Design is essential to the use of social software
Marc Canter has been doing his homework on Hitwise and spotted that the 9th most popular search term is "MySpace layouts", as young social networkers look to personalise their online spaces. This is indicative not only of the growth in this area in line with the growth of MySpace itself, but also of the fact that online spaces rely on the ability for the individual to personalise to their heart's content. If we can't personalise our spaces, we won't use them in the longer term.
There's nothing new in this for those of us who have had our own blogs for a while, and it's not a new concept: returning to Florence as an adult underlined the importance of design and art complimenting each other all the time. The artists who created the statues would often be the architects who created the buildings.
The importance of design, though, is underestimated in many educational projects to do with social software and personal learning spaces. Most school blogs are uniform, use predefined templates, reflect the school colours, and have obviously not been made up by kids themselves (without heavy teacher supervision). Take a look at SSDN, the national schools network offering online services to every student and teacher in Scotland. In SSDN, which endeavours to give every school (and every student?) a personal space, I am not sure there is enough personalisation on offer. And by personalisation I mean 'silly' personalisation. If I want my page to be a lurid pink then I expect to be able to do that in a click. If I want it to be moody black, ditto. Will there be room for a design supermarket where I can not only pick up what designs I want but also submit my own designs for others to 'buy' from me? (What a way to introduce enterprise education to the masses ;-) Will I be able to add my own Flash objects (music, videos, animations) à la MySpace and Bebo?
The one thing I have picked up from the European Centre for Modern Languages' Blogs project is that youngsters love to spend time making their page their own. Take a quick flick through all the different nationalities and you will see that whether you are in Poland or Potsdam, design is vital to the success of a page (take a look at the huge number of posts on any of the Czech students' pages - all their designs are different). Then take a look at the UK pages (here, here and here), where the teachers had less time to spend with kids looking at the design and personalisation - and the kids have not taken the project on as theirs at all. A link?
If SSDN hasn't thought about this so far then maybe this is something we could consider offering in Exc-el's framework. Yes, complex and maybe not linked to serious learning outcomes straightaway. But if we want kids to take their online learning spaces seriously over time, we need to offer the ability to play about with each personal space - very unseriously - from the start.
Marc has given a roundup of the main MySpace layout engines.