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Revolutionizing E-Learning: Innovation Through Social Networking Tools

The seeds of Web 3.0

With many still struggling to master Web 2.0 social networking tools, e-Learning professionals may be more overwhelmed than elated that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_Web the Semantic Web, also known as Web 3.0, appears to be on the way. These tools place collaborators in close contact, and provide content based on users’ preferences. Here are some examples that hint at where social networking and e-Learning may be headed.

Interactyx

I interviewed Interactyx Limited Vice President of Marketing and Communications Jeffrey Roth in an online chat in June 2009. He told me that the company and its Topyx software are already using social networking tools to serve online learners in schools, companies, and non-profit organizations around the world. The Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge became one of the newest users of this comprehensive e-Learning content distribution and collaborative learning platform by adopting it for use in August 2009.

 “We’ve taken the best elements of the LMS (Learning Management System) world and combined them with the latest social networking tools to provide the most collaborative, easy-to-use learning environment possible. Then we took it one step further: we made it available on mobile devices as well,” he noted. That’s where Web 2.0 meets Web 3.0.

The geo-tagging capabilities that many mobile devices now feature help users determine when they are close enough to each other to meet in person, in addition to expediting their virtual contacts and connections. The ease with which Topyx facilitates contact among users via LinkedIn, Facebook, Skype, and other tools is part of what is making Interactyx successful, according to Roth. He claims that, “What we are doing isn’t simply about flat training or education; it is about people connecting like never before in history!”

Twine

Nova Spivack is founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based technology venture Radar Networks and the http://www.twine.com/about Twine.com project. He is among those who believe that Web 3.0 is more than a dream, and he is doing his part to facilitate its growth through innovative social networking tools that bring e-Learning professionals and others together.

Twine.com itself, as Spivack shows in an http://www.slideshare.net/BlogTalk2008/spivack-blogtalk-2008 online presentation, expedites social contacts through “interest networking.” The application creates access to online resources through interest groups, called “twines”. There are “e-Learning Resources,” “e-Learning librarian,” and “Web 3.0 - Semantic Web” twines comprised of members from all over the world. Members of each twine can establish formal connections much as they do on LinkedIn and other social networking sites. Within a twine, members post resources of use to other members of that twine. The system provides updates at intervals determined by each member. As an example, resources recently added to and disseminated via the e-Learning Resources twine include:

  • a list of top tools for learning;
  • an e-Learning handbook for classroom teachers; and
  • information about how to join live “Classroom 2.0” discussions using Elluminate as an online learning tool.

ELGG

http://elgg.org/about.php ELGG is another social networking tool serving educational and other online communities. It is an open source social engine that is also gaining attention from bloggers and others for its use in online training. Like Twine.com, it offers “a comprehensive activity stream which provides an at-a-glance look at activity from across the site, as well as your friends’ activity and your own actions.” Features that can be of use in e-Learning endeavors include:

  • a blogging tool,
  • an imbedded media function allowing users to place their photos, audio clips, and files into a variety of online resources, and
  • a social bookmarking tool.

Those interested in updates on how ELGG is promoting social networking in education will find additional information on the ELGG http://news.elgg.org/ news site.

Creating online e-Learning social networks

If teaching is learning, then preparing to help others learn about social online networking tools is the best of all learning experiences.

In seeking interviewees and material for this article, I began with a variety of online resources. These included LinkedIn discussion groups for colleagues involved in workplace learning and performance throughout the United States, a few listservs with a similar audience, postings on a couple of blogs read by those involved in library training programs in several countries, and Twine.com, with its worldwide reach.

Mixed results: creating a new community of learners

The results were mixed. A few of the sources quoted in this article were drawn from a larger initial group of respondents; others became part of the project via e-mail exchanges. Brief follow-up conversations via e-mail, Google Chat, and other online tools helped determine which respondents were actually experimenting with online social networking tools in creative ways that promise to produce noteworthy results. Some respondents were interested solely in promoting products that have not yet attracted enough of an audience to show whether those tools will be effective in supporting e-Learning efforts. The follow-up conversations also helped me weed out individuals who were not able to discuss even the most rudimentary aspects of e-Learning and how social networking tools might expand the effectiveness of e-Learning in a global setting.

When the results were good, they were remarkably encouraging. The use of Twine.com led to at least one interview where it appears that the two of us will remain in contact to share what we continue to learn. Another contact, obtained through a LinkedIn group, may produce a collaborative effort to document how the results of e-Learning compare to the results of classroom-based learning. A third interview produced a two-way exchange of information and resources, which suggests that the online connection will continue far beyond the time required to conduct the interview. 

Approach with caution

For all that can be said in favor of using social networking tools for e-Learning, there are also obvious caveats to consider. It is far from uncommon to find social networking tool providers who use customers’ e-mail contact lists to promote their services. A good rule of thumb, before accepting colleagues’ or friends’ invitations to join a photo-sharing service, a shared-document service, or any other online social networking tool, is to forward the invitation to the person who supposedly extended that invitation and make sure he or she really wrote the note. This simple action prevents the recipient of the invitation from being tricked into signing up for a service the colleagues or friends are not promoting. It also alerts those colleagues and friends that their account is being used in ways they had not anticipated.

Here’s an example of a fairly aggressive company that received more than expected for its efforts. Tagged’s efforts to trick people into thinking that their friends were inviting them to join Tagged were documented in a New York Times article. The follow-up was swift. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that he was going to sue Tagged. Tagged representatives denied sending invitations without the knowledge of the company’s users. Those of us who received invitations from friends and colleagues learned to be a bit more skeptical about online invitations to join social networking sites.

What’s next?

A recent eLearning Guild research project shows there is still plenty of room for growth in e-Learning that uses social networking tools. While nearly 50 percent of the respondents expressed the belief that e-Learning 2.0 initiatives are “very worthwhile,” only a quarter of the respondents have implemented, or are in the process of implementing, Web 2.0 approaches to learning and work. Nearly a third of the group has considered and is leaning toward adoption, while more than a quarter of the group is not considering the use of Web 2.0 tools in workplace learning and performance.

Quality, access, use, and opportunities

The eLearning Guild’s results are consistent with at least one other survey that examined interest and perceptions about the effectiveness of e-Learning overall, and the use of Web 2.0 technology in e-Learning endeavors. The Guild’s survey showed that slightly less than 15 percent of the respondents cited a “big improvement” in learner and user performance, while another 39 percent demonstrated a modest improvement. It also showed that having good content available was useful to less than one-fifth of those who were encouraging people to embrace e-Learning 2.0 approaches. No other factor was of more importance in this endeavor, suggesting that e-Learning practitioners are far from united in what they believe will increase the use of Web 2.0 tools in online learning. According to a report from the Online Computer Library Center ( http://www.oclc.org/us/en/about/default.htm OCLC), only 25 percent of the potential developers and 10 percent of the potential purchasers of e-Learning products cited “instructional effectiveness” as a reason for proceeding. Both groups of respondents expressed more interest in issues including access to learning than in documenting results.

Organizational support for social networking in e-Learning is also far from universal, the eLearning Guild survey shows. Fewer than 20 percent of the respondents reported that their organizations encouraged them to access external networking sites, while nearly 30 percent reported that their organizations are “not actively interested.”

Actual use of the tools, on the other hand, is far greater than that organizational support would suggest. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents read blogs on a daily or weekly basis, and an equally large group reports reading wikis on a daily or weekly basis. More than half of the respondents report storing bookmarks online and subscribing to RSS feeds. Social sites and services such as Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace attract much smaller groups of users among the respondents; the one exception is LinkedIn, which is used daily or weekly by more than half the group, and which is more business oriented than Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace.

The bottom line, for e-Learning practitioners, is that tremendous innovations are underway, and there is still a large untapped audience to pursue as these innovations continue changing the way we use and view online learning.


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