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.
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.
The wider web offers so much functionality to use within Ning
So Ning can provide a customizable hub for wider web use.
So lets look at the functionality of Ning and explore how we can exploit it for what we want to do.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.