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Social Software: The Age of Connection and the Connected Learner
Social Software: The Age of Connection and the ConnectedLearnerSocial software provides an opportunity to humanize the often alienating experience of e-learning.By Anne Bartlett-BraggEarly implementation strategies of e-Learning products in organisations focused ondelivery, accessibility, and small chunks of learning available to learners anywhere,anytime. Huge investments in time and money spent on intranets, online courses,learner management systems (LMS), and other enterprise software was supposed toprovide improved delivery and other workplace efficiencies.Yet there is little evidence to suggest that these implementations have enhanced thelearning experience. And, in fact, they have come at a cost – human interaction hasbeen ignored, and the learning experience has been reduced to a product, measuredby completions and adherence to compliance regulations. The focus has been onaccess to technology where learners have been forced to adapt to the capabilitiesand limitations of software, rather than on adapting the software to fit to learnerneeds and as an aid to enhance learning.Consequently, the role of the organisational trainer has become increasingly focusedon dispensing, enforcing, and managing the distribution of learning through overlybureaucratic, inflexible systems that de-personalise and disconnect the learner fromnot only the context but also other learners within the organisation.Now, with new technologies developing in the social software domain, organisationshave an opportunity to reignite the personal element of learning, enhance thelearning experience, and reconnect the learner to distributed networks of people thatwill allow them to be more flexible and responsive to the changing demands andneeds of their current workplace environment.So - what is social software?The introduction of the term ‘social software’ has been attributed to Clay Shirky(cited in Allen, 2004), his definition is simply: “software that supports groupinteraction”. The Wikipedia, an exceptional example of open source social software,elegantly explains the term as software that “…lets people rendezvous, connect orcollaborate…it results in the creation of shared, interactive spaces.”Futurist Stowe Boyd (2003) comments that social software encompasses one ormore of the following elements: Support for conversational interaction between people or groups - includes real time conversations like instant messaging or asynchronous conversations like those facilitated by discussion forums. Support for development of personalised social networks - many social software applications create a digital layout of a person’s social network and facilitate adding new connections – including the sharing knowledge through syndication and aggregation tools.AITD Social Software 1 August, 2005Anne Bartlett-Bragg
Development of the social network will also be based on reputation and trust.What are Social Software Applications?Social software has developed from the demand of users to have more freedom fromthe limitations of large, clunky software tools that restrict users’ ability to collaborateand effectively maintain the social aspect of their online needs.The list of current social software applications is extensive and growing rapidly -outlined below are just some of the more commonly used applications and someexamples in the learning and organisational context:Instant Messaging (IM) – a popular form of text-based synchronous (real time)communication software, where the user can be notified when any of their “buddies”are online. IM is becoming accepted as a business tool in many organisations and isstarting to find a position in knowledge sharing and e-Learning situations, wherelearners have immediate access to knowledge experts or learning advisors.Chat – Another text-based synchronous form of communication that generallyoccurs in designated areas called chatrooms. Users can enter or join sessions thatare generally based on topics of interest. Most LMS have chat facilities embeddedinto their functionality and have been used in many learning situations already.Collaborative Spaces – web-based collaborative publishing spaces are becomingincreasingly popular in both the organisational and educational context.Weblog, or blog, applications are powerful personal publishing spaces that allow theauthor to self-organise information or knowledge. In addition, readers are able toleave comments, or link to particular entries of interest and subscribe to updatesthrough syndication tools.Weblogs are now prevalent across a number of learning contexts. For example, Ihave over 100 students currently using weblogs as their personal publishing space,posting their reflections, critiques on readings or topics, managing their learningcontent by categorisation, and participating in collaborative learning networks.Other shared spaces like wikis include the functionality to communicate, co-editdocuments and web pages, share calendars, view multimedia presentations andmuch more. The popularity of these applications has been attributed to the ease ofuse and flexibility which only requires the user to have internet access and no HTMLprogramming skills.RSS – syndication & aggregationReally Simple Syndication (RSS) allows content to be imported into other web pages.RSS enables readers to subscribe to webfeeds from sites of their choice, monitorupdates, and view them in a single page from a web-based service called anaggregator, eg. Bloglines. The power of the aggregator for learners comes from theability to control and manage the flow of information in a centralised manner.AITD Social Software 2 August, 2005Anne Bartlett-Bragg
Social networking sites – labeled by Roush (2005) as a form of human searchengine, they exploit the concept of helping people to make connections with friendsof friends of friends who share common interests.Yahoo’s initiative, My Web 2.0, is a search engine that becomes a shared resourcebased on the collective wisdom of friends and business colleagues that focuses on auser-generated approach to searching - the results will be displayed based on aranking system that is linked to your network of trusted associates.Social bookmarking or tagging with folksonomies - social bookmarking, arecent addition to the social software applications, is a web-based application similarto a Favourites list in a browser, except that it allows the user to bookmark, manage,publicly publish, comment upon, and create their own tags for each URL. Theobjective is to publish your resources for other people with similar interests. The keyto the shared resource is the development of a social tagging system – calledfolksonomies – derived from the term taxonomy, a hierarchical list or categorisation- it focuses on a group co-operatively organising information into agreed categories.A popular example is Delicious which my students to share our web resources as weresearch topics and bookmark the URLs under agreed tags. A powerful research andresource gathering tool!Social sharing services – similar to social bookmarking, these are applications thatshare other services – for example, Flickr, a web-based photo sharing service thatuses the folksonomy tagging process to collect and share photos publicly or privatelyacross the web. In the educational context, photos can be gathered for projects andthe agreed tagging systems allow collective sharing.The Age of ConnectionRoush (2005) observes a state of continuous computing that is related to the rapidconvergence of technologies that provide people with portable information fields oncommonly carried digital devices eg. laptops, multimedia phones, and throughwireless networks with increased access to the internet and web-based tools that allfocus on finding information, communicating and collaborating with other people.According to Bryant (2005), to capture the significance of social software, analternative approach will required that is informed by new ways of thinking aboutsocial networks and online behaviour.What are the implications for learning?George Siemens (2005) has introduced a new theoretical approach in the Age ofConnection that considers the application of social software to the learning context.The theory, Connectivism, recognises the significant trends in learning contexts thatincludes the informal aspects and the influence of technology on our thinkingprocesses. Connectivism contends that: learning is a process of connecting specialised information sources maintaining connections is needed to facilitate learning and the core skill of learning is the ability to see connections between ideas and concepts.AITD Social Software 3 August, 2005Anne Bartlett-Bragg
So – what does this imply for organisational learning?I discussed this question with James Farmer (2005), of Deakin University, whorecently initiated the edublogs.org project. James believes that social software ischanging the very essence of what it means to communicate and learn in anorganisation. It radically reconceptualises the learning culture, turning it upside downand placing the learners on top by connecting individuals to each other rather than toa centrally constructed alien environment – and it starts a learning conversation.Initiatives are starting to undertake this shift in perspective, such as projectsdeveloped at Headshift and more recently, ELGG, a project that provides acustomizable learning landscape. The ELGG system is a hybrid of web-logging, e-Portfolios, and social networking, developed with the intention of promoting learnerengagement through reflection in both an institutional and social setting.And what are the implications for the role of the organisational learning &development practitioner?The role of the organisational trainer has undeniably changed with the integration oftechnology. The learning and development (L&D) practitioner can no longer avoid theuse of technology, rather they should be viewing the shift as an opportunity that willenrich the learning experience and provide a more fulfilling role in the futurestrategic development and enhancement of learning in the organisational context.If we adopt the metaphor of the learning landscape as the organisation’s learningstrategy, then the L&D practitioner becomes the landscape architect or designer,where they become the trusted source in the social learning network, guiding andadvising learners on technology options, facilitating the establishment of networkcontacts, and empowering individuals to identify and customize their personallandscape to best support their knowledge and learning needs in the current complexworkplace environments.What are the issues or challenges?The two greatest challenges presented to organisations developing learninglandscapes will be the paradigm shift to the perspective that technology is only anenabler that should aim to augment social interactions and enhance learning, andsecondly, the organisational IT policies that have the current learning landscapeenclosed within firewalls that will inhibit the development of social network contacts.If we accept the premise that social networks are the focus of the new Age ofConnection and learning is fundamentally a social process, then if learning strategiesare to recognise this, the challenge for organisational educators is how to embracethe new technological developments and embed the design of online communicationand interaction tools to empower our learners and create an enriched social learninglandscape.Further Resources:Wikipediahttp://wikipedia.orgAITD Social Software 4 August, 2005Anne Bartlett-Bragg
Bloglineshttp://www.bloglines.comJames Farmers’ edublogshttp://edublogs.orgHeadshifthttp://www.headshift.comELGGhttp://elgg.netSocial Software Associateshttp://www.socialsoftwareassociates.comFlickrhttp://www.flickr.comDelicioushttp://del.icio.usList of referencesAllen, C. (2004), Tracing the Evolution of Social Software, Life with Alacrity, accessed online 8 August, 2005. http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2004/10/tracing_the_evo.htmlBoyd, S. (2003), Are You Ready for Social Software?,Darwin Magazine, May 2003, accessed online 14 August, 2005. http://www.darwinmag.com/read/050103/social.htmBryant, L. (2003), Smarter, Simpler, Social: An introduction to online social software methodology, accessed online 5 July 2005 http://www.headshift.com/moments/archives/social%20software%20v1.1%2 0draft.pdfBryant, L. (2005), personal discussions throughout July, 2005. London, UK.Farmer, J. (2005), personal discussions throughout July & August, 2005.Roush, W. (2005), Social Machines, TechnologyReview.com, August 2005, accessed online 12 July 2005 http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/05/08/issue/feature_social.asp?p= 0Seimens. G. (2005), Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, January, 2005.http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm (accessed online, 25th June 2005).Wikipedia (nd) Social Software, accessed online 5 August 2005 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_softwareAITD Social Software 5 August, 2005Anne Bartlett-Bragg