A Social Learning Network – Part 2

After a relatively long break, this is the second part of my blog on creating a social learning network or SLN. This will not be as detailed as the previous as work on the SLN was halted for reasons I’ll discuss later, but as usual this blog provides me with a repository for my research, work, and collected thoughts which I can look at later and hopefully other readers might make sense of benefit from.

This blog will really answer the very important question below:

How can we get our learners interested in a SLN? 

The continued success of Facebook demonstrates that the public are in general interested in social-networking. So why use a platform like Ning and not use Facebook itself which is, of course, the runaway market leader in social networking?

Well, institutional/authority participation in Facebook can be seen as an intrusion into someone’s private domain. A lot of people tend to feel inclined to compartmentalize their online identities, ‘work here, studies here, life here’. I myself do this. It has become apparent that I use Facebook for more playful social networking and LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, and my blog site for more academic and professional pursuits.

‘Ning provides an ave­nue for instructors to take advantage of social networks in a neutral setting, offering functionality and an experience that are familiar and comfortable to students. By creating social networks around academic topics, or even about specific projects for a course, an instructor can facilitate a strong sense of community among the students, encouraging personal interactions that can lead to the creation of new knowledge and collective intelligence’ Link

When we create our own SLN for a specific audience we have the opportunity to create the network in a way that behaves as we believe it should – but we have to always think about the end-user. How should it work FOR THEM and not us. Unique challenges result from who your end users will be.

There is a potential issue regarding how Facebook is constantly changing/evolving and as a result the norms and expectations related to wider social network use might change too so if we create a SLN we need to be mindful that it will likely always be evolving too. Standing still is rarely a good option in any field, but when it comes to the Internet, learning, and technology in general, this has to be doubly important to avoid, particularly if you are operating in a competitive field.

Unfortunately…

….while I was developing of the social learning network, we received the news that the department for which the SLN was being created was to close down and as a result the funding for the monthly subscription would cease and therefore the site would no longer be accessible.

The above news was very disappointing because as someone that works in the field of instructional design, you want to see things you research and develop come to fruition and you can learn from the failures and success of what you’ve created. The further implications on a personal level will be discussed in a future blog.

Further reading

Some further reading for social learning network use, development, and the Ning platform can be found below. I hope I’ll be able to return to it soon to fully develop and launch one.

http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-05112010-235930/unrestricted/Park_Y_D_2010.pdf 

http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1078/2077 

http://www.ascilite.org/conferences/sydney13/program/papers/Hughes.pdf 

http://etec.hawaii.edu/proceedings/2009/hoffman.pdf 

https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7036.pdf

 

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A Social Learning Network – Part 1

In my work, I’ve been tasked with creating a social learning network. In this blog and those follow, I’ll gather my thoughts and draw on a number of resources to try to make sense of its design and implementation.

Ultimately, across the two or three blogs I’ll add, I’m going to try and answer the following questions:

  • What is a social learning network?
  • Why would we want a social learning network? 
  • How can we create our own branded social learning network? 
  • How can we get our learners interested in it?
  • How can we promote self-directed learning? 
  • Can we foster an environment where students generate their own content?
  • How can we secure buy-in from teachers? 
  • Can this social learning network provide increased web presence which translates to increased business?

Over the course of the blogs covering this design, ultimately I’ll explore how in order to create differentiation from our competitors and add real value to course offerings, how can we create a branded social learning network that engenders productive learner interaction, self-directed learning, student-generated content, and has buy-in from teachers.

In this first blog, I’ll try and address the first three questions.

What is a social learning network?

Well, obviously, first it’s a social network so you can think Facebook to a great respect but in the case of a social learning network, the interactions would be between learners and teachers around materials specifically posted as learning objects or artefacts that are the culmination of learning  activities.

The ideal scenario in a social learning network is that it provides a space where learners can ‘acquire, master, and then themselves disseminate knowledge to others’ (Wiki). For example, a learner could create a video of her discussing a particular concept covered on a course and then post it for other students to watch and comment on or students could read an article posted by the teacher and post a similar one themselves.

It also provides a medium for students to collaborate online. Combining their skills to produce something or simply using the network as a communication channel to discuss work allocated by the teacher and achieve understanding and solve problems together.

Why would we want a social learning network? 

A company concerned with educating/training would want a social learning network for a number of reasons of which what I have just discussed would be of great import. In the communication age, leveraging the power of the internet has to be a must. Not only does it afford the possibilities for collaboration, dissemination of information and materials, and communication; it is a practical acknowledgement of how we now learn and even think.

Every field of study can no longer be seen as a static collection of concepts. Knowledge is continually evolving, more information is being created and made available immediately. As educators we have to plug into that and facilitate our learners becoming a part of a network of potential resources where they can explore a subject and become agents in their own learning journey through self-directed learning and the continued learning that comes from having these new connections to the potential sources of information we try and place in their reach.

As a corporate training department, part of our remit should be to not only educate learners with what is within a particular book. We should not limit ourselves to achieving the specified learning objectives. We should be in the business of producing learners who are prepared continue that learning in a specific field independent of those interactions they have with us. To create life-long, or at least career-long learners who will provide value for their employers. And in terms of the cost/benefit to those employers, our clients, we want to provide as great a benefit as we can for their investment.

There is also the value in relation to sales of having that supplemental offering to our products with the aforementioned learning benefits as well as consolidating our brand as an organisation at the forefront of our field.

How can we create our own branded social learning network?

While there are other platforms that could be used, we’ll be using Ning. I’ll be detailing the benefits of Ning and why it will be an appropriate choice for what we wish to do, but I’ll admit that perhaps one reason that Ning was initially raised as a possible SLN provider is that it has been used by the organisation before.

Its use was actually unsuccessful, and I’ll be exploring perhaps why that was the case in a future blog and applying those lessons learnt to the design and implementation of this SLN for the corporate training department.

Ning

Here’s a brief video detailing what Ning is and how it can be used.

So, Ning is an online platform for people and organisations to create custom social networks. Ning allows us to create our own name for the SLN and brand it with personalised design choices, images, and theme colours etc.

It’s important to perhaps note what Ning isn’t. It’s not a Learning Management system. It’s not directly a method for us, for example, to make materials available to students that missed classes or a platform on which we can add traditional e-learning lessons.

But…what it doesn’t have, the open internet does.

Picture of web apps and social network sites that can be used within Ning

The wider web offers so much functionality to use within Ning

So Ning can provide a customizable hub for wider web use.

Functionality

So lets look at the functionality of Ning and explore how we can exploit it for what we want to do.

Groups

Ning groups example page

Ning groups example credit – http://www.ning.com/ning3help/create-groups/

So first there’s the functionality that we can create groups within our network. A group can be assigned to an individual class and also to the subject area that that class might be studying. Groups can be set up like Matryoshka dolls, one within the other with differing levels of access to individual students by virtue of those groups being public or private and assigning admissions.

Accessibility

These groups can have individual URLs for ease of access and bookmarking. Students and clients can be filtered into their respective groups/sub-groups via email invitations or via profile questions. Each student will have access to their specific class and subject area group and any other groups that are open and might be of interest to them.

Ning group naming function

Ning group naming function – credit http://www.ning.com/help/?p=5200

Critically, students can sign in via existing social network memberships, i.e., if they have Facebook accounts they can simply click to join with that and they’ll have instant profile presence. From my own experience, this is a great labour-saving function and when we’re trying to coax in users that might not be overly enthused by what this product might be, the ease of access and perhaps the comfort that it integrates with their existing social networks might be of great help in at least ‘getting them through the door’.

Alternative social network login access image

Alternative social network login access – credit http://www.ning.com/blog/2010/11/introducing-social-sign-in.html

In relation to the devices that can be used, Ning can be accessed via all devices as it uses responsive design which is ‘is an approach to web design aimed at crafting sites to provide an optimal viewing and interaction experience—easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling—across a wide range of devices (from desktop computer monitors to mobile phones)’ (Wiki). It also makes use of HTML5 which means the latest multimedia should be easily readable on devices.

Content functionality

Within these groups which can be categorized according to general subject area or specific class groups, we can add blogs, videos, images, links and so on.

We can also add RSS feeds covering areas pertinent to that particular subject or class. For example, we could add feeds adding info on business news for a specific Business English class and the Business English subject area itself, or feeds related to recruitment to a class for a class made up of recruitment consultancy staff.

RSS Feeds info from Ning website

RSS Feeds info – credit http://www.ning.com/help/?p=3257

This negates the need for constant manual updates on our part to ‘make it look busy’. This would hopefully promote student-centred exploration of the topic being covered in the classes and begin to make learners aware of the possibilities afforded to them by plugging themselves into these networks of resources to enhance their abilities.

Leveraging the wider web

As I mentioned earlier, this SLN is not a traditional LMS. However, we can also add links to any of the materials we want to make available to subject area groups or specific group classes via cloud storage options such as Dropbox or Google Drive. We can upload videos or audio recordings of classes via sites such as YouTube. Adding videos of classes, lectures, or class activities provides learners with the opportunities to review what’s been done or gain new insight into a subject area.

SLN as a shop window

However, for some videos that we produce, we may want to add them to open groups for other learners and our clients who will have access to the SLN themselves. We might also at some stage want to start offering videos of classes to showcase what we do in other subject areas that can be viewed by students and clients within the community. They may see possible products that they would like to take or invest in in the future. The SLN can provide a shop window as well as an environment to promote learning.

Student-generated content

Students can add their own videos of class activities or things done outside or any links they have found and written work for others to read either via their own initiative or as guided by the instructor. These can provide a rich resource of blended learning and student-generated content for us to exploit in class as well as providing further resources for the immediate group and wider community.

Repositories for future materials

When content is added to groups by either learners or instructors, this can provide repositories for future use for instructors in future classes and it remains as possible material for clients to view to aid repeat-business.

Metrics, Measurement, Analytics

Ning has analytics functions. We can gather contact and demographic information, see who is active, who isn’t, and where and decide what is and isn’t working as a result. This is a very helpful tool in improving our products but there are ethics involved regarding using it to gauge learners engagement levels or output of students if elements of SLN use become more than supplementary offerings and become intrinsic parts of courses. I wrote a blog on the ethics of analytics use here.

Future API functionality

Ning state that they will have API functionality in the future. This essentially should mean that were we to want to create interactive e-learning content with tools such as Captivate or Articulate in future, we might be able to add it to our SLN. For example, short graphic user interface lessons could be added with games and quizzes. If we ever wanted to use the SLN as a place where intrinsic parts of course content took place, this would be a great option to have.

Summary

This could, if exploited correctly engender a change in our general work-practice culture. It could promote greater integration of online, digital elements and student-generated content into our classroom teaching, and change our view of what we do to focus more clearly on preparing learners for continued self-directed independent learning in future.

The goal here isn’t more work for classroom instructors; It’s leveraging the power of the internet and digital media which could ultimately mean less work and more engaging and richer learning scenarios.

However getting the approach right and achieving buy-in from all stakeholders including instructors, learners, clients, and administrative staff is vital. This is what I’ll be exploring in future blogs where I’ll be exploring some of the relevant research.

Flipped Learning

In this blog, I’ll explain how I have become so interested in and enthusiastic about the potential of flipped learning. This is a moderately adapted report I wrote for my current corporate training centre (the PTC) within the British Council in Bangkok.

Flipped Learning image

Flipped Learning by Deirdre2 @ Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA

It’s a report on e-learning innovation and it’s split into four sections. In the first section, I provide a definition of innovation in e-learning. In the second section, I discuss the PTC’s current context and detail three e-learning interventions that might be positively employed within the department. In the third section, I detail some concerns while the final section will consist of a brief conclusion.

Innovation in E-learning Definition

At the core of innovation is change. Change can be the development and implementation of new devices or practices to replace or complement existing tools and operations. However, innovation is defined by the context in which it exists. A familiar process in one context used for the first time in another to affect change would constitute innovation. In e-learning, a central consideration would be whether the introduction of a new technology positively affects or facilitates a change in pedagogy within that context or whether it is a new tool used in the continuance of traditional styles of instruction.

PTC Context

The British Council Thailand’s PTC is responsible for providing corporate clients from a variety of sectors with corporate training and English language instruction.

At the time of writing, sales were low with few new classes opening and the team and to meet management utilization targets, the numbers of trainers had been contracting. Market research had yet to be undertaken to ascertain why. However, informal anecdotal evidence suggests that though the PTC could capitalise on the British Council’s prestige as an educational provider, its price-point for its products is perceived as too high when there is little differentiation in products from cheaper competitors. This, to my knowledge remains the same today.

In relation to e-learning products, while the British Council develops and provides online e-learning products, but at this point the PTC offers no e-learning products or services to clients.

As a result of the above, I felt that the department required attractive differentiation from its competitors while also providing a more inexpensive solution for clients. But to safeguard the department and the wider organisation’s reputation as a high quality provider, any shift had to be based on solid pedagogical principles to ensure learning goals were achieved.

So what is Flipped Learning?

A flipped classroom is a rearrangement of how and where learning takes place. In contrast to a traditional classroom, the focus is shifted from teacher-centred instruction to student-centred learning. Direct instruction no longer takes place in the classroom with the teacher. It occurs online. Class time is dedicated to more collaborative, project-based learning.

Flipped Learning process diagram

Flipped Learning process diagram

Online instruction does not necessitate the teacher to be present and the materials, once designed can be used again and again in later classes. This decreases the cost of courses for the PTC, resulting in a more inexpensive product.

How can this be facilitated?

A Learning Management System (LMS) is a necessary technology to implement new methods of instruction in the information age. An LMS is a software application that allows a user to automate the administration, assembly, and delivery of digital learning content. If flipped learning is the goal, the LMS is what facilitates the online delivery. There can be the application of structure to specific courses with modules of online instruction culminating in modes of assessment to ensure understanding before in-class components.

It is the experience of many educators that some learners fail to understand some concepts and therefore flounder in freer activities. This is often true in English mixed-ability classes. However, with online learning facilitated by the LMS, Students can as Vygotsky put it ‘theoretically pace their learning….using student-centered pedagogies aimed at their readiness level or zone of proximal development, where they are challenged but not so much so that they are demoralized’. For example, if an instructor provides a video giving instruction on a particular concept, learners with lower aptitudes can pause and rewind it or choose to read captions or transcripts if available. Another benefit from the teacher’s perspective is that less focus is applied to ensuring lower-level learners are up-to-speed, giving more time to focus on feedback and the individual needs of all.

Also, as educators in the field of corporate training, our responsibility is to enhance learners’ ability to operate in their context with the training provided. In the information age, engendering a more connectivist approach to learning would potentially address this. Connectivism relates to how learning is now a process of making and maintaining connections to nodes of specialized information sources to facilitate continual learning. In the traditional classroom instruction model, information is imparted in a one-size-fits all manner. In contrast, in a flipped classroom course using an LMS, this approach can be replaced by a greater emphasis on active learning where it is the student’s responsibility to understand the content and solve problems. The student learns in a way that best suits them individually. This factor and incorporating tasks into the learning designs where information can be specifically gathered outside of the course framework from websites, their own experience, or from a peer group online or otherwise, might result in the learner making those connections that will benefit them in future.

Flipped Learning Research

Research by the Flipped Learning Network in conjunction with ClassroomWindow found the following for teachers:

  • Associated Flipped Learning with improved student performance and attitudes, and increased job satisfaction
  • 66% reported increased standardised test scores
  • 80% perceived an improvement in students’ attitudes towards learning

The Flipped Learning and Democratic Education survey in 2012 reported the following in relation to students:

80% of students agreed that they…

  • Had more constant and positive interactions
  • Had greater opportunities to work at own pace
  • Had increased access to course material and instruction
  • Had more choice in how they demonstrate their learning
  • Viewed learning as a more active process

70% of students agreed that they…

  • Were more likely to engage in collaborative decision making
  • Were more likely to engage in critical thinking and problem solving
  • Teachers were more likely to take into account their interests, strengths, and weaknesses
  • Were more likely to have a choice in what learning tasks they engage in

Learning Analytics

Learning analytics is, says George Siemens ‘the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections, and to predict and advise on learning’. They can function to make sense learners actions achieving their learning goals and aid institutions in improving their learning designs.

So, through the analysis of learners habits, actions, interactions, failures and successes in their use of the LMS, the content, devices used, and data from social networks, and semantic data, the PTC could make predictions of learners’ requirements, and how to best adjust curriculums, materials, communication, and access to optimize the learning experiences. This would result in effective and sustainable products that were constantly adapting to shifting learning, social, and technological trends.

I’ll cover the ethics of learning analytics in a future blog.

Concerns

A primary concern is access to devices, bandwidth, and learners’ technological competence in engaging with materials and achieving the course objectives on the LMS. A possible solution is materials being available in alternative formats. To ensure the PTC’s adherence to the principles of universal design in relation to accessibility and the British Council’s commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion, this should be the case, regardless. A key element to initial needs analysis for PTC representatives would now incorporate an analysis of the above factors.

Another concern is the additional responsibility placed on learners outside their existing responsibilities. It is possible that if the time to undertake the online elements of courses are shifted outside of work hours, there may be resistance to it and decreased participation. Clients should make appropriate decisions regarding the cost/benefit analysis of not scheduling time for study. Furthermore, the PTC would need to delineate the benefits of undertaking the online element as to engender greater intrinsic motivation.

Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning of the blog, I’m very enthusiastic regarding this medium of learning, particularly so when you try to in-build connectivist theory within the learning designs to promote continued learning. While this scenario is for non native speaker learners, I feel that it can relate to many different spheres and industries and is, of course, already being implemented all over the world. Some organisations are just a little slower than others.