text editor rather that the more familiar (to me) MediaWiki syntax. That took some getting used to. The discussion forum is also about what you’d expect: I have the ability to create multiple fora, which I have done for various aspects of the course. The blog is also about what you’d expect in a blog: create posts, comment, etc. There is a “my blog” feature of the blog, which lists all of the posts I created — since so far I’m the only one who has posted anything to SMC, I’m not sure if there’s more to that feature. Stay tuned for more on that. The chat environment allows multiple chatrooms to be set up. I’m not very fond of chat as a tool — I’m a light IM user; I only IM with Yvonne with any regularity — so I probably won’t use that tool much. I will encourage the students to use it for group meetings, though. I may set up chat office hours if the students want it. Finally the social bookmark tool is like Delicious, in that it has fields for title, URL, abstract, and tags. In fact, most things can be tagged: wiki pages, blog posts, social bookmarks. Only chatrooms and forum posts can’t be tagged — though that latter surprises me a bit, and I wonder if I’m missing something.
The only thing I want to add at this point is that SMC is remarkably feature-rich. I suppose this should not come as a surprise, since it’s built on Drupal. I don’t know much about Drupal, but my understanding is that just about everything is configurable. What’s interesting as a design choice for SMC is that Rheingold et al. chose to leave all of the configurability visible. To be fair, most components of SMC have the minimum required shown by default — the social bookmark tool, for example, shows fields for URL, title, description, tags, and log message — and the rest of the available options are folded up. But they’re there. It took me some time to figure out how to filter what I was seeing, and what to pay attention to. Given Howard Rheingold’s concern with attention literacy, that’s either cruelly ironic, or as it should be.