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Social Networking: Learning Theory in Action

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, there remains the essential difference in theoretical positioning. 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. Therefore, 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?

Certainly, social learning theory is not new, but some would argue that while the social learning theorists hold that social interaction is at the center of effective learning and that no individual learns in isolation, social networking software does not provide a helpful context within which social interaction skills are developed. In other words, the valuable social skills that support learning are not the skills developed within current Internet-based social spaces.

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As you may expect, traditional academic institutions have generally resisted the influence and increasingly pervasive presence of social networking activities in the life of their students, but recently the same institutions have had to look with new eyes at all of the aspects and consequences of these new modes of technological socialization sweeping the younger generations. (DeRossi, 2007)

The National School Boards Association (USA), in partnership with research firm Grunwald Associates and with the support of Microsoft, Newscorp, and Verizon, published a 2007 data-rich 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 that apply to the uses of social networking technology in general.

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

However, 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.

Innovative Uses
According to the 2007 study, of the students surveyed, those who were titled "non-conformists" 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. The challenge then becomes 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. That sounds much like the challenge of good teaching in general: how to encourage students to become more active and more creative in their engagement in the learning process, rather than simply following the safe paths of passivity.

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 Scardamelia and 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 that while necessary for group work and team projects 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 (Scardamelia, 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 towards 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 and facilitates critical thought. Often creativity is recognized and valued in conventional "creative" contexts, such as art and/or design; however creativity in learning should be a highly valued skill as it requires a high level of thinking and encourages the learner to make new paths for their learning. So 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 for their benefit.

The skill of networking should also be valued in learning and is the essence of Internet-based social networking environments. That is, when students realize the value in connecting with others in the learning process, the better their learning will be. Networking with experts, with peers, with additional sources of information, and so on makes the 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? Students understanding how their work compares to their peers, how their work contributes to their field, and why their work is significant beyond the immediate expectations of a course and their teacher can only enlarge the outcomes for the learner. 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 contribution.

Challenge to Instructional Design
As with all digital environments, to integrate 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 maintaining a conventional flow in the learning process of 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 are also valued in terms of grades, then the current tools can be integrated successfully in context of learning.

An appropriate response, then, to social networking tools is not, in my opinion, to reject them as irrelevant to learning but to realize that current students are likely to be already familiar with the passive uses of social networking and need to be challenged toward innovation. I would argue we are already challenged in that regard with all learners: engaging students at a higher level to develop active learning skills and facilitate full engagement in the learning process. If we are already challenged in this aspect, why would we involve ourselves in the use of social networking tools that only intensify the challenge? My suggestion is that we should do it because these are environments that are already familiar to many students, and, while their main uses may be passive, they are participating or would like to participate. That, it seems to me, helps instructors at the basic level of students participation, as, often in traditional classroom or lecture halls, students are disengaged with the content from the outset. The issue then is to build on what is already being done and accepted by students as a familiar activity to develop more innovative uses of the same activity and encourage students to become engaged participants in their online connections.


DeRossi (2007) (Ed.) Online Social Networking And Education: Study Reports On New Generations Social And Creative Interconnected Lifestyles. Nov. 9, 2007.

Grunwald, P. (2007). Kids' Social Networking Study. Grunwald Associates, 2007.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1996). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. In T. Koschmann (Ed.), CSCL: Theory and practice of an emerging paradigm. Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Scardamelia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.) Liberal Education in a Knowledge Society (pp.67-98). Chicago, Open Court.

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