It's a Ning Thing
In a session on engaging students in online literary responses, there were some interesting discussion points about the use of blogs for fostering literary interpretations (ie, students read To Kill a Mockingbird while writing personal blogs about their social world). During this two-part session, of particular interest was researcher Richard Beach, University of Minnesota, and the use of Nings for adopting online role play. You can find him on the NCTE Ning.
Beach used the example of one lesson plan by high school teacher, Elizabeth A. Boeser (mwpwiki.pbworks.com/Elizabeth-a-boeser/; sites.google.com/site/missboeser/), his former advisee. After reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (teenager hacker who takes on homeland security), students had to come down on one side or another of their own school's internet policy. Boeser's students spent three weeks reading the book, role playing on the Ning, and then finally, writing a paper on the topic.
Beach spoke about the benefits of the Ning as a social networking tool for instructional use the fact that it's private, that ads can be blocked, and it's ease of use for students and teachers.
How did Boeser grade her students on their ability to argue for their school's relaxing of their internet policy, which they won by the way? She suggested that students grade their own work on the Ning. Since she's used this lesson plan before, she had her students grade another Ning and then come back to their class Ning. They graded themselves and then Boeser graded them. What she was looking for: how well the students presented their points of view, the frequency and depth of their posts, and the links and images that they posted.
In addition, students can finesse the process of creating avatars (something, trust me, they're likely already doing on their own), work on their persuasive writing, and integrate skills they're already using outside of the classroom to improve their literacy skills.