The place of free social software in institutional e-learning


A week or so ago I attended an ACODE workshop in Wellington. On the night before it started Desire2Learn hosted a round table looking at the question of where free social software fits with the institutional practice of e-learning within universities.

The invited speaker was Leigh Blackall who has provided a summary/background to his talk on his blog. His post has generated some additional comments and discussion from other folk on the blogosphere.

I’m particularly grateful for this for two reasons

  1. I missed his talk. I arrived in Wellington the afternoon of the round table and my neck did not enjoy the travel. By desert I was ready to go home and so missed the talk.
  2. CQU is currently embarking on a project that, to some extent, must answer this exact question.

The following are some initial attempts to consider Leigh’s comments, examine the responses made by other folk and reflect upon these within the context of CQU and it’s PLEs @ CQU project.

The question set by Desire2Learn was the following

The use of easily accessible and, in many cases, free social software tools such as MSN, Skype, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life and a wide range of blogs and wikis, has become almost ubiquitous among the so-called ‘Net Generation’. In the context of a growing emphasis on eLearning, most commonly facilitated by enterprise-scale Learning Management System and a range of institutionally managed and supported communication and collaboration software tools, and in an environment of increasing emphasis on intellectual property rights management and quality assurance, how do universities (and other educational institutions) respond to the use of free, open-access tools in common use by their students? What are the potential educational uses of such tools? What are the current practices of use of these tools within educational institutions? What are the issues, risks and hidden costs? What are the advantages and benefits?

What did Leigh say?

Of course, you could always read it yourself. I provide the following summary to help me grasp the argument and generate some to dos for me.

Leigh first sets the scene by asking a couple of questions, and providing answers, that unpack the question a bit more.

  • Is free social software almost ubiquitous?
    Leigh suggests a net connection of more than 25kbps is required to use free social software and points to statistics that somewhere around 67% of NZ homes don’t have an appropriate connection.
  • Is there a growing emphasis on e-learning?
    There is the suggestion, at least in NZ, that this may not be the case. E-learning is still something special, not part of normal practice.

The emphasis of the post/talk targets the question of what would be an appropriate response from an educational institution to the ubiquitous free social software.

A simple summary of his argument might go something like this

  • Social software embodies a social constructivist set of ideals.
  • Universities are an inherently behaviorist institution, all learning at such institutions, regardless of intent, retain notions of behaviorism.
    I know of some folk, those how relate strongly to and attempt to regularly use social constructivist approaches in their learning/teaching at universities, who would react strongly to this. I believe Leigh’s point is that because universities, as an example of formal learning, attempt to reward some behaviour (e.g. completing assignments within set criteria, participating in class/discussion forums etc) and punish/discourage other behaviours (e.g. not submitting work within in a fixed time frame) that they always include an aspect of operant conditioning which is a standard part of behaviorism.
  • Attempting to fit social software (round shape) into such a behaviorist institution (square hole) is the wrong way to go.
  • Instead, the aim should be to make the square hole round. The formal learning within behaviorist institutions should be more like and connect more with informal learning.

Some early thoughts

There is something to Leigh’s argument, but it’s probably been taken to the extreme. This might be useful to get a rise and generate some thinking amongst ACODE attendees. However, as a strategy/argument to take to institutional senior management and academics, it doesn’t appear to be all that useful. If I used this at CQU I can see the folk less involved in learning and teaching writing the argument off as just plain silly and the folk who have invested time and energy in learning and teaching being offended.

I wonder if the following, related and very similar, argument would be a potentially more acceptable argument. I’m working on the assumption that in order to get change within an institution you need an argument that folk can agree with. I also think the following argument has a few less leaps that can be argued with (though not an absence).

The argument basically is

  • All software is designed with a particular model (set of data structures, algorithms, way of looking at the world).
    Leigh’s argument relies on leaping a bit further and agreeing that social software embodies social constructivism and the LMS behaviorism.
  • The LMS model is based on that of how universities (especially North American universities) operate and is generally closed.
  • The free social software model is much more open and has a range of other differences with the LMS model.
  • As the more open model, embedding social software within a LMS, will lose a number of important capabilities.
    Those of us who have had to use the “blogs” and “wikis” currently embedded in some commercial LMSes have come across these limitations.
  • Getting the best of both models would appear to require tweaking the LMS model to enable it to work with the social software model – make the square hole to work within the round shape.
    This also has the advantage of minimising the leap for the staff and students of universities and hence makes it more likely to get adoption. This is important, as it’s this use that will help encourage further development and tweaking of the LMS model.

Reactions of others

There’s been a bit of discussion around this on the blogosphere. Some of the responses/questions raised on Leigh’s post and on a post from Janet Clarey include

  • Do students have the capability to set their own learning goals? Is informal learning sufficient for cognitive development for all learners?
  • How does assessment (rewarding of behaviour) fit within the type of social constructivist approach described?
  • Is Leigh’s proposition that social media is a product of social constructivism and LMS of behaviorist?
  • Can social media be used within behaviorist software?

We're looking for good people for a PLE project

It is official. The advertising has gone out/up for two positions for the CQU PLE project. The initial proposal for the project provides some ideas of the origins of the project which seeks to build on some of the baby steps we’ve already taken down this route.

We’re seeking two complimentary people. One with the learning design/educational background and one with a technical background. Together they will work closely to help support CQU students and staff as they take some steps towards the use of personal learning environments.

The two positions are research positions. As well as supporting staff and students it is hoped that the people appointed can make contributions to knowledge to help CQU and others learn more about PLEs and their effective use.