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    Social Software – Commentary

    Augmenting Teaching and Learning with Social Software:

    Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning.   John Seeley Brown (1996?)

    What is Social Software and How does it Augment Teaching and Learning?

    Social software offers a variety of tools to engage students and promote higher order learning, whether in blended or online courses.  What is social software, and how does it differ from earlier internet tools?  What are the tools of social software, and how can they be used productively for teaching and learning?  This paper will explore such issues, providing practical examples from three years of experimentation in courses ranging from first year to senior-level seminars.

    A variety of practitioners have developed definitions of social software.  The best is probably Tom Coates, who defines it as “software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behaviour – message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking.”  In other words, it is software that enables communication and connections between people on the internet.

    Terry Anderson (2005a) has introduced the concept of ‘educational social software’ which he defines, within a context of distance education, as:  “[…] networked tools that support and encourage individuals to learn together while retaining individual control over their time, space, presence, activity, identity and relationship.”

    Social software in an educational context can be described in terms of five elements: Small Pieces, Loosely Joined; Anywhere, Anytime Learning; Nearly Unlimited Resources; Learning as an Explicitly Social Endeavor; and Positive Network Effects.  Let’s explore each of these:

    Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

    “Small Pieces, Loosely Joined” is a philosophy of using a variety of diverse and powerful, generally open source, free software tools which can be easily mixed and matched to support the needs of a course.  Such tools include blogs and blog readers, wikis, RSS, social bookmarking, chat tools and others.  Using open source software allows the instructor to be entrepreneurial, choosing “best of breed” software, rather than being stuck with whatever the institution’s course management system offers.  It easily allows customization of a course’s digital environment, using only those tools that are needed.  (Once I had a student who apparently didn’t turn in an assignment.  I chased him for some time after which he told me that he turned the assignment in via the Digital Dropbox in Blackboard, a feature which we weren’t using.)  It is increasingly possible to use open source software to build one’s own learning management system.

    Anywhere, Anytime Learning

    The course is more than the class sessions.  Indeed, much of what students learn in a course occurs outside the classroom.  Social software allows the instructor to structure students’ out-of-class work to fit their location and schedule, rather than the more or less arbitrary time and place of the class sessions.  While critical in a distance learning environment, this feature is also very useful for traditional courses.

    Virtually Unlimited Resources

    Students at the smallest college now have access to more potential course content than anyone of my generation did at the best universities when we were in school.  Of course, all resources aren’t of equivalent value.  Students need to learn to read critically and evaluate the sources they use.  Social software provides tools for finding and accessing content, and indeed, automating this process via tagging and aggregation (to be explained below.)  Social software also offers a number of filtering tools for vetting content, tools that should appeal to economists since they are based in part on a market test.  David Weinberger (who coined the term “small pieces, loosely joined”) explains it this way:

    Open up The Britannica at random and you’re far more likely to find reliable knowledge than if you were to open up the Web at random. That’s why we don’t open up the Web at random. Instead, we rely upon a wide range of trust mechanisms, appropriate to their domain, to guide us. Amazon gives you ways of checking to see if a particular reviewer is trustworthy, but the mechanisms are not particularly rigorous because not all that much is at stake when considering the 6,001st review of a Harry Potter book. At eBay, where your money is at risk, the trust mechanisms are more reliable. On a blog, the persistence of previous posts means you can read further to see if you trust the blogger. More important, the recommendation of other bloggers you already trust is a good indicator. At Wikipedia, the rather sophisticated governance processes help establish trust, as does the complete transparency of the discussions behind the articles. On mailing lists, we learn over time who’s a blowhard and who’s a source of knowledge even if we don’t know what her real name is.

    Additionally, social software provides the ability for students to interact with many content experts (in ways described below), not just their instructor.

    Learning as an Explicitly Social Endeavor

    The importance of a community of inquiry is that, while the objective of critical reflection is intellectual autonomy, in reality, critical reflection is ‘thoroughly social and communal.  Lipman (1991)

    Social software amplifies the social nature of learning. Its use promotes communication between and interaction among a group of people.  Chris Lott observed,

    Learning is a social activity and has long been understood as such. But traditional educational environments provide little in the way of means to facilitate learning communities, and almost nothing to extend those communities beyond the bounds of the classroom.

    Contrast the way scholars do their work with how students work in a traditional course environment.  Scholars work as part of a network of experts in their field, developing competing arguments to advance the field.  These arguments constitution a conversation with others in the field.  Student work tends to be solitary and individual in nature.  Students write for an artificial audience—the instructor.  Information tends to flow one way: from instructor to student.  Interaction is at best a dialog.

    Social software serves to make school less artificial and more like real world scholarship.

    “Social software provides a means to create a learning community that can (ideally) both connect to the world of practice … and extend into— and become a part of— students’ lives.” (Chris Lott)  Implicit in the use of social software is a view of teaching and learning as a collective endeavor: Teaching becomes a many-to-many, instead of one-to-one or one-to-many activity.  This occurs since social software involves all participants in a course actively creating, evaluating and distributing content, not just consuming the content provided by the instructor.  This is not to say that anyone’s content is as good as anyone else’s or to denigrate the value of expertise.  The instructor still provides an expert view.  But it’s only one of a variety of views.  This is not a new idea—the text has always provided another view.  Outside experts who participate (whether implicitly through their works or explicitly as guest commentators) do as well.  The result, however, is a more explicit focus on critical thinking and reflection, as class participants confront a multiplicity of views on a topic, offering the potential for greater engagement.  There is evidence that the social nature of social software builds a sense of academic community which may be lacking in a traditional course environment.  “Social software … create[s], collectively, a completely new environment for creating, fostering, and facilitating learning communities.”  (Chris Lott)

    Social software makes student thinking visible, public and lasting.  Think about a class discussion that was powerful and insightful.  What was the tangible product of the discussion?  Oftentimes, the notes are minimal at best.  When students use blogs or wikis to conduct a discussion in an electronic format, every comment is captured.  It is easy to develop a finished record ex post.  Additionally, the content can be used as a resource or text for subsequent learning.  The quality of comments tends to be better than those developed extemporaneously in class due to the asynchronous nature of most electronic discussions, and also because students are sensitive to the reactions of their peers to their writing, more apparently than they are to the reactions of their instructors—after all, the instructor’s role is artificial while the peers’ is real.

    Stephen Downes, a noted commentator on social software, observes:

    Students will be able to follow each other’s work and will have access to each other’s networks of people and references. …Seeing each other’s work, network and references can provide a basis for discussions between students and teachers. … The potential of social software tools such as wikis, weblogs combined with RSS feeds and social bookmarking is to facilitate closer relationships and more frequent interaction between students and teachers. This is facilitated by their sharing of work and references and their engagement in discussions.

    Positive Network Effects

    Social software encourages the creation of communities of learners, where individuals learn from the efforts of others.

    The idea that knowledge can emerge from the collective activities of individuals is not new.  The use of citation indexes in many disciplines is an excellent example of this type of ‘collective intelligence’ familiar to academics.  What is new, however, is being able to harness the activities of millions of people using online software as a way of generating knowledge.  Sreebny (2007, 4)

    But social software does more than aggregate: It exploits positive network effects.

    By harnessing the collective intelligence of the group, the contributions of each individual build on each other and the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts.  The easiest example to show is with social bookmarking software, which will be described in more detail below.  One way in which positive externalities occur is the reduction in duplication of effort.  If everyone sees the results of a search that one member conducts, everyone obtains the resulting discoveries without having to do it themselves.  Another way is the market test, which is characteristic in social software: ”the more other people have linked to something, the greater likelihood that it has value.”

    < Go to “Discussion of the Tools: Blogs” >