Social software and learning


Work data:

Type of work: Report


e-Learning and Instructional Technology | Education | Social Media & Social Software


Executive summary

This paper is focused on exploring the inter-relationship between two key trends in the field of educational technologies.

In the educational arena, we are increasingly witnessing a change in the view of what education is for, with a growing emphasis on the need to support young people not only to acquire knowledge and information, but to develop the resources and skills necessary to engage with social and technical change, and to continue learning throughout the rest of their lives.

In the technological arena, we are witnessing the rapid proliferation of technologies which are less about ’narrowcasting’ to individuals, than the creation of communities and resources in which individuals come together to learn, collaborate and build knowledge (social software).

It is the intersection of these two trends which, we believe, offers significant potential for the development of new approaches to education.

At the heart of agendas for change in education are a number of key themes which relate to questions of how knowledge, creativity and innovation are generated in the practices of the ’information society’.

Recent commentators have argued that our relationship with knowledge is changing, from one in which knowledge is organised in strictly classified ’disciplines’ and ’subjects’, to a more fluid and responsive practice which allows us to organise knowledge in ways that are significant to us at different times and in different places. At the same time, we see changes in the ’spaces’ of knowledge, from its emergence within discrete institutional boundaries, to its generation in virtual and cross-institutional settings.

Moreover, the ways in which we engage with knowledge are increasingly characterised by ’multi-tasking’, engaging with multiple and overlapping knowledge streams. There are also changes in our understanding of practices of creativity and innovation - from the idea of the isolated individual ’genius’ to the concept of ’communities of practice’, where reflection and feedback are important collaborative processes.

In this context, educational agendas are shifting to address ideas about how we can create personalised and collaborative knowledge spaces, where learners can access people and knowledge in ways that encourage creative and reflective learning practices that extend beyond the boundaries of the school, and beyond the limits of formal education.

It is in the light of these new educational agendas that we are interested in the emerging practices of social software. Social software can be broadly characterised as ’software that supports group interaction’. The most familiar types are likely to be internet discussion forums, social networking and dating sites. However, applications like massively multiplayer online games and internet messaging can also be seen as social software, as could group e-mails and tele-conferencing. Applications such as weblogs, wikis and social bookmarking have seen a recent increase in popularity and growing mainstream interest. At the same time, there are other technologies which enrich and enhance these practices, like syndication systems that bring information in a well organised way from one source to another.

New forms of collaboration tools are also emerging, where people can work together to build new documents or products. We are also seeing a shift in the ’modality’ of communication away from text alone: podcasting or audio publishing via the net is a growing movement, and it will be a relatively short time before there is also good support for video publication on the net. Locative and geographically mediated activity via mobile phones is also a likely area for growth, seeing people collaborate around different spaces and places.

It is the combination of the technological affordances of social software, with new educational agendas and priorities, that offers the potential for radical and transformational shifts in educational practice.

Today, the use of social software in education is still in its infancy and many actions will be required across policy, practice and developer communities before it becomes widespread and effective. From a policy perspective, we need to encourage the evolution of the National Curriculum to one which takes account of new relationships with knowledge, and we need to develop assessment practices which respond to new approaches to learning and new competencies we expect learners to develop.

At the same time, from a technical perspective, we need to facilitate the development of open systems that allow different social software resources to communicate with each other, the creation of a centralised resource to allow teachers and children to access these tools, and the integration of a range of small social software tools into the desktop operating environments of learners. Equally, it should be realised that interoperability does not necessarily have to be realised through rigid standards, which may be counter-productive to innovation.

As with all programmes of educational change, however, we need to retain a sensitivity to the potential for such change to exacerbate existing social inequalities - as we see the emergence of social software as a potential tool for the creation of new learning communities, we need to ensure that there are not groups of children excluded from these communities by virtue of lack of access to digital technologies. We also need to ensure that such change does not ossify in a centrally managed programme, but instead retains a sensitivity to the specific and localised needs of different groups of learners and teachers.

In schools, we are already witnessing small-scale experiments with a variety of social software resources. For these to flourish we will need to see support in schools for risk-taking, and for dialogue between schools, teachers, parents and children about new approaches to learning that involve collaboration between young people (and others) across different times and spaces.