Clay Shirky captures the essence of social networking rather succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.
Theories about socio-cultural situated learning have deep reaching consequences in the appliance of social networking as the principal means of communication, collaboration and cooperation in an educational setting, not just for individual students, but also for the whole school community. Interaction between individuals, teachers and students, co-operating in a community lies at the heart of social cognitive learning theory.
The importance of community to learning is always implied but rarely stated as a significant context in education. We all understand at an implicit level that interaction between members of the school community deepens their understanding of each other and leads to learning.
So, is a social network a substitute for community? Would the use of social networking be detrimental to the wider school community? The answer to both questions is no. Of course not. If the concept of community were not important for learning, schools and universities would have little reason to exist. The critical role of interaction in learning is reinforced by the addition of social networking to the school community, not undermined. Therefore, the addition of the social learning network augments the learning community rather than provides an alternative to it, resulting in the overall enhancement of the learning environment. It also – very tantalisingly – points towards how teaching and learning within this environment can be transformed into previously inconceivable practice, not simply enhancing it.
Research suggests that individuals join social networks to associate with others of like interest or vocation, or who know more, or who would like to learn similar things. This contrasts sharply with schools’ imposition of learning management systems on their students. Some educators have pointed out that many students tend to avoid using the school-managed virtual learning environments because they either find it difficult to use or irrelevant to their daily learning needs. It would appear then that a loose network of willing participants is better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students.
Using social social networking, students all over the world are forming online communities which seem to be augmenting, not replacing, the more traditional concepts of community. They see the virtual world as an extension of the real world, not as its surrogate. These networks of similarly minded and often indirectly connected people contribute to the acquisition of knowledge of individuals by creating awareness between its members and making such knowledge transparent to the rest of the community.
Transparent information and cooperation among individuals foster the creation of personal learning environments in which participants wish to engage due to the potential benefits each can acquire. Schools and other learning outlets have thus far shied away from encouraging the development of such personal learning environments using the host of Web 2.0 and social media tools available, preferring instead to impose learning management systems – virtual learning environments (VLEs).
VLEs do have their strengths: they do foster dialogue and collaboration. However, a virtual learning environment which consists solely of students and is, by and large, managed by teachers cannot profit from the benefits derived by a social network because it lacks transparency of information and deep engagement between students and teachers.
In my own experience, VLEs quickly become repositories of institutionally approved teaching materials and effectively discourage cooperation and interaction among students, fostering instead less meaningful, transactional interaction such as the setting or handing in of student work or the communication of assessment grades. Less often do students appear to willingly engage in more meaningful forms of cooperation such as peer review and assessment of each other’s work.
The adoption of social networking can, therefore, provide the school community with a low-cost / high-value platform in which teachers and learners can remain in close contact and interact beyond the constraints of the school walls, and within which the teacher would be able to provide the learner with further personalised feedback and support to that already provided in the physical learning environment. A social network expands the learning environment to wherever the learner happens to be and acting as a bridge between school and home, between formal and informal learning.
With this in mind, an obvious symbiotic relationship between social media and learning begins to become apparent. It then becomes relatively easy to imagine the transfer of this kind of passive co-operation to the school context, where students and teachers can share information transparently using social media and networking sites to filter internet content and direct users to relevant, commonly interesting material.
Personal experience supported by well-established learning theory assures me that learning by doing and learning from one another are the deepest forms of learning our students ever experience. When social networking is effectively implemented, schools can separate the notion of safety from that of appropriate behaviour, allowing them to tackle these issues independently so that the pedagogical potential of social networking can be explored in depth.
Photo by tanakawho