Wishful Thinking for eLearning (was: Moodle as New Facebook)

An edited version of a message I sent to the Moodle Lounge, earlier today. Moodle is a free and open source course management system (or CMS, content management system, learning management system...). It has some similarities to Sakai, which is being developed by different academic institutions including Indiana University. In my teaching, I've used (in decreasing order of usefulness, in my mind): Moodle, Sakai, Oncourse, Blackboard, and WebCT.

On my main blog, Michael Penney sent an elaborate comment about Moodle's
upcoming Facebook-like features. I still need to wrap my head around what
social networking features in Moodle would look like, but I'm quite glad that
people are taking it up. I really do see a lot of potential there.
As luck would have it, I also got a comment from Don Hinkelman about student-generated groups (different entry on the same blog). Seems like my thinking isn't that off-base (though it's overly enthusiastic, obviously).

Without thinking too much about the technical details, I'm brainstorming with myself about what the ideal CMS integrating social networking features would be like.
My ideas are mostly based on Moodle but could eventually work with other CMS, including some blogging platforms. Obviously, a course management system has some essential features which are different from most blogging and content management systems. For instance, a course has specific roles for instructors and students, an issue which sparked a rather sad legal case from the Blackboard corporation (current owners of patents for both Blackboard and WebCT). Courses imply assignments and gradebooks, which have little equivalent in the content management, blogging, or social networking worlds. But today's "eLearning" (or computer-mediated pedagogical techniques) does resemble blogging, content management, and social networking. The motivation for my blogging (and posting to the Moodle Lounge) about these connections is Michael Wesch's comments about Facebook supplementing the needs for course management software. As I had personally been having some of the same reflections, it sparked my interest further.
Here's what I posted on the Moodle Lounge:
Each member (teacher, student, administrator) of each Moodle installation
(each campus, say) has an ID which can work on any Moodle installation.
Hopefully, PeopleSoft/SIS integration isn't an issue. People can have
multiple roles in multiple groups, some of which are really networks of
"friends" (in the MySpace/Facebook sense) while others are actual courses. A
person's main page is easy to use and can serve all at the same time as a
public blog, a portal, a "comment wall," a profile, a host for
"user-generated content," and an eLearning solution. For students, feedback
on assignments for different courses is aggregated. Teachers can communicate
about students across different courses. Anyone can post blog entries using
third-party tools and those entries can be sent to specific groups or
displayed publicly. Blocks in a user's main page can be moved around and
customised, using some easy-to-understand AJAX technology as in Google Page
Creator, WordPress.com's Sidebar Widgets, or Blogger Beta. Different
templates are available but can easily be customised by users through both
GUI and code. Users can "borrow" content from one another while maintaining
links and Creative Commons licenses. Large files are distributed through
peer-to-peer technology. Server administrators can limit bandwidths for
different groups and individuals. Podcasts are P2Ped. Different file formats
can be viewed directly in a page: PDF, MP3, MPEG, RTF, Word, PPT... Content
can easily be repurposed from, say, OPML to PPT and hosted HTML. Teams can be
setup by users themselves or by people with specific roles (such as a
teacher). Public pages could serve as centralised profiles. Activities from
other users recognised as "friends" are automatically aggregated, depending
on the level of "trust" allowed by users themselves. Specific Skype- or
ICQ-like icons for "I am available for discussion" would appear in the list
of "friends." People's calendars could be aggregated (upcoming shows,
teamwork, etc.). Different kinds of content (blog entries, assignments, etc.)
could be sent from an email account, a phone, etc. ID pictures would be the
default picture instead of the yellow happy face. Current items (weeks or
topics) from different courses would be aggregated. Notification of private
messages would appear as a mailbox icon instead of a popup window. Users
could set the level of privacy for their Moodle activities. Browser toolbars
would ease things like collecting images and links. The "insert link" button
would communicate with a type of browser history function (maybe through a
del.ico.us-like or Spurl-like feature) to list possible links to insert.
Content submission (blog entries, assignments...) would be confirmed, with a
list of links to a user's submitted content, with timestamps and versions.
All content available to a user could be searched through a simple interface.
A private Sakai-like filemanager would make Moodle the ideal way to back up
important files. A user's connection to former groups (classes, etc.) would
be maintained. Alumni could keep their Moodle account even if they lose the
email privilege at the institution (maybe through a third-party host which
would still maintain the links).

Whew! I know some of these things sound completely absurd while others are
already doable. Just thinking out loud (or brainstorming with myself).

Think I'm crazy? You ain't heard nuthin' yet!

Some quick ideas for yet other features (in no particular order):
  • PDA integration (calendaring, outlining, presentations...).
  • Event organisation (à la Linkup, Meetup...).
  • Project management (meetings, progress, etc.).
  • Whiteboarding and realtime collaborative editing.
  • SMS support.
  • Music/video sharing, recommendations, etc. (Ruckus and MySpace meet YouTube and Last.fm)
  • Reporting on privacy issues ("Am I making Too Much Information available to everyone?").
  • Statistics on profile views, pings, etc.
  • Import/export to blog platforms.
  • Direct access to library material (both on- and off-campus).
  • Library references can be directly imported, along with a virtual copy of the text itself (CiteULike meets RefWorks, BibDesk, and Endnote).
  • Integration of searches through online reference databases (library catalogues, Web of Knowledge, Google Scholar, etc.).
  • Full versioning system for any file kept online (subversion meets Wiki).
  • Online applications (à la Zoho Office or Google Docs and Spreadsheets).
  • People can recommend or ask to be introduced to new people (à la LinkedIn).
  • Apparently relevant job offers posted directly on a user's page (à la Monster/Workopolis).
  • Full support for tagging content (à la Technorati).
  • Clear distinctions between private (personal journal), restricted access (assignments, "private messages"), and public (blog entries, forum posts) content.
  • Full support for social bookmarking with default tags for groups (or courses).
  • File synchronisation.
  • Assignments automatically checked for plagiarism.
  • Flexible glossary feature (not all entries are automatically linked).
  • Consistent keyboard shortcuts throughout the platform.
  • OpenID support (not mentioned before but implied in other comments).
  • Basic mailing-list features.
Yeah, I know. It's more than mere wishful thinking. But I can easily think of ways integrate all those neat "Web 2.0 technologies" can really make sense for not only campuses but social networks of avid learners.
In fact, most of these features already exist elsewhere. And I keep "predicting " that blogging and social networking will merge with other online uses:
my guess is that community-building and social-networking will become increasingly important with blogs. Tomorrow's blogging platforms are likely to get increasingly like, say, Facebook. Interestingly, LiveJournal which has always been strong on the community-oriented features seems not to be capturing much of the newer crowds.
As I also see Moodle (or another learning-oriented CMS) becoming more like Facebook/MySpace/LiveJournal/WordPress.com, I see the connections in multiple ways.
What is kind of funny is that, although I have profiles on diverse social networking sites (including several Facebook profiles from different institutions, a basic LinkedIn account, etc.), I don't tend to use any of those services much. SixDegrees.com is the first social networking site in which I tried to involve most of my actual friends and acquaintances. Before it went away, my network was somewhat established but still nowhere near the breadth of the social networks in which I'm active. When SixDegrees did collapse, I had lost all those connections and rarely tried to remake them in LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, or LiveJournal.
What's perhaps funnier is that my most active Facebook account (though still very low in activity) seems to be the one from Bridgewater State but the people it brings in tend to be former students from Concordia and IU South Bend. A system-wide Moodle account could eventually solve this (not to mention that I could transfer course material from one institution to the next).
Ah, well...

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