Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Social Software And Its Contribution To Teaching And Learning - A Report By Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Part II)

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"Social software enables people to rendez-vous, connect or collaborate through computer mediated discussion and to form online communities. Broadly conceived, this term could encompass older media such as mailing lists but some would restrict its meaning to more recent software genres such as blogs and wikis."
(Source: Wikipedia)

Photo credit: Rob Marmion

In the first part of this article we introduced social software and analyzed how it impacts individuals and organizations. We learnt how the technologies universally identified with the name of "social software" (e.g. blogs, wikis, podcasts) are rapidly changing the way in which communication happens - both online and offline - by celebrating and fostering the power of "human" interaction, instead of the technology that makes it possible.

But what happens when social software breaks through the walls of our schools and collides with established teaching and learning techniques? How do teachers succeed in stimulating the curiosity of the students belonging to the Internet generation?

In the following article we republished for you the second excerpt of the outstanding report released by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, which is completely dedicated to the phenomenon of social software and its impact on learning and teaching in the era of the Net Generation.

Contribution to good teaching and learning practice: benefits to clients

There has been a growing interest in the use of social software for knowledge sharing in teaching and learning over recent years. Driving the interest have been:

  • the rapid (somewhat exponential) growth in the use of social software generally by all age groups, but specifically by the 'Net Generation'
  • the realisation by educators and organisational learning specialists that social software tools are valid and useful in providing virtual learning environments that enable the social interaction necessary for knowledge creation, sharing, and project collaboration.

Critical to those professionally involved in teaching and learning have been:

  • a new understanding of the distributive nature of knowledge through the theory of Connectivism. Social software enables connections to global networks in vibrant and engaging ways that promote knowledge sharing
  • an appreciation of the ways in which learners can effectively use social software tools to construct knowledge. This is based on a Constructivist approach to learning where the teacher's role is to facilitate and design learning environments that challenge people's thinking and recognise individual mental models in making meaning through the interaction
  • the development of "ad-hoc learning communities" (O'Hear in Downes, 2006) where social software is becoming a preferred learning management platform. For example, White's (2006) three types of communities now operating within the blogosphere
  • the relative ease of use, access, and minimal cost of social software

A strong case for the use of social software in education is emerging. The collected material highlights the perception of some educators that these tools provide environments for learners that are engaging, fun, and adaptable to meet individual learner styles, and where that learning is assessable (both formative and summative).

The nature of social software as providing platforms for 'user driven content' in multimedia formats is beginning to be recognised by innovative practitioners as a strategic way of achieving learner autonomy. The indications are that the application of social software to teaching and learning can achieve greater fluidity and authenticity in social interaction than have been previously possible with learning management systems.

Bartlett-Bragg (2006) has developed a pedagogical framework for introducing learners to the use of social software which contains five pathways to the development of learning networks. (See Figure 2) The framework is not intended to be linear and Bartlett-Bragg identifies three types of inhibitors which may impact on progression through the pathways: organisational technology infrastructure; individual/learner; and pedagogical. The Establishment Pathway "is continuously present at all stages of the framework" and Bartlett-Bragg stresses that

"Guidance and support from the educator is essential throughout this pathway, as any technological challenge or miscomprehension of concepts can dominate the learners' attention and become an impassable barrier unless addressed."

Figure 2: Pathways to develop learning networks - a pedagogical framework (click on the above image to enlarge it)

Gotts (2006) tested Bartlett-Braggs' pedagogy with her Diploma of e-Learning students delivered through the Tropical North Queensland TAFE. She notes its usefulness, particularly at the beginning of the course. Only a few students reached Stage 5 of Bartlett-Braggs' framework with the majority of student blogs fitting into Stage 3.

At this early stage of use of social software in VET delivery there are indicators of it still being somewhat teacher-driven. VET practitioners are confident however that social software provides an opportunity for learning to become more student-centred. It was agreed in focus groups that this should be a negotiated and collaborative process which is best viewed on a continuum.

One end of the continuum depends on the ability of the students to take responsibility for their learning, with many students needing initial direction, and at the other end they become more confident learners and more confident with the technologies; they take more responsibility.

It was considered that some of the younger technologically savvy students might well become the teachers in regard to best use of social software technologies.This relates to the concept of "reverse mentoring" which is a corporate practice that has been used since around 2000 in traditional USA based companies (eg Procter and Gamble); middle-aged executives are tutored on the mysteries of the Internet by younger newcomers.(Greengard 2002).

Appropriate, authentic, and relevant were key words used by focus group participants about the contribution of social software to good teaching and learning practice. The situation needs to be real and not contrived and social software should be appropriate for the context - the learning activity and the target group.

Other contributions of social software to good teaching and learning practice valued by clients cited by research participants included:

  • for indigenous learners it enables greater participation in learning activities. The use of audio and introduction of image/text story work encourages and develops their literacy skills
  • increases flexibility for students and teachers
  • appeals to 'Net Gen'
  • offers choice and variety in how students present their work
  • reinvigorates teachers and their attitudes
  • provides access to collective knowledge
  • connects distance learners
  • allows an ease of tailoring to learners' needs
  • provides alternative assessment methods, eg the use of moblogs suits learners with low literacy and numeracy skills. They can tell stories (gather evidence) through the use of a series of pictures
  • provides access for the disabled
  • extends students' and teachers' technological knowledge and capabilities
  • inspires lifelong learning.

Some further comments made by the survey respondents include:

"I believe that the most valuable outcome of my use of social software has been in engaging my students. They love sharing their work and publishing online, and have been able to engage in the process of networked learning - too valuable from a lifelong learning perspective to even quantify! The quieter students were able to contribute better online. I have evaluated it by observing the number of responses given by students in a class discussion.

Podcasting assisted adult students with concentration difficulties to focus. It also increased their confidence to the point where previously non-participatory students began to offer comments and ideas in the class. Creating a Digital Story about his life in a School Holiday Program transformed an 11 year old autistic boy from virtually no interaction with other children to steady interaction."

Perhaps Rosa Ochoa's comment sums up best the benefits to the client:

"It has become an extra dimension, a fifth skill (listening, talking, reading, writing and blogging/podcasting) and an extra medium. I haven't changed the way I teach much. I always tried to integrate topics/genre/linguistic characteristics in my teaching. Blogging/podcasting is integrated into the teaching and learning process."

Selecting social software to suit the learning activity

To guide VET practitioners in thinking about how best to use social software tools, the survey respondents who had used social software in their teaching practice were asked to recommend which learning activities best suited the different tools. (See Table 5)

The range of learning activities identified in Table 5 and the considered applicability of the different technologies, would suggest that the use of social software is appropriate for the different levels of Blooms Taxonomy, ie knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Table 5: Recommended social software tools for learning activities (click on the above image to enlarge it)

Further feedback from the storytellers and focus group participants suggests that blogs are particularly appropriate for reflection, journaling and developing confidence in writing and English for students from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Wikis are proving ideal for collaborative projects, with perhaps the anonymity available giving students more confidence to participate. Teachers are using blogs and wikis for publishing study programs, assignments and assessment requirements as well as their reflections.

Digital storytelling and photo publishing are proving useful technologies for engaging the 'disengaged' and indigenous learners, as are podcasting and moblogging, with the latter also being used for assessment in the 'field'.

Virtual conferencing is gaining in popularity as its effectiveness as a synchronous learning space for distance learners is being recognised. Its ability to support voice and text, collaborative whiteboard space, and demonstration through linking to websites or the teacher's PC makes it a powerful learning tool for the 'virtual classroom'.

There was no suggestion that more traditional approaches to teaching and learning are not appropriate. Rather a blended learning approach is recommended by selecting the appropriate strategy and technology for the context.

Social software for target groups, teaching disciplines and qualification levels

Twenty-four survey respondents provided their recommendations for using social software tools with specific learner groups. The most highly recommended tools across all groups were blogs, photo publishing, podcasting, and digital stories. In relation to youth, all the tools were rated higher than for other groups. 3D rated the least for all groups, but was most recommended for youth. (See Table 6)

Table 6: Recommended social software tools for specific learner groups (click on the above image to enlarge it)

Indeed, data from other sources suggests that indigenous learners show a keen interest and quick uptake of multimedia and new technologies. Using social software gives them the capacity to have their voice/music/culture heard and they particularly relate to the use of imagery.

The range of teaching disciplines and certificate levels showcased in the exemplar stories suggests that social software can be used in a variety of teaching contexts. The exemplar stories cover a range of disciplines from horticulture to business administration and certificate levels from School Based Traineeships to Diploma.

As well, Parker has posted to the research wiki a number of links to examples of how social software is being used in the trades with apprentices. These include: interviews with refrigeration apprentices; class wikis and blogs; and links to teacher networks. Millea et al (2005) posit that the advantages of using social software tools for content delivery are:

"in their capacity to deliver content multi-modally. This has a number of advantages - it enables content to be delivered in modes to suit different learning styles; and additional content can be created for different levels of ability, as extension material, supplementary activities or in alternative formats for students with disabilities."

Assessing and evaluating impact of social software on student learning outcomes

Survey respondents were asked to comment on how they evaluate the impact of social software on student learning outcomes. Two approaches were evident in their comments. These were:

  1. Using social software as tools for both formative and summative evaluation. Examples included digital story telling, blogs (as a reflection tool), wikis, discussion forums, podcasting, and tools such as Technorati for site statistics/analytics.
  2. Using 'traditional' formative and summative evaluation methods. Examples included happy sheets, interviews, focus groups, and formal written surveys.

The following dimensions of the learning experience were included as areas for assessment and evaluation by respondents:

  • learner capability in using social software tools
  • access to technology in an inclusive way
  • engagement in social learning/social competencies/ engagement in learning (generally).

The changing role of teachers


The storytellers were asked to comment on whether their role as teachers had changed since introducing the use of social software with their students. Interestingly, for a new teacher (Robin Petterd) social software was already part of his toolkit. Perhaps this fact indicates how a new generation of teachers is already bringing social software to the learning experience. Other comments relating to changing roles were:

"It has had a significant impact on the way I work. I communicate more quickly through mobile technologies, instant messaging and engage students in the production of resources. There is more interaction across learner groups".
Joanna Kay

"[I am a] - guide and scout - new things for appropriate use. New frontiers for both clients and facilitators. Stepping into new environments; a demonstrator - model and instruct/guide on use; support - for creation of material/content. Co-publisher - of created material; learning support for independent learners."
Georgina Nou

"Role of IT technician: This is a role that needs to be performed whenever working with computers in small campuses. Role of moderator: Particularly important when dealing with youth. Didn't have any problems with inappropriate pictures being posted, only inappropriate comments being posted to each other's moblog. Can be very hard to detect early on."
Gary Lienert

"My teaching role is now more of a facilitator's role, offering guidance, helping students make social and knowledge connections; more reliant on the technology to make connections with our students. This has meant we have had to increase our skill base; change in the 'headset' of a facilitator, of who 'controls' the learning process - in the beginning this requires more guidance, but the output is more self-reliant learners and sharers."
Allison Miller and Jacinta Ryan

"More a facilitator and mentor."
Rosa Ochoa


The evidence suggests that VET practitioners have begun to test the applicability of social software in their teaching practice in a broad range of ways. At this stage the indications are that it is still early days and they are very much 'trail-blazing'.

Their practice is beginning to inform the theory, and what constitutes sound teaching and learning is slowly beginning to emerge as a focus of conversation. As with using social software for knowledge sharing and capability development, authenticity, relevance and appropriateness were considered the critical factors.

Advocates for the use of social software in teaching and learning see it as an effective 'tool in their teaching kit' to be used in conjunction with other technologies and more traditional teaching strategies - a blended approach.

"...remember[ing] that Web 2.0 technologies are one of many tools in e-learning that we can use and also just one of the tools we can use in teaching (sometimes other teaching strategies are better). Ultimately, as with any teaching strategy, it is about picking the best tool for the desired outcome and not using technology for the sake of it."
Sue Waters, Challenger TAFE

This article is an excerpt of the report originally entitled "Networks, Connections and Community: Learning with Social Software", written by Val Evans, in collaboration with Larraine J Larri. It has been republished with the kind permission of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework.

Read Part I: Social Software: What It Is And How It Impacts Individuals And Organizations

About the authors

Val Evans is the head of Val Evans Consulting and a researcher in the field of social software. The report has been written in collaboration with Larraine J Larri from Renshaw-Hitchen and Associates Pty Ltd.

About the Australian Flexible Learning Framework

The national training system's e-learning strategy, the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Framework), funds Networks to allow teachers and trainers from across Australia to share knowledge about emerging e-learning issues. The Networks Community Forum is a place where education and training professionals can come together to increase their professional development in relation to the integration of technology in education and training. Register here. 'E-Trends' is the theme of June's online event, to be held 19-20 June. The program includes around 14 synchronous live classroom sessions and a range of asynchronous discussions.

Photo credit

Teacher and kid: Leah-Anne Thompson

Val Evans - Livia Iacolare -
Reference: Australian Flexible Learning Framework [ Read more ]
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posted by on Thursday, May 24 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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