How & Why

Web 2.0 Meets Conventional Ed

If you've been considering the integration of social networking tools and benefits with more conventional educational approaches, here's guidance you won't want to miss.

The following heavily downloaded article, "Social Networking: Learning Theory in Action", ran on May 28, 2008.

Web 2.0 Meets Conventional  EducationTHERE HAS BEEN a lot of recent debate on the benefits of social networking tools and software in education. While there are good points on either side of the debate, the essential difference in theoretical positioning remains. Most conventional educational environments are "Objectivist" in nature and highly structured in terms of students' progress and choice. Social networking essentially requires a less controlled, user-generated environment, which challenges conventional views of the effective "management" of teaching and learning. Still, there are questions: Can social networking, both as an instructional concept and user skill, be integrated into the conventional approaches to teaching and learning? Do the skills developed within a social networking environment have value in the more conventional environments of learning?

Optimum Production

The National School Boards Association, in partnership with research firm Grunwald Associates, and with the support of Microsoft, News Corp, and Verizon, published a 2007 survey dissecting social- and education-related activity patterns by American students. The focus of the study was K-12 instruction; however, much can be learned from the results of this study and can be applied to the uses of social networking technology in general.

The list of "popular" social networking activities itemized by Grunwald certainly seems to support the idea that the most common uses of these tools are simply unidirectional (posting messages, downloading media files, updating personal information). However, while these types of uses could be carried out in a self-reflective learning environment, actual "social" skills seem to be lacking.

Also according to Grunwald, when examining the distribution of innovative uses of the same tools (that is, students who use networking tools more collaboratively, creatively, and with actual project outcomes in mind), the uses of the tools can change according to the intentions of the user, and more complex and learning-related skills can be developed if the purposes change. Arguably, then, if instructional design intentionally maximizes this kind of skill development, learning could benefit and students would be engaged in the process. In fact, the students who were surveyed in the study demonstrated a wide range of possible uses of the same software.

Students who were 'nonconformists' participated in all possible uses of social networking tools. The challenge: how to encourage more students to do this.

According to the 2007 study, student respondents who were titled "nonconformists" participated in all the possible uses of social networking tools. While these students only represented one in five of the regular student users, the scope of their uses was incredibly diverse, complex, and innovative. With this in mind, the challenge is how to encourage more students to use the tools actively rather than passively; the user controlling the tool rather than the tool dictating the user's activity.

Collaboration

Educators are increasingly challenged in the development of collaborative skills in learners. Given our current societal needs for making more with less, it's worth noting that learning theorists have long supported the notion that the sharing of ideas increases the outcomes of new knowledge.

Work done by M. Scardamalia and C. Bareiter (1996) in computer-assisted and mediated knowledge-building learning environments consistently suggested that new technology can assist in the knowledge-building process as long as commitment to the learning process and positioning of the working contexts are relevant and applied for the learner. Many educators confuse cooperation and collaboration: The former, being a passive skill, does not develop the same active skill of collaboration. Collaboration requires activity on the part of all participants and results in the exchange of ideas and the working of ideas (Scardamalia, 2002), and can result in new knowledge. Social networking tools can be used to develop this skill when integrated into a project-based approach to learning; that is, when students are encouraged to start with the end in mind and bring various resources and participants into the process, working toward their solution.

Creativity

Accessing prior knowledge empowers learners in their own learning process. Creativity in learning, however, develops ownership and new applications of learning for the learner. In higher education, creativity in learning is central to authenticity, facilitates critical thought, and encourages the learner to forge new paths for his learning. Thus, when students manipulate software environments for uses other than their main intention, students are demonstrating a level of creativity that could be integrated into the learning environment and work to their benefit.

Networking

The skill of networking also should be valued in learning and is the essence of internet-based social networking environments. When students realize the value in connecting with others in the learning process, the better their learning will be. Networking with experts, peers, and additional sources of information makes learning more interesting and also more legitimate. In traditional higher education, this level of comparison and positioning is not required until graduate-level work. Only at the graduate level do we require learners to position their work within the larger community of experts in their field. Why is this not a skill that is developed and valued long before graduate studies? The reality of internet-based social networking tools that is often lost in the discussion is the "production" or "publishing" aspect of the environment. Again, this encourages learners to see themselves within a larger community and realize the impact of their contributions.

Challenge to Instructional Design

As with all digital environments, integrating these spaces into a legitimate and beneficial learning environment requires innovation on the part of the instructor. Therefore, instructors are challenged to model the same skills they are looking for in their students. While educators maintain a conventional flow in the learning process-- passive reception, pre-determined levels of interaction, regulated outcomes of information exchange and production-- new knowledge will never be achieved. If, however, instructors realize the dynamic potential of digital networking environments to engage students at a higher level of collaboration and creativity, and those skills also are valued in terms of grades, then the current tools can be integrated successfully in the context of learning.

An appropriate response, then, to social networking tools is not to reject them as irrelevant to learning, but to realize that current students are likely to already be familiar with the passive uses of social networking, and need to be challenged toward innovation. The issue is to build on what is already being done and accepted by students as a familiar activity, in order to develop more innovative uses of the same activity and encourage students to become engaged participants in their online connections.

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