Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Social Networking and Learning

Since David and Ben launched their learning landscape application, I've been thinking about how it might fit into the realm of social software and learning. Two quotes from Marc Canter keep sticking in my mind, both aiming at the main issue with these applications. First, he's pointing out what Stephen Downes also illuminated a while back -- just getting people together is only one part of the equation:
"It's fine and dandy to have a sexy interface (as Huminity does) and even to go through the paces of connecting to your peeps (all over again - I may add) but the proof in the pudding are the 'activities'. What can I do with this social network besides meet people? I mean - don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with meeting people. But once you've met them - you gotta have something to do - and none of these systems have that."
I think that's a valid criticism of the existing ones, and the next quote offers some potential advice on how to avoid the "yet-another-social-networking-site" problem:
"I'm finding that the BEST social networks are those that focus on specific constituents, target audiences and niche demographics. 1UP.com is for videogamers and the AlwaysOn-Network is for - those sort of people."
1UP is a fascinating learning landscape in an unconvential sense. If you love video games and want to learn more, it is mecca. You can even do a sort of multifaceted people search that I was wishing for last month -- find gamers that share your platform, game preferences, age range, location, gender, etc -- imagine how easy it would be to form your community and learn about the games you love and new possibilities! One of the things that makes it work is that the potential audience is already pre-selected by interest, much as the potential audience for something like thefacebook is already defined by location (limited to your college campus).

So those purely social and leisure applications are already well understood, but what about using the same kinds of tools for supporting institutional education? Is that an automatic paradox? The problem seems to arise when the agenda is driven by the institution. A faculty or program at a university could adopt elgg to help facilitate reflection and collaboration, but would probably also want some measure of control over the process. If it only gets used for assigned group projects (like e-mail/discussion groups/group blogs/wikis are used already), it's not taking advantage of the power of the wider web. Granted, it would easier and more interesting to use than WebCT, but that's not exactly revolutionizing learning. More thought required, obviously...

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