Blog for the course offered at Teachers College, Columbia University during Fall 2005

Friday, August 26, 2005

Course Syllabus

MSTU 5510 (Topical Seminar): Social Software Affordances
CRN 33956

Tuesdays 01:00 pm-02:40 pm,
Room GDH 177
his class will only meet in the classroom three times during the semester:
9/13, 11/1 and 12/20. The rest of the time the class will happen online.

Credits: 3
Enrollment Capacity: 8-16 students

Instructor: Ulises A. Mejias

Course Description

'Social software' has become a convenient label to group a new generation of socio-technical systems (mostly web based) that facilitate human expression, communication, and collaboration. Examples of social software include content management systems such as blogs, knowledge and collaboration management systems such as wikis, relationship management systems such as Friendster and Orkut, distributed classification systems such as and furl, and the use of RSS feeds to distribute information to specific audiences.

Social software represents the promise of truly networked human communities extending across the online and offline dimensions of reality. But beyond the hype, a critical approach to social software is necessary in order to explore its impact and possibilities. During this course, we will (individually and collectively) address some of the following questions:

  • What is 'social' about social software?

  • How is the notion of community being redefined by social software?

  • What aspects of our humanity stand to gain or suffer as a result of our use of and reliance on social software?

  • How is social agency shared between humans and code in social software?

  • What are the social repercussions of unequal access to social software?

  • What are the pedagogical implications of social software for education?

  • Can social software be an effective tool for individual and social change?

  • What general principles can we identify for designing social software? How would we apply those principles in the design of a particular social software application?

  • What general principles can we identify for evaluating social software?
    How would we use those principles to measure the effectiveness of a particular social software application?

This course will allow us to approach these questions not only from a theoretical perspective, but also by gaining hands-on experience using some of the tools being discussed. I don't expect that we will be able to answer all of these questions definitively (you will be free to choose in which order and to what extent you wish to tackle the above questions, or define new ones). Therefore, I will measure our success in this course in terms of the depth (not just breadth) of our analysis and our ability to frame provocative questions to guide future research.


Everyone involved in this course is expected to form part of a dynamic research community. This course is intended for graduate students who are comfortable taking charge of their learning process and who do not require large amounts of supervision or external motivation. At the same time, this course will require a high degree of (online) collaboration and engagement with your peers, so this is not a self-study course either.

This course is appropriate for students in the CCTE masters or doctoral programs, or other students interested in new communication and information technologies and the critical study of their impact on society, as well as students who wish to become proficient in the use of some social software applications.

Course Objectives

  1. The class will develop competency in the use of blogs, wikis, distributed classification systems, and RSS feeds.

  2. The class will perform a state-of-the-art review of social software tools, applications, and theory, focusing on a critical assessment of the affordances of social software.

  3. Class members will conduct an individual exercise on the potential of social software to effect change at a personal and social level.

Required Books and Materials

The literature on social software is being written as we speak. Instead of providing links to current resources, it is the goal of the course to engage learners in the research, critique and organization of these materials. The following books, however, will provide a theoretical foundation for our analysis of social software (they are thus referred to as Foundational Texts). THESE BOOKS WILL NOT BE AVAILABLE THROUGH THE TC BOOKSTORE. PLEASE BUY THEM DIRECTLY THROUGH YOUR PREFERRED [ONLINE] BOOKSTORE.

Barabâasi, A.-L. (2003). Linked: How everything is connected to everything else and what it means. Plume Publisher. NOTE: This is the paperback reissue edition. The edition I listed originally is no longer in print.

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Feenberg, A. & Barney, D. (Eds.). (2004). Community in the digital age: Philosophy and practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning technology. New York: Routledge [AVAILABLE AS AN ONLINE RESOURCE THROUGH COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY EBRARY]

Any additional reading materials will be provided digitally.

Note on reading assignments: There is no reading schedule, which means you are responsible for familiarizing yourself with the topics that each book covers, and then approaching the books in a systematic way in order to support the research that you will be doing. I expect that in each individual analysis assignment you will refer to and cite some of these readings. Failure to do so will impact your grade.

For example: Suppose that one week you are focusing on the question of how social software is redefining the concept of community (different people might be focusing on different questions, which is why there is no prescribed reading order). You would probably select some chapters from Community in the Digital Age and use them to support your analysis of the research. Next week you might be tackling a different question and use a different book, or continue with the same question and book(s). I am not looking for signs that you have read every page of every book, but rather that you are familiar with all of the books in general, and have identified the specific books or parts of a book that are relevant to your research.

Other materials required for the course: You will need a blog and an RSS Aggregator. Some free options exist, or you may decide to purchase a subscription to them instead (more information on these options during the first week of class). Access to wikis will be provided by me, and all you will need to do is register as a user (you will create an anonymous username to access the SSA Wiki, such as 'sktrdude88').

Course Environments

We will not be using ClassWeb except for administrative purposes (class roster, etc.). Most of the communication between members of the class will occur in the following online environments:

Distributed Research Database (and RSS feed): This database, maintained in, is where all the online research will be collected and shared. As you surf the web in search of information about Social Software, you will bookmark items using the tag ccte. Even if you decide an item is of little interest to you, you should bookmark it if you think it might be of interest to someone else in the class. The aggregated collection of items will be available to the whole class by subscribing to the RSS feed generated by (more on the technicalities of this later). You will select specific items from this database for your individual analysis, which you will post on your individual blogs.

Individual Blogs: All students will be required to maintain a blog. The blog will be used to post specific assignments as well as any additional content you wish to share in order to demonstrate an engagement with the issues discussed in the course. At the end of the course, your blog will be a portfolio documenting your progress and growth during the class. There will be a total of five (5) Individual Analysis assignments that you will post to your blog throughout the course. This means taking any item submitted to the Distributed Research database, and writing a 500-1000 word post about it (you must cite the Foundational Texts). Afterwards, everyone will read each other's blog and then synthesize, edit or expand certain posts to build the Social Software Affordances Wiki. Additionally, there will be an Issue Entrepreneurship assignment (described later) that will also be posted to your blog throughout the semester. And, because your blog is a reflection of your personality and creativity, you can use it to post anything else as long as the content is not offensive to other members of the class.

Social Software Affordances Wiki: The class as a whole will undertake the design and construction of a wiki where resources on social software tools, applications, and theory will be collected and reviewed. The main goal of the SSA wiki, however, will not be merely to collect links, but to provide a critical engagement with the questions outlined at the beginning of this syllabus. The wiki will synthesize the best content from the blogs, edited collectively and, in contrast to the blogs, anonymously (one of the aspects of the course is to explore issues of anonymity vs. stable identity in social software). In other words, while the individual blogs will reflect individual opinions and research, the SSA wiki will reflect the collective research and analysis of the class.

Class Blog and Class Wiki: The Class Blog (which I will manage) will be used to post weekly information about assignments as well as announcements, reminders, etc. You will subscribe to this blog (and all other individual blogs) so you will be notified when new content is posted. You will also use this blog to post questions or comments about assignments (email will only be used for private communication, as well as instructions at the beginning of the course). The Class Wiki will be used for collecting information pertinent to the operations of the course, such as blog directories, additional reading materials, etc.

(assignments for Week 1 due before the beginning of Week 2, and so on)

Although there are specific weekly assignments (listed below), it might help to recognize that the class in general follows this iterative structure:

  1. DISTRIBUTED RESEARCH: bookmark the results of your online research using
  2. INDIVIDUAL ANALYSIS: post analysis of the research to your blog (support your analysis with the Foundational Texts)
  3. COLLECTIVE SYNTHESIS: select the most useful content from the blogs, copy to the wiki, and collectively edit it
  4. Start again with a different question or issue

** Each week, you will visit the Class Blog for additional information about the assignments. ** If you have questions, ask them in the Comments section for that post instead of emailing them to me. This way, others can see the questions and my replies.

Week 1: September 13


Get a blog (post your URL and RSS feed link to the Class Wiki)
Get an RSS Aggregator
Get a account (post your username to the Class Wiki)

Blog post: My (Techno-) Biography

Subscribe to all blogs
Subscribe to 'ccte' feed

Week 2: September 20

Distributed Research

Blog Post: Individual Analysis #1

SSA Wiki: Suggest Structure

Week 3: September 27

Distributed Research

SSA Wiki: Collective Synthesis of previous week's blog posts

Blog Post: Issue Entrepreneurship: Select a cause (see below for a description of this assignment)

Week 4: October 4

Distributed Research

Blog Post: Individual Analysis #2

Week 5: October 11

Distributed Research

SSA Wiki: Collective Synthesis of previous week's blog posts

Blog Post: Issue Entrepreneurship update

Week 6: October 18

Distributed Research

Blog Post: Individual Analysis #3

Week 7: October 25

Distributed Research

SSA Wiki: Collective Synthesis of previous week's blog posts

Blog Post: Issue Entrepreneurship update

Week 8: November 1


Distributed Research

SSA Wiki: Mid-semester assessment of SSA Wiki

Blog Post: Mid-semester assessment of Issue Entrepreneurship project

Week 9: November 8

Distributed Research

Blog Post: Individual Analysis #4

Week 10: November 15

Distributed Research

SSA Wiki: Collective Synthesis of previous week's blog posts

Blog Post: Issue Entrepreneurship update

Week 11: November 22

Distributed Research

Blog Post: Individual Analysis #5

Week 12: November 29

Distributed Research

SSA Wiki: Collective Synthesis of previous week's blog posts

Blog Post: Issue Entrepreneurship update

Week 13: December 6

SSA Wiki: Final edits to entire SSA wiki

Week 14: December 13

SSA Wiki: Final edits to entire SSA wiki

Blog Post: Final Reflection on Issue Entrepreneurship project

Blog Post: Final thoughts and evaluation of class

Week 15: December 20


Timeliness of assignments: If you fail to complete an assignment during a particular week, just make sure you complete it the following week. Given that this course consists of multiple ongoing conversations as opposed to one finite conversation followed by the next one, I am more concerned with the quality of posts than with the exact date on which they were posted. Having said that, you are still responsible for completing ALL the assignments and for doing so in a manner that promotes dialogue and feedback. In other words, you can't expect to log on once a month, complete all assignments, and disappear for another month.

Length of assignments: It has been said that writing for a blog or a wiki forces you to be succinct and to the point, and I believe it's true. There will be a lot of information being shared back and forth, so you should take care to compose your posts carefully and always keep the time constraints of your audience (the rest of the class) in mind. My own rule of thumb is to write a draft and then see if one can say the same things in half the words. An average post should be around 500-1000 words.

Issue Entrepreneurship assignment: This assignment is intended as a personal exploration of whether social software can aid in personal and social change. You will begin, in Week 3, by identifying a social cause you are interested in (e.g., any issue having to do with the rights of someone or something that need championing). The assignment then consists of using any form(s) of social software to attempt to make a meaningful (not necessarily large) contribution to the cause at three different levels: personal, local, and global. You will then use your blog (see calendar of assignments above) to post updates on your progress. It does not matter if you succeed or fail in making a meaningful contribution, as long as you document your experience and can discuss how social software contributed to your success or failure.


10% Distributed Research (links posted to You are expected to post at least 50 items during the semester. Items can be online journal articles, news articles, opinion pieces, case studies, links to social software tools, reviews of such tools, etc. You don't have to read each item thoroughly. You should only read those that are relevant to your research interests, but bookmark others that might be of interest to the rest of the class.

25% Individual Analysis (assignments posted to your Individual Blog).

25% Issue Entrepreneurship updates and Final report (assignments posted to your Individual Blog). Remember, this part of the grade does not depend on whether you succeeded or failed in making a meaningful contribution to the cause, but on how well you document and reflect on your experience.

10% Comments to classmates' posts. The metric here will be quality instead of quantity or length. Your comments to someone's blog post should provoke further reflection on the part of the blogger.

30% Editing SSA Wiki. This is a collective grade; i.e., everyone in the class will get the same percentage based on the grade I give to the wiki as a whole.

Information for Students with Disabilities

The College will make reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Students are encouraged to contact the office of Access and Services for Individuals with Disabilities for information about registration (166 Thorndike Hall). Services are available only to students who are registered and submit appropriate documentation.


Blogger Deblogger said...

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2:29 PM

Blogger John Concilus said...

This is an interesting outline. I am preparing a course with similar goals, and will be interested to see how this works out for the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education program.

I stumbled in from a link to this article:

Your points there about the tensions between pedagogy and technology are on target.

Our school district is now using two different wiki engines, including one for collaborative content development, and for jointly producing manuals, guides and revising standards. The "working versions" are available to anyone on the web, while the "official versions" - validated by committees formally each June for the following year - are in a closed system.

At the classroom level, we have teachers and administrators who now utilize RSS feeds for tracking a number changes to program information, and some teachers use these within an Open Source CMS both to inform students of assignments, and to be notified when work is handed in.

Adoption is taking place pretty rapidly, but we are fortunate to have a supportive administrative team, and have been pushed to use Social Software by our physical isolation from one another - the district is the size of Minnesota, and has 16 sites that are not connected by roads.

The challenges have not been technological as much as with getting key people to see the possibilities in integrating this into new ways of teaching...not old models. However, we have noticed that much of the excitement is at the building level, not over distance ;-)

BSSD OpenContent Initiative

Keep up the good work. the Bering Sea

11:10 AM

Blogger Jonathan Dean said...


This sounds like a fascinating course. Does anyone know of an equivalent course scheduled to be run in the Bay Area, CA?
Regards, Jonathan.

9:01 PM

Blogger Kite-Mark Learning said...

Your course on social software sounds extremely interesting. i am hoping to use some of these tools for my own course this semester but wondered how you had set up the collective delicious RSS etc. I can see how to use delicious (and use it extensivley myself) but not how to ensure all my students tags appear in one delicious website which they can all see. Any clues would be appreciated

8:58 AM

Blogger Ulises said...

Sorry for the long lapse in replying. Basically, you need to have the group agree on using a unique tag to bookmark their individual entries. Then you can use the RSS feed for that tag to aggregate everyone's bookmarks. I have described the process here and here (see 'How To' and link to RSS Digest). Good luck!

6:28 PM


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