Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leveraging FriendFeed for authentic science education

Yesterday I wrote about How I learned to stop worrying and love FriendFeed. Today I want to look forward to my future plans for FriendFeed.

At our tweetup last Friday, Jaideep Mukherjee asked me if I don't always just want to jump on the latest bandwagon in terms of tools for teaching. It's a reasonable question and I can see why he asked me, but the answer is a straightforward no. I want to jump on the best tools for teaching. My ideal situation would be nice and stable, where I was confident about every aspect of the technology I was using and how to use it, and where I didn't have to spend a lot of time each year launching something new. Unfortunately, learning technologies are evolving so fast that's not possible at present, so I can see why Jaideep (and many of my other colleagues) are confused. Heck, so am I, that's why I blog.

In August 2009, Facebook acquired FriendFeed for US$47m. Lots of longstanding FriendFeed users were unhappy about that, and rumbling continues on the site about whether Facebook is planning to run FriendFeed down. This is the first big caveat, but other than sticking my head in the sand and pretending FriendFeed doesn't exist, there's not much I can do about it other than keep a watching brief.

What interests me is whether FriendFeed can be used to improve the way we deliver out first year PLE module. Our first year students are very confused about RSS. Not so much how to subscribe to RSS feeds, but why they should bother. Many of my colleagues are similarly confused, unwilling to be lured away from email tables of contents. Using Google Reader doesn't do them any favours - it's a good feed reader but very confusing for newcomers and it doesn't allow us to have conversations (feedback, if you want) with students about their choices. When we follow up by dropping social bookmarking (delicious) into the PLE mix, students get even more confused, and some go into meltdown. We need to simplify the channels while retaining access to the full range of information.

Next year, I plan to tell our PLE students:

FriendFeed is like Facebook for science


Using the Facebook paradigm, they will create a Friendfeed account, subscribe to RSS feeds, bookmark and share items and build a network. We will use FriendFeed as a feedback channel to guide them. Assuming FriendFeed is still around, this should work much better than our past approach to building a PLE. (They'll also use other tools, but their PLE will be based around FriendFeed, which will be the main communication channel, vertically and horizontally). And if it isn't, we'll use something else with equivalent functionality. OK Jaideep?

The reason I think this is more likely to be successful than our past approach is threefold. First, if based on the Facebook paradigm, FriendFeed is a lot simpler than what we've been trying to do with Google Reader and delicious. Second, FriendFeed provides us with a direct feedback channel to each student (as well as broadcast feedback), which can be used to support and encourage them. There's a lot to be said for continuous partial attention. Once you get over the unfamiliarity, FriendFeed is sticky. But most importantly, this approach will only be successful if students want to participate. So what do they want? They want to be "scientists", even though at this stage most only have hazy ideas of what that actually entails. There's plenty of science on FriendFeed, and opportunities to interact with genuine research scientists outside of the VLE silo will be a strongly motivating factor for some of the high fliers. To try to build this into our approach, I'm thinking in terms of the following sort of assessment criteria, and I'd like your input please:
  1. Create an account on FriendFeed and complete their profile in a professional manner (x% marks).
  2. Subscribe to n (5? 10?) science-related RSS feeds from a suggested list (plus any others they want to) (x% marks).
  3. Build a network of peers (we will provide a list of FriendFeed usernames) (x% marks).
  4. Each week, contribute at least 3(?) science-related items to FriendFeed (x% marks), "Like" at least 2(?) items contributed by peers (x% marks), and make at least 1(?) substantive comment (examples will be given) on a science-related item (x% marks).
  5. Since hashtags in FriendFeed status updates are clickable search links (e.g. #bs1010), students will still be able to build module repositories using specified hashtags.
  6. We will give support and feedback by joining in the conversations on FriendFeed, using direct messages where appropriate. We will monitor students engagement though each user's feed and the FriendFeed "Comments" and "Likes" counts, but marks will not be awarded (via the Blackboard gradebook) until the end of the module.

Related: Scientists Still Not Joining Social Networks