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Online Edge

From MySpace to SchoolSpace

Teaching kids the social networking skills they need.

This fall, the 45,000 students in the Seattle Public School system will be encouraged to create and publish pictures, videos and other work to their personal Web pages, where they'll even be able to create communities of "friends" online.

Sound like MySpace? Close. It's "Medley," a component of a new social learning network being rolled out by the district in an attempt to bring the potentials of Read/Write Web tools to students in a more managed environment. Named "L3rn," the network is the next step in a process that started over two years ago with an initiative to put grades, attendance and homework information online for parents and students to access.

"What we found is that our kids were giving access to all of that information to others by posting their logins online," says Ramona Pierson, head of the district's department of educational technology. "They were breaking the rules because they wanted to keep tabs on one another. So we started thinking about how we could let them share information in a learning context."

Listening to Students

Finding that students would want to be more transparent and connected is not unusual in a world where much of our students' time is driven by social, online interactions. Today, when our kids put a premium on knowing more about each other and knowing it faster, it's no surprise the kids were pushing the district to move in that direction.

L3rn (pronounced "Learn") is an attempt to prepare students for the networked, globally connected world when they leave the educational system, the one that is actually already here in many ways. A recent Wall Street Journal article, for instance, reported that IBM has over 400,000 part- and full-time employees participating in its own in- house social network called "Blue Pages," as well as tens of thousands using blogs and wikis. The folks in Seattle seem to be on top of these shifts.

What is surprising is that the district listened.

"This project is really helping us make a paradigm shift in the way we approach learning," Pierson says. "We are really starting to push the different pedagogies that go along with the use of these tools."

And that's the important point here. While many schools have begun to embrace the tools of the Read/Write Web, few have begun to really consider the pedagogical shifts that go along with them. It's now easy to publish student work and to communicate more effectively with parents and community members, but the real shift comes in the connections and conversations that grow around what we can publish. Those artifacts build the foundation for networks and communities of learners to grow and sustain the practice of lifelong learning.

Not Just "Sugar"

No question, most districts have a right to move into these waters with trepidation. Concerns for student safety are paramount, and there are new lawsuits and threats at every turn. The developers have built in many levels of moderation to create a "safe harbor" for student work, and they are exploring student connections with schools in Africa, China and other parts of the world-all of which have been motivated by the new realities of a Webinfused world. As one of the lead developers on the project, Lindell Anderson, wrote on his blog, "Incorporating Web 2.0 for education isn't 'sugar to help the medicine go down,' it's speaking the native language and honoring the digital world-view of a technologically fluent generation."

Helping teachers become more fluent in the pedagogies of networked environments is one of the top priorities as the project rolls out. The district has a team of coaches that are not just doing the "how-to," but helping educators understand the uses of the tools for their own learning as well. And Pierson and her staff are doing community presentations at every turn. Finally, the district is working through the process of releasing the code via open source.

L3rn is no doubt a push in the envelope for school districts. But for students in Seattle, it's just another step in making schools look more like the world many of them already know.

Will Richardson is a contributing editor for District Administration and The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate,