July 31, 2006

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.

Img_2154 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.


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I think that you make a great point about personalisation. 'Ownership' is really important if you want young people to really invest time and energy.

I had to giggle slightly about Myspace, as the first thing I did when signing up was do a seach for funky templates...... in some senses you never grow up!

But maybe it isn't such a childish impulse after all. Each morning most of us put at least a little thought into what clothes we put on, in the same way we identify strongly with the bands we like, the books we read, the films we see....... as social animals it is important for us to establish our identity and present it to the world.

My son has a site on Bebo - he has a pokemon 'skin' and lists his favourite hobbies and pass-times. He spends hours on their chatting with other kids who share his obsessions. Imagine SSDN could provide a space where young people could find the same enthusiasm for learning.

The balance has to come between providing certain elements and tools and NOT trying to be MySpace or Bebo. The kids will smell a rat if we try. I was looking through some Bebo sites, though, and none of them use the blog function. Maybe this is something we could encourage them to use in the future, by publishing some of the creative writing they're already producing in English and MFL?

I think it is more important that children will be able to get a world wide audience with SSDN that customise there pages, but will they?

Comparing what I've seen of children's work on blogs (often with limited or no design possibilities) and think.com (lots of 'design' possibilities), I get the impression that they take themselves more seriously (taking responsibility for there work and web presence) when blogging than when using think. I have seen some great stuff on think.com, but it is in the minority.

SSDN will offer a Scottish, not global audience. While you can invite partners into SSDN as guests you will not get the worldwide (and UK) serendipity that you already get with blogs.

There is undoubtedly nonsense if kids spend all their time looking at design rather than the content, but the design element can form an interesting part of the curriculum. Design *is* vital - good design means it is easier for people to read and use your blog/website. Personalised design means it is more fun to write on *your* area.

Denying kids the right to personalise their space or their post is just another way teachers exert control over the process. This is one area I believe where it is important to hand over control for a set amount of time and within a structured design task. Good for the writer, good for the audience.

SSDN limitation are a pity, it is a big world to give up. I hope the gains are worth it.
Teachers are always exerting control even if it is controlling the amount of time set aside for design;-)
The Czech students' pages are a nice example, can you give a bit more details of why the Czech teachers could give their pupils more time?
I hope to be able to give some children more space for this next session, if I can find the time, space and equipment for it. I am blogging a bit more about this, food for though, thanks Ewan.

The Czech teachers, like the Dutch and many others, did what was advised after the trial - make time for this part. What most countries did was give away one new 'tool' each week which the kids could then adapt. This would be followed by a couple of writing posts, and then another design moment. I still stand by this being worth the time spent, for the writing coming back was clearly better with time. Kids would also spend time on their blog and the blogs of others (and therefore read more) in their free time.

Design is the carrot leading the horse to water. Often, given the carrot to eat now and then, they will drink...
(how's that for an extended metaphor?!)

Social software? Very impressive article. Lino is my military friend and if their was a time to spent just for one day was to know the importance of designing...
Glad to read this.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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