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.
THERE 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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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