So an interesting email landed in my inbox today. Anita—an adjunct professor at Kent State and an admitted tech noobie—asked:
I teach an undergrad education course for preservice teachers (also some grad courses for teachers), and want my students to post threaded discussions.
I also need to upload files–both word and pdf, probably even ppts. Has to be a free site. I don't want to use vista or blackboard anymore, which is provided by the university.
I used nicenet. org for a focus group I ran (working on my doctorate), but it doesn't allow for uploading documents. Greatly limited in that way.
Here was my reply. Figured it might be useful to you, too—regardless of the role that you’re filling:
Good to hear from you and glad that you're fooling around with online conversations for your students. The more frequently that they get involved in those kinds of actions during their own education, the more likely they are to integrate digital conversations in their own classrooms.
A few years back, I facilitated a conversation between a good friend who teaches college classes here in Raleigh and her students on technology integration in the college classroom.
She was frustrated because she'd required students to post reflections on a class blog and then leave comments/have conversation with one another in the comment section of each post.
While she was excited about the project because it served multiple purposes—she wanted to introduce students to blogging and reflective thinking all at once—-her students saw it as an extra task to pack in to an already full schedule.
The conversation became pretty animated when the topic of Facebook came up. "If you watched what we're doing in Facebook," they pleaded, "you'd see that we're already having these kinds of reflective conversations!
“Your site just feels like more work to us. Why should we have to go to a special place to share thoughts about class when we can do the same thing on Facebook."
Her students weren't opposed to reflection OR to learning to use digital tools for meaningful conversations. They were opposed to being forced into yet another community that they didn't have the time or energy to intellectually invest in.
What's the moral of the story?
The chances are great that your students are already Facebook users—-most college students are, after all—and that they check their profile pages about a dozen times a day. That means they're already comfortable with (maybe even excited about?) the tool.
More importantly, Facebook is a daily web destination for them already—instead of a new place that they have to remember to visit—-which increases the likelihood that they'll stop by the conversations that you create.
Now, I don't know whether or not Facebook is a great place for posting the other content bits that you're interested in posting—-PowerPoints, documents, etc—simply because I don't use Facebook very often at all!
If it DOES allow for that kind of content sharing, I'd say post away. Keeping all of your content and conversations in the same place increases the efficiency of your class for your students, and efficiency is key in today's digital world.
But if not, the best tool for sharing those kinds of materials—especially for someone new to digital tools—is Dropio (http://www.drop.io). What makes Dropio unique is that you can make posts to your free website directly from your email inbox.
So if you had a handout that you wanted to share with your students, you'd just attach it to an email message and send it to your site's email address—which is generated automatically by Dropio when you first create it.
Just like Facebook conversations are valuable to college kids because they're already familiar with Facebook, Dropio websites are valuable because they allow posts to be made directly from your email inbox—-something that digital novices are already comfortable with.
Does any of this make sense?
Basically, my argument is that the most successful digital efforts start with a knowledge of the kinds of tools that your prospective audiences are already invested in. Why try to recreate digital communities using new tools if our students are already creating digital communities with existing tools?
Now, if your university won't allow you to use Facebook to interact with students—which is, unfortunately, a reality in many schools and districts across the nation—you can explore these popular services which look and feel a lot like Blackboard in action:
Ning (http://www.ning.com/): Ning has become the tool of choice for educators interested in creating social networking sites for their classrooms and/or colleagues.
Some of the best educator professional development sites are built from Nings—Classroom 2.0 (http://www.classroom20.com/) is probably the biggest example—and most districts don't block Ning sites.
That means using Ning with your students will introduce them to a tool they can use in their own classrooms later.
Tapped In (http://tappedin.org/tappedin/): Tapped In was one of the first social networking tools that I ever had the chance to play with and it remains a good free option for educators.
While it is a bit clunkier than Facebook and Ning, it offers all of the common features—opportunities for asynchronous discussions, opportunities to post documents and materials—-AND it makes instant messaging possible between class members that are in the same place at the same time.
Moodle (http://moodle.org/): Moodle is another service that many schools and districts have embraced as a course management tool.
While I've never used it, from what I hear, it's a free version of Blackboard. Whether that's a good thing or not is something that you'll have to decide!
The advantage of using Moodle is that your students will gain experience with a tool that's unlikely to be blocked by the firewalls in the districts that they go to teach in.
Hope this helps!