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Social Software for Learning: What is it, why use it?

Posted by Stuart Hirst on January 21, 2008

The most recent report from The Observatory has become available at: 

Unfortunately, access is by subscription only. However the following will give readers an insight into the relevance of this report. (All remaining text below, provided by The Observatory)

Following the general report abstract and author listing, Dr. Don Olcott, Jr., Chief Executive of The Observatory, provides a commentary on this report’s relevance to cross-border higher education.Social Software for Learning: What is it, why use it?  

By Scott Leslie, Manager, BCcampus Shareable Online Learning Resources and Dr. Bruce Landon, Instructor in the Psychology Department, Douglas College

 The recent, and undeniably massive, growth in adoption of various social software applications represents both an opportunity and a threat to institutions and educators: opportunity because the qualities which help these applications thrive align well with socio-constructivist and other contemporary theories of learning which have resonated strongly with online educators and learners and sparked massive interest and growth in adoption; threat in part because they are often developed and adopted by learners outside the bounds of their formal relationships with institutions, and in part because they depend on network characteristics that can be in tension with the more ‘closed’ environments and online approaches found within most institutions. In many ways, social software represents a key manifestation of borderless education in that it has typically been developed on the general Internet, not within academic enclaves nor for specifically educational purposes, and often thrives best when the full dynamics of the entire network (e.g. linkability, searchability, network effects) are in play. Initially, this report compares some of the qualities that cause social software to flourish with contemporary ideas about what enables successful learning in a networked world. Following an examination of uses of specific social software applications to support learning, it subsequently discusses how these key characteristics create both challenges for adopting institutions and considerations for adopters and implementers of social software that can help them harness them to best advantage in creating more authentic engagement for lifelong learners.


As you read Leslie and Landon’s report, you will become familiar with a range of social software applications such as social bookmarking, blogging, social networking, wikis, social media sharing, and even shared concept and knowledge maps. The authors suggest the obvious . . . that these forms of software are social in nature, that they are often developed and used outside the boundaries of institutions and formal learning environments; that they tap into the user’s motivation and help build authentic online identities and learning experiences for users; that such applications build networks of affinity and enable connected knowledge to emerge; and finally that social software encourages peer production and review of content. You will have to judge the merits of these assertions about social software and their applications to teaching and learning in your university.  What is known for certain is that social software applications have increasingly been adopted by users and are gaining more interest amongst educators in all sectors. Adoption of social software, however, is not synonymous with the effective delivery and assessment of quality teaching and learning. The jury is still out on this fundamental question, one which challenges all educators when assessing educational technologies. Here are some key questions to consider in the cross-border context.

Key Questions for Social Software Applications in Cross-Border Higher Education

  1.  Do social software applications have potential for enhancing teaching and learning in cross-border higher education? How and why? Why not?
  2.  Does social software facilitate multi-cultural learning, cultural and social understanding, and language(s) practice and training for students in host countries (and for international students on home campuses)?
  3. Social software effectiveness, to some degree, is predicated on the scalability to serve increasing number of users. Given the programmatic and targeted focus of many cross-border higher education partnerships, it is financially sound to invest in social software applications for a limited user population?
  4. How do we assess and evaluate user learning engaged with social software networks or applications?
  5. Can social software facilitate the creation of a new, international knowledge base?
  6. What quality standards could or should be applied to educational uses of social software? Who should have oversight and/or responsibility for these standards? The institution? A quality assurance agency?
  7. Can social software play a role in facilitating cross-border research exchanges and partnerships?
  8. What are the key ethical and legal issues associated with social software?  

A Challenge to Software Developers: Cultural Software for Cultural Networking

Social software adoption has been driven by like-minded users that have similar intellectual and perhaps social interests. This is understandable and probably a natural evolution of any new innovation. I would, however, challenge the developers and institutional managers of social software to expand their thinking to include a new concept . . . Cultural Software for Cultural Networking. In the global context, the world is increasingly becoming a multi-cultural mosaic of learners. Celebrating the learning (and cultural experiences) derived from embracing differences is arguably just as valuable, perhaps even more so, than the learning and knowledge created by like minded groups. Cultural networking will facilitate these connections and enhance multi-cultural understanding and knowledge essential to living and learning in a global world.  Finally, is it possible that social software applications will ultimately have a negligible impact on the ‘measurable’ quality and depth of student learning? Indeed, perhaps social software applications simply make learning more fun and enjoyable and connect students with their peers through various social environments. It is often said in higher education, ‘of course it’s useful and practical, it just isn’t easy to measure,’ and in this respect social software may be no exception. The Observatory will look forward to new research which attempts to answer such questions. Enjoy your read of Leslie and Landon’s report.


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