For the past couple of years I volunteered at my son's elementary school to set up blogs for his classroom, but the projects never got off the ground. Nervous school IT staff unable to find a platform that offered them the privacy and control they wanted, and knew parents would demand, always nixed the deal. Elgg, a new open source social networking platform aimed specifically at the education market, solves this problem by providing a safe, open source alternative to the popular blogging platforms such as LiveJournal and Blogger, and the even scarier (at least to them) Facebook and MySpace. What's more, Elgg gives users complete control over privacy.
As an open source tool, developers can use the Elgg core to build social networking functionality into any socially aware application, giving developers the ability to build social tools into an application in a similar way that Google Friend Connect enables web developers to add social functions to a web site. But what will excite educators is the full version, which includes several standard plug-ins including a blogging engine, a file repository for organizing files, bookmarks, a message board and the all-important 'Walled Garden' plug-in. The latter provides a way for educators to set up a private site (such as a classroom or a school) where only those registered for the site can access the content on the site.
This feature should resolve any issues a school IT department might have over privacy control because only those invited to participate could be involved in the site. Student information and their content would never be exposed to the open web, something that concerned my son's elementary school IT department. Neither does it require that students have an email address to set up a blog, a requirement that some parents of elementary school kids might not approve of. But the privacy restrictions do not stop at the administrator level.
According to this ReadWriteWeb article on Elgg, individuals have complete control over who can access their own profiles, blog entries and so forth (although one would assume they could not block teachers from accessing content). While this level of privacy functionality is available in Facebook, for instance, it is not always easy to implement or to understand how the privacy controls affect content access beyond your own friends, and you could end up sharing content with people you don't know inadvertently. With Elgg, even if students don't understand these functions, content would never be exposed outside the cozy and safe confines of the school.
Facebook was born on a college campus and it would seem that an educational setting is the perfect environment for social networking. The trouble is that educators at the grade-school level want to have some control over the system and Elgg appears to offer a safe, free, open source alternative that should please educators who want to introduce social networking to the classroom without exposing children and their content to the open web (and without breaking the budget). With increasingly tight budgets and fears (founded or not) about sites like Facebook and MySpace, Elgg seems to give educators the best of all worlds.