Community 2.0

Introducing social networking for the educational set

It's Friday morning at the National Educational Computing Conference and Jim Klein, director of information services at the Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita, California, is demonstrating the features of Elgg. Part of a growing class of open-source tools that lets users create their own profiles and connect with others, Elgg offers a special twist. It's designed exclusively for learners.

U.K.-based David Tosh and Ben Werdmuller developed Elgg in 2004 after noticing that most e-portfolio systems being used in education were top down: institutions, not students, controlled the flow of information. So they set out to build a "personal learning landscape platform" driven by users' intellectual interests.

How personal is it? Users can craft a profile detailing their likes and dislikes, upload their favorite files, create blogs, post podcasts, pipe in RSS feeds, and use key words to connect with like-minded people. Access controls make it possible to keep your profile private or available to selected users if you don't want the whole world to see it.

Klein, an early adopter who licensed the free software for Saugus USD last year, says his school district's self-contained Elgg community has 169 members. Some teachers share lesson plans and photos through the file depository; others have developed informational podcasts that parents can subscribe to. This fall Saugus plans to pilot Elgg with its 6th graders and also form a community for grant writing. "We're seeing little islands of innovation being shared throughout the district," says Klein. "It's binding us together."

In many ways, Elgg represents everything that's appealing about the Web 2.0 movement: community-oriented, user-driven, low maintenance — and wide open. For example, because Elgg is built on open standards, users can opt to plug in their favorite blogging tool instead of using Elgg's. "The days are numbered where you can give people one system and expect that to satisfy everyone's needs," says Tosh, who is currently working on OpenAcademic, a service that integrates Elgg with its open-source cousins Moodle, Drupal, and MediaWiki.

Recognizing that not all openness is good, especially when it comes to student information, Elgg plans this fall to release a K-12 plug-in module that provides extra privacy and administrative control for schools.

If you're wondering how Elgg compares to the most famous social networking tool of all, Tosh will set you straight. "The big difference between our tool and MySpace is $580 million," he says, adding: "I can see why people try to make parallels because of the social networking ethos. I don't see anything [similar] beyond that...Elgg is built from a pedagogical standpoint. You install it on your own servers and have complete control over it."

Amy Poftak is associate publisher/executive editor of Technology & Learning. Read an expanded interview with David Tosh on www.schoolcio.com.

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