Monday, March 22, 2010

Here Comes the Educators: Experiences of early members of Classroom 2.0

I am currently taking a course at The Berkman Center for Internet and Society. As part of the course, I had to write an 8-10 page research paper. A draft of my paper is published below. I would like to thank everyone who helped me with my research. If you have some time to take a look, I welcome your feedback. (You can find all of the responses to my survey here.)

Over the course of a typical school day, most classroom teachers spend 80% of their time interacting with an average of 17 students and no other adults. While educators may be accustomed to working this way, Online social networks provide the opportunity for teachers to reach outside of their small communities and connect with other educators around the world. In March of 2007, when Steve Hargadon created Classroom 2.0 on the Ning platform, there were few opportunities for these kinds of connections. Facebook and MySpace were primarily networks for teenagers and College students, and Twitter was in its infancy. Educators were beginning to dabble with Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. Several prominent ed-tech bloggers were espousing the benefits of these tools for the success of students in the 21st century. Many teachers were reading these blogs, some were blogging themselves, but there was yet to be a community out there for newcomers to talk to each other, ask for advice and seek support for their explorations of this new territory.

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky describes three essential elements for the success of a social network, “a successful fusion of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.” (page 260) Classroom 2.0 had all three of these. It promised to be a place for beginners to explore the possibilities of using collaborative tools in the classroom. The Ning tool allowed for a space that could be limited to members with a specific interest in education. In his March 24th, 2007 blog post titled “The Value of a Social Network?” Steve Hargadon, the founder of Classroom 2.0 on Ning, identified 6 key elements that made Ning the perfect tool for the job:
1. Instant connection to others
2. Low initial technical understanding to do so
3. Quick access to the dialog of the community without RSS needed
4. RSS capable, once comfortable
5. Individual blogging built in, super easy to post and experiment
6. Socially-engaging

Finally, Classroom 2.0 made a bargain with its users to provide “a supportive comfortable place to start being part of the digital dialog.” And it worked! Early adopters found like-minded, friendly educators who welcomed each other, shared ideas and frustrations, answered questions, and made them feel a little less alone. These educators had done some exploration into the new world of Web 2.0 tools, but the Classroom 2.0 community allowed them to delve deeper into the social networking experience and evolve their professional learning communities beyond the four walls of their schools. In the beginning their experiences were intense. Many dived headfirst into the experience spending many hours blogging and contributing to the forums. As they became comfortable on the Ning site they branched out into Twitter, and Second Life and in turn left Classroom 2.0 behind. This community provided a bridge to much larger networks at a time when it seemed like a new Web 2.0 tool was being created everyday. Classroom 2.0 was a safe home base to come back to for support and guidance until members felt ready to move on to more sophisticated Online spaces.

Not everyone was impressed with Classroom 2.0 when it first started. Prominent education blogger, David Warlick was particularly skeptical and wrote about his feelings in his March 30th2007 blogpost titled “I Just Don’t Get it Yet – Social Networks,” David described himself as “a little under-impressed”

I don’t need someplace else to go to on the Internet. I need it to come to me, to my aggregator, or my mail box. I need it to be organic, infinitely shapable, and to be a valuable conversation. So what am I not getting here?

There were 27 comments on his post. Many agreed with Dave’s perspective on the site including other high profile bloggers like Will Richardson and Kathy Schrock.Hargadon’s comment on Warlick’s post put these responses in perspective.

Ning wasn’t developed for the David Warlicks and Will Richardsons of the world, and so to gage its value by how much it would help them isn’t accurate.

Steve’s reference to the tool, the bargain and the promise of the Classroom 2.0 site was prescient. The site promised to be a place for beginners to find each other and Ning was the perfect tool to use for the purpose. Classroom 2.0 turned out to be for many an organic place for valuable conversations on the Internet.

To better understand the early adopters of this platform, I reached out to 500 members of the Classroom 2.0 community and asked them to respond to a short survey about their experiences. Out of the 28 who responded to my survey, all joined Classroom 2.0 in the first two years of the networks existence, 21 respondents joined the network in 2007 and 7 joined in 2008. All expressed their initial excitement about “meeting” new people from around the world who shared their interests. Most described a rollercoaster experience with the site, starting out slowly, increasing their interactions and intensity after an initial period of lurking, many became intensely involved for a time and then tapered off as other social networks claimed their attention. Most of the early adopters are no longer active members of Classroom 2.0, but they agree that this seminal educators network had a strong impact on them. However, it couldn’t sustain their attention as their level of sophistication increased and the beginner bargain no longer served their needs. While many of these early adopters have moved on, new members continue to sign on in droves. In April of 2007, the network claimed 200 members. In March of 2010 the network had more than 40,000 members, an increase in membership of 20,000% in just 3 years.

Before joining this network, more than two thirds of these early adopters were reading and writing blogs, and using the Delicious social bookmarking tool. Half were using wikis and watching YouTube videos. Today these respondents are highly involved with social media. More than 80% are active on Twitter and Facebook, 89% are using collaborative tools like Google Apps, 68% are still blogging, and 70% are using social bookmarking tools like Delicious and Diigo. When asked how influential Classroom 2.0 was on their use of Web 2.0 tools professionally 75% agreed that their experiences on the site influenced their future use of these technology tools in their professional life.

Many respondents had similar initial experiences on the site. They were excited by the connections and the similar interests among members. Bryan Falcon, who joined in May of 2007, wrote “Classroom 2.0 felt like an environment where it was safe to be giddy about technology, but at the same time voice frustrations with shortcomings of tech.” David Truss, who joined in April of 2007, thought “it was pretty amazing to see so many teachers thinking and talking about education in the same way that I was… it was not happening in my day-to-day life!” The early members of this network were early adopters in general and most were advocating for more technology use in their own schools. It was not uncommon for these teachers to be a single voice amongst a sea of resistance. This site was a safe place to not only be excited about these new tools, but also to solve problems and express frustrations. When the site first started you could be pretty sure that most of your face-to-face colleagues weren’t going to be reading what you were writing. It was public, but the community existed outside of the four walls of each person’s school. Teachers could be more candid about their true feelings.

One of the greatest barriers to the adoption of any new technology tool is the amount it takes away from the other things that we have, need and want to do. Time is a precious commodity. In his book Here Comes Everybody, Shirky writes,

Any new claim on someone’s time must obviously offer some value, but more important, it must offer some value higher than something else she already does, or she won’t free up the time. The promise has to hit a sweet spot among several extremes. (page 262)

Classroom 2.0 hit that sweet spot for many of its early member. They quickly saw the value and potential of the site, particularly the ability to get a global perspective on education that they previously didn’t have access to. Paul Bogush, who joined in September of 2007 recalls experiencing “a total buzz from interacting with folks from across the world.” Kevin Hodgson, who joined in April, 2007, “saw the potential right from the start – teachers want to get out of the isolated feeling of the classroom and connect with other teachers.” Lynne Bailey’s (joined April of 2007) “first impression was a bit of amazement at the immediate invitation to be friends with educators I didn’t know from countries around the world.”

The “friendliness” of the site was a common experience for respondents. The concept of “friending” was very new to educators, most of whom graduated from college and graduate school in a pre-Facebook era. Many didn’t trust the idea of Online “friends.” Thus, most were surprised to find such an amiable Online community. Matt Clausen, who joined in April 2007,remembers “being impressed by the range of conversations in the forum and the incredible friendliness of the community as I got started.”

Once these educators signed on, many become intensely involved in the community. For most this was the only network they belonged to and they jumped in whole-heartedly. This level of interest could not be sustained. Several respondents found the site became repetitive and stale after a while and moved on to other things. Nathan Lowell was the 50th member of the site, joining in March of 2007. He writes,

I started out being very active. I really wanted it to be a place where we could build a large community of active participants. After the first year I became rather jaded with the same questions being asked over and over… I realized that the churn on the site is not really helping develop a depth of understanding among participants… I think there is potential here, but it’s not being realized. The conversation is all at the surface.

Lynn Bailey also feels that “…the same questions get asked in new forums.” Others miss the more intimate nature of the network in its early days. Kevin Hodgson reflects, “I think the site hit a point for me where it was just too big.”

While the number of members of the network has grown, so has the number of networks vying for attention. Gayle Berthiaume, who joined in May 2007, explains, “I was more active at first because I belonged to fewer social networks.” Ben Wilkoff, who joined in April of 2007, agrees, “It is a good way to engage in a network if you don’t already have a network, however, once you have an engaging network, it isn’t required.” Many find that networks such as Twitter provide higher level interaction now that they have become more sophisticated users of technology. Despite moving on, most look back on their time in Classroom 2.0 with fondness and highly recommend it to colleagues who are just starting on their Web 2.0 journeys. Lee Kolbert, who joined in February of 2008, shares “As a presenter myself, I always recommend CR20 to others who are looking to build their [Personal Learning Networks] and learn from others.”

Classroom 2.0 promises to be a place for beginners to explore the possibilities of using collaborative tools in the classroom. For many, once its members move past the beginner stage, the site no longer can sustain their interest. Others believe in the importance of staying on to guide and nurture newcomers. Sylvia Martinez, who joined in April of 2007, explains, “I have a strong personal belief that people who stay in networks are crucial to provide expertise and history… it’s important to stay open to newcomers even if the questions repeat and the conversation seems to never go anywhere.” Sylvia continues to be a very active member of the site, frequently starting and contributing to discussions. Other early adopters have become Classroom 2.0 “Hosts.” They are featured on the main page and the members page of the site and seek out and welcome newcomers.

2007 was an exciting time for educators interested in technology. Classroom 2.0 promised great things, used a terrific tool and fulfilled its end of the bargain for the hundreds of people who joined in its first year. Most have moved on, but all credit their experiences there as shaping the way they interact Online today. With more than 40,000 members today, the site can not recreate the intimacy of those early experiences, but clearly it continues to serve a purpose for the thousands of new members who join each month. Steve Hargadon could not have imagined what his site would look like after only 3 years. David Warlick may not have understood the promise of the site at the time, but he can no longer deny its appeal. Teachers may spend a majority of their day in isolation from other adults, but now they know they are only a network connection away from reaching out to a global community of people who share their interests, frustrations and a desire to learn from each other. As Steve Hargadon writes in his White Paper,Educational Networking: The important role Web 2.0 will play in education, “In a profession that can be profoundly isolating and lonely even though teachers are in the midst of interacting with students all day, educational networking holds a significant key to improving opportunities to find both emotional support and support for exploring new ideas.” (page 5) Classroom 2.0 has unlocked the doors for thousands of educators to a world of new possibilities, and has had a particularly powerful impact on those who began their Web 2.0 journey there just 3 years ago.