NetGeners, loosely joined

A little while ago, the semi-ubiquitous learning management system Blackboard announced it was going 2.0 – in its own proprietary fashion. Lumped under the name BeyondInitiative are a series of properties that are designed to connect users worldwide, across education segments and disciplines, and thus leverage the wisdom of the community for teaching and learning.

The first of these properties launched as It’s built into the basic Blackboard LMS package, and allows for tagging and RSS feed subscription. Course tags are automatically generated for students enrolled in a given course.

But, of course, this worldwide tagging, subscribing, collecting takes place within the world of the Blackboard Learning System(TM):

HOW DO I CREATE MY OWN COLLECTIONS? To create your own bookmark collections, you need a Blackboard Scholar(TM) account. Only users of the Blackboard Learning System(TM) (including former WebCT Vista and CE products) can create an account, and you do so through your Blackboard course or by clicking the Scholar tab within Blackboard if your institution has it enabled.

As an IT manager at a school not hooked into Blackboard World complains, “it seems social in the way that lunch table with the cheerleaders was back in high school – I didn’t get to join that clique either.” Then again, what if your social world were limited to cheerleaders — or any one type of population, however spirited & fascinating?

Even if you’re happy discovering and sharing resources within the horizon of this LMS, what happens to your collections when you’re no longer a Blackboard customer – that is, connected to your participating institution? Limit social software to affiliates of Blackboard institutions, and you may get nothing but a big dying outdoor plant starved for light.


Christian Dalsgaard’s Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems represents a wholly opposite approach, one that argues in an earnest, Danish way for ditching the LMS altogether in favor of an open world of social software. Committed whole-hog to a social constructivist view of learning, Dalsgaard argues that

Students’ self-governed and problem-solving activities are considered the focal point of a learning process. This conception of a learning process means that it is not possible to structure or pre-determine the students’ activities in a learning process – the activities must develop on the basis of the student’s own problem-solving.

This means, in practice, passing out a lot of personal tools to students that they can use to build social networks on their own. Gone are standalone silos, built course by course, delivering assignments and swallowing submissions; taking their place is a frenzy of networking:

1. networks between people working collaboratively
2. networks between people sharing a context, and
3. networks between people sharing a field of interest

As a student swimming in such open networks, I set up my social bookmarking tool, or blog, or wiki, or RSS reader, to subscribe and affiliate, depending on the courses I’m taking, the groups I’m working with, the field I’m tracking. It seems such a Scandinavian claim, somehow:

It is important to stress that the argument for using separate tools instead of an integrated system is a pedagogical argument. The argument is that the learning activities of students cannot be structured or pre-determined. Choice of a variety of tools will better support the required flexibility of open-ended activities than any one integrated system.

The Small Pieces Loosely Joined approach certainly has its appeal. And yet in the debate between centralized and decentralized learning, there are plenty of reasons to sit on that proverbial fence and wonder. Some various questions occurring to me as I ponder the wisdom of leaping into the self-organized learning camp:

  • Do students really want to erode class walls? Is that inviting distraction and incoherence into their lives? I mean, imagine using some kind of university-supplied dashboard to subscribe to 45 different feeds, push blog entries into several different contexts, manage 3 group projects, and maintain a personal profile that will get you into all the right parties. I know it’s fashionable to maintain that this NetGen lives effortlessly and shamelessly online — but might even NetGeners approach classrooms as a place of concentration and respite? Do we owe them a break from constant identity-defining affiliation? And by insisting on a sink-or 2.0 environment, do we alienate those whose background for one reason or another hasn’t led them into active participation in online networks ?
  • If learning is an affiliations and subscription-based, individualized, pull-push business, how do we track or promote a community of use around a certain resource? Let’s say we are building a learning object repository of some kind — one designed to push its riches out into distributed arenas, where they will then be transformed and discussed by independently affiliated groups. Without some sophisticated tracking back, discourse around those objects — indeed, the whole sense of their use — will get scattered to the winds. Put it this way: does social affiliation come at the cost of object- or subject-based discovery? Will the next person to look at that object have any idea of the ways it’s been contextualized somewhere out there, by groups unaffiliated to him?
  • Is it best, sometimes, to enter a learning resource through a front door like anyone else, wide-open to what may be found? Dalsgaard speaks approvingly of the creation of individual profiles that would then shape your searches, “narrow down” what you stumble upon. But such channeled searching may encourage premature hardening of the arteries: college is precisely the time to play with your “profile” in ways you can’t predict. It would be a shame if your immature preferences limited your horizon. And how attentive would a ‘distributive’ university be about proffering effective advice about preference settings?
  • Is it right to dump the messy dilemmas of open access and permissions creations into students’ laps? Just because faculty does an abysmal job, on the whole, of raising awareness and defining good academic practice in this area — it seems unfair, somehow, to make students make all the decisions for themselves, at the age of 18, about what stays private and what circulates. Of course, this is a free country — sort of — and kids make MySpace/Facebook/whatever decisions along these lines on their own. But academic work is another matter: rightly or wrongly, among students there is a deeper sense of revelation, often, about serious work than about drunken pictures. Academic work is often graded on an individual basis, and that only complicates the decisions about what gets published to whom. Those evaluating instructors, seems to me, have a responsibility to weigh in–and perhaps even enforce a standard.

If I were Sophie making a choice, I’d of course toss Blackboard & its ersatz social software away, and take my chances in a distributed world. But let’s hope for third ways, options that promote student-directed learning and university-cultivated resources all at once.

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