While I personally love Nings (I belong to sixteen Nings and counting) and would enjoy for my students to be able to dialogue in such an environment, the fact is this: students under the age of 13 are expressly forbidden by the Ning Terms of Service (and federal law!) to participate in such a forum.
Edmodo. About a year ago Mashable called Edmodo "Twitter for Education," but with the release of Edmodo 3.0 in August 2009 the site looks and behaves more like Facebook, and is now even easier to set up and implement. (While it's free in its basic version, the company plans to launch for-pay premium add-ons as well as school packages in the future. Get in now!).
So in brief, Edmodo lets the teacher create a social networking site which is totally closed. Not only closed, but also ad-free. Students join with a teacher-provided access code, and can then, in turn, join individual groups (which the teach has created) using additional access codes. (For additional security, you can change all access codes once students are in; in this way, even if students share access codes later, they won't work. Period One students will thus not be able to let Period 5 students into their group).
So after each of my students logs in to my created community, they are then forwarded access codes to join discussion groups such as What I'm Reading Now, Cool Videos, Sound Off (discussions about classroom topics), My Stories, My Art Work, etc. I even included a Status Update discussion so that students can just "check in" and let their peers know what they're up to, even if it's unrelated to any classroom topic. (And in case you're wondering, no, they cannot contact, nor be contacted by, students or teachers in other Edmodo networks; it's all about the access codes).
Unlike Twitter, Edmodo posts can be long! They can also include not only hypertext links, but also embedded videos and documents. Students can respond to teacher generated polls, and can be notified of important postings by teacher-generated alerts. Students can post to group discussions (The Outsiders), students in their class (Period 1), or individual members. But the teacher is able to see it all! In this way students know they're accountable for their actions.
What personal information is required of students? None. Usernames can be fictitious or coded, and avatars can be created or pasted images rather than actual pictures of their students. For those concerned with assessment, all I need to do is click on an individual student's avatar to see every posting he/she has written. If you feel a need to grade such an experience, you could even require a certain number of posts per week, in predetermined groups. I wouldn't.
I've created my Edmoto site and I'm really psyched for my students to give it a go this week. If they have additional ideas for discussion groups we'll add those as we go. I'll post again on Friday and let you know how it went.
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