Children self organising online communities

Despite my belief in learning as potentially self organising, I am regularly amazed at how children in my class take technological tools and make them their own. I have previously seen children innovating in their use of online tools, but today I became aware of something that astounded me in terms of self organised use of social media.

This afternoon I introduced edmodo to my class, framed by a discussion of the safe use of social networking prompted by their home use of online games. I have been aware for some time that children have been using google docs to create shared spaces for communication. This began with groups logging in to documents created as part of their school work, and then using the chat feature to discuss what they were doing; with one group three producing an 18 page play script in a single evening.

I noticed this evolving when a document was shared with me on a Saturday afternoon titled ‘Everyone come on at 5 please’. This document had been created by a girl at home, and shared with the entire class in the hope they would see it and log on at the same time to allow some real-time communication. This has continued to spread through the class, but in a rather haphazard way, as many do not check their email and their participation was down to checking their docs account at the right time by chance.

This use of collaborative documents to create shared spaces for interaction seems very innovative to me. The children have a desire to create shared spaces for communicating outside of school, and have used the tools at their disposal to do so despite the fact they are not really designed for this purpose. However, I did have some concerns about it. Firstly, the fact that they were obviously finding it challenging to actually recruit people at the right time, as children were not being notified of the existence of a space, and were only finding it by chance. A second concern was the fact that when these documents were not shared with me it was not straightforward, although by no means impossible, for me to moderate what was going on. Now I do not believe that I should be watching their every move, but this is a very new thing for them and I do feel the need to be able to keep a handle on things in case there are difficulties.

Introducing edmodo seemed like the next step as, despite their innovative use of google docs, it is a tool designed for the purpose they have in mind. Edmodo basically acts as a ‘walled garden’ version of twitter, where pupils can send short messages and links to each other in a space that is private only to our class. I can moderate the messages if needs be, and keep an eye on how they are using it.

I introduced it this afternoon, and the class had a fun session messaging each other. I then used it’s ‘assignments’ feature to send them details of the work for the afternoon, and they continued to use it to communicate whilst collaborating on some google docs presentations. They seemed really excited by the potential of this tool, and I stayed logged in as they went home, eager to see what would happen.

As expected a number of girls logged on as soon as they got home and started chatting, but quickly decided to move this chat to a shared google doc called ‘Chat for girls only’, distributed the link to this and then disappeared. I was slightly concerned at this attempt to go ‘off the record’, and felt I should explore this so logged in to the document they were on. What I found was a narrative that really suprised me…

A girl had obviously created a space ‘for girls only’, and had started the document by explaining that no boys were to be invited and the reasons for this. This had then turned into a debate about the fairness of this policy, which was followed up by one girl creating a rival space called ‘Chat for Boys and Girls’. The ‘no boys’ rule having set a precedent, this girl started by explaining that this was a fair space in which anyone could participate. Below this was what appeared be a crowd sourced set of community guidelines for how the members wanted people to behave in this space, going well beyond the original purpose it was created for.

At this point I started to feel like something of an intruder here, as I had stepped uninvited into a self organised online space created for children with shared values of gender equality! Obviously this use of social media is something I need to keep tabs on, to make sure that I can be available to the children as they explore their use of it. What is clear to me, though, is that all I need to do is give them access to the tools and then be there to support if needed; they are quite capable of defining their communities and even moderating the participation in them on their own.

Given the resources and permission to self organise their experiences, children are capable of doing so competently on their own. This experience showed me that perhaps as teachers we should trust children to self organise more, and be there for advice when problems arise, rather than telling them how things ‘should be done’.








11 responses to “Children self organising online communities”

  1. José Picardo Avatar

    The rising importance and availability of online social networks and their popularity among young people are undeniable facts. It’s also a fact that they are becoming an ever more integral part of young people’s lives.

    As a result, children today are communicating with each other on an unprecedented scale. It seems foolish of teachers therefore not to make the most of this largely untapped ocean of teaching and learning opportunities.

    You are doing wonderful work with Edmodo Oliver. I look forward to finding out more about your experiences.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks Jose. Agree with what you say. When I first started using IM and email at 14 I made mistakes. The nature of the internet now means these children will do the same, much younger and potentially much more publicly. We need to give them opportunities to do so and learn from them on safe, supportive environments.

      Thanks for the support!

  2. Jo Badge Avatar
    Jo Badge

    Great post Oliver and thanks for sharing these fascinating observations. I’ll watch with interest on how use of edmodo goes. Do you know if your children use any other form of electronic communication outside school? Chat/IM? Moshi monsters? I’ve been using friendfeed with undergraduates and it seems that they appreciate a ‘prodessional’ space to talk about their studies, away from the social space of Facebook. I guess edmodo is a forerunner of that, but I wonder if it’s an additional space or the only space online?

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      Thanks for the comment Jo. As far as I am aware this cohort is only using the tools provided by us for communicating with their peers in their class. My class last year did discuss using hotmail and MSN, but this group have not mentioned them.

      It is interesting what you say about undergrads appreciating the distinction of spaces. When I was completing my PGCE we were provided with an online space to discuss our experiences, and this was largely shunned in favour of facebook. This appeared to be for two reasons. Firstly because it was where people actually regularly were, so messages (and cries for help!) got answered quickly. Secondly, I think people did not like the corporate feel of the University provided space, and felt they were being a little overlooked and couldn’t be free in their expressions there.

      I have read some interesting work on the development of these spaces, and I think there is much to be discussed about strategies for making these communities as useful as possible for those using them. Ewan McIntosh’s strategy for eduBuzz is worth reading ( as is Stuart Sutherland’s reflections on the National College online space ( ).

      Personally, I think they key is doing what you are and listening to the target users. If they want to separate professional space then providing one makes sense. If they want to use their existing online spaces, then meeting them there seems to be the key.

      My class are currently discovering these issues too, and defining their uses of the tools. So far Edmodo seems to have been preferred as an organising space, where everyone checks regularly, but then moves to other spaces for specific social or work based interactions. What is interesting me at the moment is giving them the tools and seeing how they define the uses of them…

  3. Tommie Avatar

    As you say:

    “At this point I started to feel like something of an intruder here, as I had stepped uninvited into a self organised online space created for children”

    Yes you have, and totally unacceptable in an adult context. I do really wonder what the Minister for Children would think of this ? Totally wrong in my view.

    1. oliverquinlan Avatar

      That is a difficult area Tommie, hence the mixed feelings I expressed. The Google Apps environment the children were using is set up and administered by our school, and as such I have a responsibility for monitoring acceptable use of this resource. It has been made clear to the children that as this is a school provided resource it may be subject to monitoring if we have concerns about its use.

      If I simply set up these resources and then allowed the children to use them totally unmonitored I think many people (including parents) would have a problem with that. What if they became a hotbed of victimizing behaviour? I am not in favour of draconian lockdowns in the name of e safety, but I have to take into account all possibilities, and ensure that I am aware of any issues so I can help the children to find their way through them.

      I have no idea what the Minister for children would think, but I have a responsibility to the well being of these children. Parents have a responsibility for monitoring and protecting their children, my role ‘in loco parentis’ echos this. Much as I want to respect their privacy, it would be irresponsible of me to opt out of my responsibilities in this area.

  4. […] Oliver Quinlan (@oliverquinlan) Children self organising online communities […]

  5. Ethinking Avatar

    Tommy – you misunderstand. The edmodo account was set up by Oliver. He is the owner, done on school time and under the umbrella of the school. The last time I checked, it was still legal for teachers to monitor children’s activities in school.

    Your intentional slur on Oliver’s actions is unacceptable and the worst kind of bullying. Shame on you.

  6. […] Children Self-Organizing Online Communities […]

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