Social web tools to support learning

Nikhil Eyeroor

Internet and the social web
The “social web” received wide acceptance in the academic world only in recent years. The term social web is often used for internet-based interaction between and within groups. Social web or Web 2.0 marks a distinct break from the earlier internet applications of the 1990s and the early 2000s, by facilitating ‘interactive’ rather than ‘broadcast’ forms of exchange, in which information is shared ‘many-to-many’ rather than being transmitted from one to many. The interactive and collaborative nature of the social web helps create new knowledge. This technology provides the means to share information and learn together through the internet.

Social web is an umbrella term for a host of recent Internet applications such as social networking, wikis, social bookmarking, blogs, mash-ups, etc. While differing in form and function, all these applications support some degree of interactivity.

Strengths: There are strong links between social web and socio-cultural theories of learning, which see active and authentic learning taking place best where knowledge can be constructed actively by learners who are supported in communal social settings. As stated earlier the social web is characterized by a variety of powerful information sharing and collaboration features. There are a number of examples of appropriate use of collective intelligence and collaborative skills behind every success story. Academic research shows that student teams achieve higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who do their work individually.

Students can form a community of interest and share knowledge, put up interesting pieces of information, they can work together. Much of the learning potential of social web is seen to derive from the co-construction of knowledge. Social web enhances peer to peer interaction, teamwork, encourage the attitude to share, inculcate the habit of distributing knowledge and expertise among students. This positive attitude strengthens cooperation rather than competition among students. Thus, learning becomes a collaborative practice on the web.

Digital learners: Social web technologies are also associated with significant shifts in the nature of contemporary learners. A popular characterization of the upcoming generation of learners is that they are ‘digital natives,’ who have grown up in a world of computers, mobile telephony and the internet, and now lead lives that are dependent upon the digital media. These digital natives are seen to stand in stark contrast to older generations who adopted digital media later on in their lives, having grown up without them. Digital natives are thought to expect technology-assisted flexibility in all aspects of their lives, including the ways in which they learn and are educated.

Teachers: The collaborative aspect of social web allows teacher and students to liaise together on a topic. Teachers need tools that enable them to construct appropriate assessments and process them efficiently. These forms of assessment could also contribute to the de-compartmentalization of learning practices, examinations and assessment, at school and in the workplace, and to the validation of informal learning. Several social web applications can be utilized in the teaching-learning process like writing assignments, guiding projects, counseling, etc.

Institutions: There is a clear role for schools to act as initial points of the learners’ exploration of social web use beyond the passive consumption of online content. Formal education institutions should become places of technological exploration rather than of technological restriction. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. Educational institutions have to be reconfigured to support the forms of learning associated with the use of social web.

Applications: The social web’s rise to prominence in the lives of learners has prompted enthusiasm amongst educators. Some claim that social web applications share many of the qualities of a good ‘official’ education technology. One of the main educational uses of the social web is seen to lie in its support for interaction between learners facing the common dilemma of negotiating their studies.

In a multitude of ways the social web can be a boon to the academic community. The social web enables students to work at their own place, organize their own learning spaces.
Social
Blogs are developed as online diaries, with users creating an online account of some aspect of their professional or personal life. A typical blog allows a user to post web entries in a journal or diary format, with each new entry inserted at the top of the blog page and all past entries following in reverse chronological order. Blogs can be used as a presentation tool in which students are able to directly comment and revise and give immediate feedback. Publishing posts of an intellectual work can be done quickly and easily through blogs.

Wikis are websites that allow people to add content and edit information on them, providing space for communal documents. The most well known wiki provider is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Wikis are also useful for internal collaboration, as some services offer private workspaces. The wiki is a module that can be utilized to reflect the thoughts and feelings of students. Due to the very low technological barrier and flexible functionality, wikis are winning hearts of the students. In the educational environment, the collaborative nature of wikis enact knowledge building with and for others, with the focus of being on the community rather that on the individual learner. Wikis will sing a success story if deployed properly. As the work is equally represented, wikis can be used to develop research projects as a collaborative authorship. Social networks and collaborative writing in wikis encourage teamwork, provide students a platform to share and cooperate.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary) is a family of formats which allow users to update the content of RSS – enabled websites, blogs or podcasts without actually having to go and visit the site. RSS feeds keep the user informed of any changes. If a group of students is doing a classroom project sharing their bookmarks, a teacher can subscribe to their RSS feed to see the direction of their research.

Discussion forums: Internet forum, or message board, is an online discussion site. It originated as the modern equivalent of a traditional bulletin board, and a technological evolution of the dialup bulletin board system. From a technological standpoint, forums or boards are web applications managing user-generated content. People participating in an internet forum may cultivate social bonds and interest groups for a topic may form from the discussions.

Discussion forums show that the interaction is effectively facilitated through the use of asynchronous text-based forums, and that participants use the online interaction to build a learning community and to generate knowledge within the learning community.

blog
Social bookmarking is a system where users save links to web pages that they want to remember or share. These bookmarks are usually public, and can be saved privately, shared only with specified people or groups, shared only inside certain networks, or another combination of public and private domains. The allowed people can usually view these bookmarks chronologically, by category or tags, or via a search engine. Bookmarks, which are one of the key components of browsers can be also deposited in specific tools, the social bookmarking applications that we can use when we are not on our own PC. Unintended learning happens through the discovery of resources and information shared by others through their bookmarks.

File sharing is the practice of distributing or providing access to digitally stored information, such as computer programs, multi-media (audio, video), documents, or electronic books. It may be implemented in a variety of storage, transmission, and distribution models. Social web networks allow the sharing of any type of digital content, including songs, DVD-quality movies, computer programs and video games. Students and teachers can share their interests and activities and encourage collaboration. Teaching materials can be offered in advance through online file sharing.

Mashup is a web application that combines data from more than one source into a single integrated tool; an example is the use of cartographic data from Google Maps to add location information to real-estate data. In web development, a mashup is a web page or application that combines data or functionality from two or more external sources to create a new service. Mapping mashups are very useful for subjects such as geography and history.

Microblogs: This is a form of multimedia blogging that allows users to send brief text updates or micromedia such as photos or audio clips and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging, instant messaging, email, digital audio. Micro-blogging has the potential to become a new informal communication medium in the academic environment, especially for collaborative work.

Webcast is a media file distributed over the internet using streaming media technology. A webcast may either be distributed live or on demand. Essentially, webcasting is “broadcasting” over the internet. The generally accepted use of the term webcast is the “transmission of linear audio or video content over the internet”. A webcast uses streaming media technology to take a single content source and distribute it to many simultaneous listeners/viewers. Webcasting can be used in e-learning (to broadcast seminars), and for related communications activities.

Podcast is a series of digital media files, either audio or video, that are released episodically and downloaded through web syndication. The mode of delivery is what differentiates podcasts from other ways of accessing media files over the internet, such as simple download or streamed webcasts. The podcast, usually prepared as an MP3 file, can also be presented on mobile devices (like iPods), e-readers and notebook computers, media that are largely used in e-learning.

Social networks build online communities among people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. Social networking in the workplace, universities, and schools is most popular online. This is because unlike most schools, colleges, or workplaces, the internet is filled with millions of individuals who are looking to meet other internet users, to gather and share first-hand information or experiences about any number of topics, developing friendships, or to start a professional relationship. Through social networks members can learn about new cultures or new languages and their interesting subjects. Classical face-to-face teaching can be mixed with collaborative learning. Learning can be continued over web: Open content, permanently actualized materials.

Practical issues: The social web may offer educators a set of tools to support forms of learning that can be more strongly collaborative and more oriented to the building of classroom communities. All of this has the potential to empower the student to become an independent learner. But it also brings challenges to both learner and teacher. The knowledge structure of the social web is not navigated with the same tools or the same ease as traditional teaching methods. It may pose problems if it is not properly managed.

Conclusion: Educational institutions can offer immense value to their students by familiarizing them with the technologies of the social web. Rather than being limited to today’s skills, students must learn the skills of the future. All of these issues demand adjustments in the teacher’s role. The richness of the internet arena and the sophistication of social web tools should not conceal the significant distractions and obstructions that the learner must confront. The educational potential of the social web is often associated with the philosophy of ‘learner autonomy’, which might suggest an increasingly less role for the teacher in the learner’s experience. But social web does not somehow simplify knowledge building and thereby set free the learner. Undeniably its intricacy brings significant challenges. Teachers should be positioned to play a crucial role in managing this experience.

Key Resources
Thompson, John. “Is Education 1.0 Ready for Web 2.0 Students?” Innovate: Journal of Online Education. www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=393.
Sotillo, Susana. “Using Instant Messaging for Collaborative Learning: A Case Study.” Innovate: Journal of Online Education. March 2006. www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=170.
Lenhart, A., and Madden, M. (2007), Social networking websites and teens: An overview. Pew Internet and American Life Project report. http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/198/report_display.asp.
O’Reilly, T. (2005), What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software, http://oreillynet.com/1pt/a/6228.
Barnes, K., Marateo, R. C., & Pixy Ferris, S. (2007). Teaching and learning with the Net Generation. Innovate, 3(4). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=382.

The author is a PhD Research Scholar, School of Social Sciences, IGNOU. He can be reached at eyeroor@gmail.com.