How Moodle’s social networking features became a “virtual hangout” for students by @cytochromec

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The following is a guest post by Colin Matheson (@cytochromec) who blogs at http://cytochromec.net/blog/ and is an Educational Technology Coach and Webmaster for Carmel Unified School District in California.  We asked Colin to extrapolate on his earlier comment [link] which discussed using Moodle’s collaborative and social networking features to provide students an informal, yet safe environment for online interaction and engagement.  The post isn’t in a narrative form, but rather a comprehensive overview of the benefits, how the environment was facilitated and the next steps Colin and his team hope to take with a move to 2.0 and beyond.

If you’re school is looking to take steps to give more ownership of your Moodle site to students and to teach digital citizenship effectively Colin’s examples and experience are a great read.

Using Moodle to Create Virtual Classroom Space and Virtual “Hallway/Hangout” Space

or

How the social networking features of Moodle became a great place for our students @ http://moodle.carmelunified.org/

Colin’s original comment:

We use Moodle as our walled garden social network- kids can blog, add tags, message each other, etc. and so it draws them to the Moodle site (making it more likely that they will check out school/course information). We think of our Moodle like a virtual school – there are virtual classrooms and virtual hallways/playgrounds. The kids can hang out and talk in the virtual hallway space of our Moodle and we prefer that to them hanging out in the virtual city streets of the rest of the internet.

Advantages of kids hanging out on your Moodle site:

  • They aren’t hanging out somewhere else.
  • You can teach applied digital citizenship without jumping directly into a full social (Facebook, MySpace). This means you don’t encounter all of the resistance from admin and parents, you keep your kids safe if they do make foolish mistakes, and you actually get chances to address the topics.
  • Your site is actually a great network because it has all of the kids in school already in it. They don’t have to find each other. They can connect with people that they actually meet and so they might get to know someone in another grade or class.
  • Lowers the barrier for students to interact with teachers and visa versa. Students can ask teachers questions or just say hi with messaging (just like they would in the real hallway). Teachers can send all class messages via the participants block (also very cool feature under reports to send a message to all students who have not participated in a particular activity.)
  • Students know where your Moodle page is. Instead of teacher pages scattered on Wikispaces, Blogger, etc. All students know to go to the place where all teachers have stuff (just like real school isn’t fragmented across multiple sites). I call Moodle the “One Stop Shop for Web 2.0”.
  • If they are hanging out on your site, they just might see your announcements and calendar items. They might check out a teacher’s profile or other classes. They might even do some homework. 🙂

Creating the space

Here is our set up and some questions to consider for your situation. The two crucial features are messaging and online users:

  • We turned messaging on and installed the message report plugin. This is the main feature which our kids use to hang out on our Moodle and the message report allows for easy spot checks of kid behavior. The librarians, tech people, and administrators all have access to this report.
  • We added the Online Users block to the front page. This way students can see who is online and start a conversation.
  • Profiles not open to guest access. This way no student images and information is directly available to the open web. We also close our site to search engines. However we keep it open for guests so parents can visit and get a handout or check a schedule.
  • Turned tagging on. We allowed students to create tags and initially allowed them to edit the tag pages. However, we turned that ability off after we discovered the history on tag pages wasn’t great. I believe work is being done to improve tag editing in the logs. Students used tags to share real interests (like skateboarding and cats) and also to create silly clubs (like “Being a ninja” and for some reason “Shakira” because the cult tag hit last year) Adding the tag cloud block to the front page made popular tags stand out and helped to drive interest.
  • Installed OU blogs to allow commenting. Added an RSS feed of latest blog posts to the front page to drive interest. Just starting to get kids going on blogging and commenting this year. Did a little hack to add a link on each person’s profile page to his/her OU blog.
  • Created an Open/Social Forum on front page. Not tons of activity but a few heated discussions on Mac vs PC (which allowed us a chance to reinforce civil discourse).
  • Added schedule fields to the profile, which allowed kids to share their course info with other students. There is plenty of room for customized profile fields to create avenues for students to network.
  • Last spring added the“Moodle Bar” to our theme which creates some cool Facebook like links on the bottom of every page.

Procedures and Expectations

  • Added a block on the front page with some clear statements about expectations.

  • Digital Citizenship presentation. Our schools weren’t really aware of the need for this kind of education. Our AUP was pure legalese and only really seen by parents. As kids discovered the networking we considered turning messaging off. Instead we chose to educate. We started with this presentation [link] and this handout [link] to all language arts classes at the middle school (and distributed to teachers as well). Then our fabulous middle school librarian (Susan Kendall) created a kid focused Digital Citizenship agreement [link] that is the anchor of the start of year presentation at the middle school to all classes.
  • Classroom space (class forums, wikis, etc) are for instruction and so require more formal language.
  • Hangout spaces (tags, blogs, and messaging) still have to follow school rules (language, bullying, inappropriate links)
  • “Lockdown” role for misbehaving students – a role that has no messaging, blog, tag abilities. Students can still participate in class activities online, but not the social activities non-locked down users enjoy.

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t bother with the language filter. It’s not worth getting into the filter game.
  • Be extra vigilant at the start of the year so that students know you mean it
  • Rules can evolve – only positive tags, no tags named after people at school, no IM during school hours for middle school kids were all created as we learned more about the system and our kids.
  • Middle school kids take to it quite well, high school kids might have cooler things to do.
  • We need to teach this stuff. We need to teach how to hang out safely online. We need to teach how to write academically online. We need to teach how to maximize the use of networking tools (I asked a group of Seniors ”What is a tag?” and they had no idea even though they are on sites that allow tagging all of the time.)

Next Steps

  • We just added Mahara: more blogs, groups, views. More student freedom and logging/admin oversight not as good so we will see.
  • Moodle 2.0 offers some great commenting features so that could be good.
  • Also looking at some 1.9 enhancements for messaging.

For more information consider paying a visit to Colin’s blog http://cytochromec.net/blog/about/ or send him a message on Twitter @cytochromec

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