The Macaulay Eportfolio Collection: A Case Study in the Uses of Social Networking for Learning

By popular request, here’s (most of) the text of my talk from the Social Networking panel at the 2011 MLA. I’ve condensed the first part, since it described the social network we set up for our incoming freshmen, and it’s not available for public view. But in all other cases I’ve inserted links to and/or screencaps of the various sites and features that I discussed.

Many thanks go to Barbara Lafford for her efforts in organizing the panel, and to the other panel participants, Sean McCarthy and Steven Thorne, for their stimulating remarks.

The Macaulay Eportfolio Collection: A Case Study in the Uses of Social Networking for Learning

I’d like to begin my talk with an introduction to the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York. And I’m going to try to do so in a way that mimics the way in which our incoming students are introduced to the program. So here we go. You’re all students again, and it’s the summer before your freshman year. (Please don’t panic). This is what you know so far:

You’ve been admitted to this competitive program within the CUNY system. You’ve selected one of the seven participating campuses, either because you’re drawn to the strengths of that particular campus, or because you’re planning to continue to live with your parents and you want to continue to learn within the community that has supported you for the first eighteen years of your life. You’re probably also the first person in your family to have gone to college, and you like the idea that MHC students have a dedicated advising team that will support you for the next four years, in both your scholarly and your professional pursuits. Oh also, you’ll be given a free laptop. You know that you’ll put that laptop to use during a series of required honors seminars during your first two years of coursework. But that’s pretty much all you know so far.

Then you get an email inviting you to join a social network for entering Macaulay freshmen. You click the link in the message and you see the site to the left. (For privacy reasons, it’s just a screencap, but you can click the image to make it larger). The site has information about orientation, some links on the right side for getting started on the site—you can edit your profile, create a group, post in a forum, or find a friend. Below that, you see the profile pictures of classmates who have already begun to explore the site. And over on the left side, you see something about Macaulay ambassadors, current Macaulay students who can answer your questions. Hm, you think. Who are they?

You click on one ambassador’s profile. You see that he’s a student at Hunter College, and that his major is Communications Design. You also notice that he’s sent someone a message, using a syntax that looks sort of like Twitter. You note his favorite movie and musician, and that he likes something called “guerilla marketing.” He could be a useful resource, or a maybe even a friend. You continue exploring.

You click the link to see the ambassador’s activity on the site. You see that he’s answered a technical question about Photoshop, and another one about the best free image-hosting websites. You also notice some funny posts that he’s made. Something about a trivia night?

You hover over the “Community” tab and then click “Forums.” From the forums, you get some tips about how to find off–campus housing, the technical specs for your new laptop, as well as information about a possible Creative Writing Major. You also notice some groups on the right hand side, including one for writers…

I could go on exploring the freshman social network—there’s really so much interesting material on the site—but I want to pause for a moment to give you a little technical information. The site is built entirely with off-the-shelf (or in this case, downloadable) tools. We used WordPress, which is a free and open source web publishing platform, used primarily for blogging. One of the advantages of WordPress is that it offers over a thousand of what are called “themes,” that can be installed and activated by the administrator of a site. They allow for a significant amount of customization in terms of layout and design, without requiring almost any technical knowledge at all.

The theme we used for the social network is called BuddyPress, and it’s a little bit of a special case, in that it not only offers a layout that is modeled after a social networking site, but also includes additional social networking-type features as part of the theme. Usually, with WordPress, you add functionality to the site by activating various plugins. We like to tell our students that if themes are like wallpaper, then plugins are like the furniture you put in the room.

That’s as far into the technical aspects of the site as I want to go during this talk, although I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have later. What I’m more interested in, today, is how the aspects of social networking that are foregrounded by this site—the ability to forge relationships between individuals and within communities, the ability to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas within these communities, and the organic, egalitarian nature of the ideas themselves, carry over into—and as I will argue, enhance—the students’ scholarly work.

At Macaulay, the carryover between the freshman social network and the students’ scholarly work is by design. We believe in creating a learning experience that is immersive and experiential. In fact, the curriculum at Macaulay, which is centered around New York City, is designed to encourage students to conceive of college—and the city itself—as a set of linked and mutually-informing learning experiences. We use the same WordPress platform as the basis for our college-wide blogging system, so that all student work, both scholarly and personal, is united in a single, online location. All students register for the system during orientation week. And once registered, any member—student or faculty—can create a new blog or project site within the system.

We call our blogging system the Macaulay Eportfolio Collection, and you can view it here. (You can how it looks to registered users in the screencap on the left). While the layout is similar to the freshman social network, the Macaulay Eportfolio Collection is designed with a slightly different focus. With this system, our primary aim is to encourage active student blogging and critical multimedia reflection. For this reason, we’ve foregrounded certain information across that reddish-orange navigation bar: what we mean by “eportfolio,” how to get started, and basic technical support. But you’ll also notice that up at the top right of the page are the same links to “activity,” “members,” “groups,” and “forums,” as were featured on the freshman social network. In fact, clicking these links takes you to member profile pages of the same format as the freshman social network. (Sorry! Can’t link to member profile pages in this online version of my talk!). But you’ll notice that instead of the 150 or so freshmen who signed up for the social network, we have 1656 active members on the Eportfolio site, representing three years of increasing use.

Because of the more scholarly focus of this site, when you click on a member’s activity, you see a record of their coursework, comments, and personal blogging all in one place. You can see a screencap of my recent activity on the left.

We know that students appreciate the ability to track each others’ work through the social network, because they tell us. The groups that you see that I’ve created are, admittedly, under-utilized. But what are the uses of these social networking features for learning? How does a sense of community contribute to student learning? What is gained with informal, comment-based communication? What happens when students collaborate with each other, and share their ideas? And what results when students are empowered to present their ideas on their own terms?

Consider this example, a multi-part multimedia assignment designed by Professor Roz Bernstein, working with one of my colleagues, Lynn Horridge. Together, Bernstein and Horridge conceived of a project in which students were asked to interview a person who either represented—or had experienced—a “cultural encounter” (the theme of the course). Students then edited their interviews into podcast format, and then uploaded the audio file, along with a companion essay, to the course blog that you see. Some of the essays, such as this student’s account of the origins of his parents’ relationship in Guyana, are direct transcriptions of carefully-crafted podcasts. They demonstrate precisely the form of critical multimedia literacy that Jay Lemke and Jamie Bianco, among others, advocate for the 21st-century classroom.

More specifically, the student’s podcast, taken with his accompanying essay, touch deeply and poignantly on the social, economic, and religious forces that mediate most encounters between cultures. The student frames his podcast as an example of how “social classes and religious affiliation are strong determining factors with [respect to] whom you hang out [with] and especially whom you could marry.” In the comments posted below his essay, his classmates comment in equal parts on the critical perspective that he offers, the narrative structure that he employs, and the emotional impact of the essay on the students themselves. In the social context of the Macaulay Eportfolio collection, students are able to express their appreciation of each others’ scholarly work in a range of registers. In so doing, they create their own pathways from the learning that takes place in the classroom to the learning that takes place in their everyday lives.

Another student’s project, an interview with a woman from Honduras, working as a housekeeper in Brooklyn, illuminates the critical function that informal, comment-based communication can serve. In this case, the student’s interview and essay’s placement within the social context of the eportfolio site encourages her classmates to help her to tease out the implications of her own cultural encounter. Unlike the first student, this student does not edit her audio interview. Instead, she complements the full interview with commentary about the interviewing process. As you can hear, the student and her interview subject, Toya, communicate in a mixture of English and Spanish. The tapping noise that you hear in the background, as I later discovered, was the student typing her questions into Google Translate when she couldn’t formulate the questions in Spanish on her own. As evidenced in the recording, even with the student’s limited Spanish and the interview subject’s basic English, the two communicate in a warm and compelling manner.

In her essay, however, the student remains concerned with the “simplistic” answers that she recorded, attributing the perceived lack of substance to a language barrier. Through her classmates comments, a different impression of the interview emerges. One classmate writes that the interview makes him imagine what it would be like to interview his own grandmother. “It would have gone very much the same way,” he explains. Several other students comment on the interviewer’s Spanish. “I laughed when I listened to your Google translations of certain questions because they did not make sense grammatically,” one writes. But another offers reassurance: “I promise I didn’t laugh at your Spanish, I hear [and] speak Spanglish all the time at home… it’s a great mixture of languages!” Through her classmates’ personal reactions, the student-interviewer discovers that she has glimpsed a world of linguistic interplay and cultural exchange in which many of her classmates permanently reside. Her classmates’ comments alert her to evidence of her own cultural encounter, a learning experience that will resonate long after the final course meeting.

In the previous two examples, I’ve shown how open communication and community formation each extend from the social features embedded in course blogs, overseen by faculty members and instructional technology fellows such as myself. In my remaining time, I want to offer a few brief examples of how the social framework of the overarching eportfolio site also, at times, encourages the reverse: critical multimedia literacy and scholarly analysis that emerges organically from within students’ personal blogs and project sites. These examples all come from “Away and Abroad,” a site that employs a WordPress plugin to aggregate the content posted on the personal blogs of students studying abroad in a single, online location. When a student writes a post on or uploads a photo to his or her individual blog, the content becomes (almost) immediately viewable on the “Away and Abroad” site.

A recent visit to the site reveals one student’s photos of graffiti near La Boca in Buenos Aires, another student’s written reflection entitled “An American in China,” a third student’s link to a New York Times article about international urban planning, and a fourth student’s blog post about hamburgers. Clicking through to each of the students’ individual blogs reveals a range of formats and topics. The photographer’s site foregrounds her images, with frequent short updates about life in Buenos Aires. The student in China, along with a detailed personal profile, has charted his semester-long itinerary to the day. His blog posts, each a carefully composed meditation on life abroad, are tagged and cross-referenced so that they can be viewed by topic, location, or medium of composition. The post about the hamburger? A student who had traveled abroad and returned—but who had continued to update her site with her thoughts about reentry to the United States.

The study abroad blogs are noteworthy for their diversity of structure, content, and tone. With the flexible WordPress platform, students can decide for themselves—and crucially, at any point in time—about the primary use and the intended audience of each blog. In the case of the study-abroad blogs, some students, like the student in Buenos Aires, opted for a more informal, record-of-the-moment style blog. The student in China conceived of his site as showcase for both personal experience and scholarly growth. Common to both sites—and to the study-abroad blogs as a whole—is the knowledge (or perception) of an audience, and the rightly-held conviction that the experience of traveling abroad is worthy of documentation. Without prompting from a professor or a classroom assignment, the students studying abroad engage in substantial analysis about the differences between life at home and abroad. And through their written reflections, digital photos, and in some cases—short films—they demonstrate the critical multimedia literacy that is a significant learning objective of the Macaulay seminars as well.

I want to close with an example of a travel blog that exemplifies this form of critical multimedia literacy, as well as the ability to reflect upon and analyze a range of media and other cultural forms—all in the student’s own voice. “I’m still experimenting on the format for this blog, but I doubt I’m going to keep it for only study abroad stuff. Although I might. Who knows? I’m probably also going to change the color scheme. I like this format better than the old one–the text is larger, and the format seems cleaner to me, but I tend to favor more color,” the student writes, before explaining her choice for the blog’s new header image and title. She goes on to talk about the function her blog will play: “I was planning to begin properly working on this site in September, to start playing around with the blogging options on WordPress and see if this blog can fill a niche in my life…. Of course, then I had to keep three blogs for different classes for the Fall 2010 semester, and it just didn’t happen,” she explains. In these first few blog posts, however, is already evidence of her analytical ability—both with respect to textual content, and with respect to issues of function and form. In addition, her reference to her three different course blogs underscores how she, and her fellow students, have embraced the idea that all learning is connected, and that the same tools might—and in fact should—be used for both scholarly work and personal expression.

With the Macaulay Eportfolio Collection, we aim to present a framework that situates student work within the social context of the web, and within which opportunities for connection, communication, and collaboration, can each play themselves out. It is my hope that with these examples, I’ve demonstrated the potential of social networking for learning. And I also hope that I’ve demonstrated how much more that can be done. So that’s where I’ll end today. I invite your comments, your questions, and your ideas. Thank you.

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