Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, June 8, 2007

Social Software: Challenges, Risks, Issues And How To Confront Them (Part IV)

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Social software is a concept that groups all those web-based means of interaction (blogs, wikis, instant messengers) that enable collaboration while emphasizing the importance of humans over the tools they use to communicate.

Photo credit: Pathathai Chungyam

In the first excerpt from the extensive research done by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework the topic of social software was introduced and its impact on the lives of the individuals and organizations analyzed. In the second excerpt I prepared and published the research focused social software growing influence on learning and teaching techniques in the era of the Net Generation. Finally, in the third article excerpted from this outstanding research report, possible future uses of social software were analyzed and dissected.

Today I introduce to you the fourth and last excerpt from this uniquely valuable report focusing on analyzing the possible challenges and tensions that may emerge when leveraging the full potential of social software.

There is substantial evidence from this research to suggest that the use of social software can be an effective strategy for knowledge sharing and capability development as well as a strategy that can enhance and enliven the teaching and learning experience in VET.

A summary of the supporting themes, pre-conditions, enablers, contexts in VET, and the theories informing the use of social software that emerged through this research are represented in Figure 4.
Tensions and challenges consistent with the implementation of an innovation were also identified and are included in this article.

Figure 4: Mindmap Of Learning with Social Software in VET

Why use social software

The themes that emerged supporting the use of social software include:

  • Empowerment

    Those using social software for knowledge sharing and capability development within and external to VET and Australia value the freedom of publishing without the constraints of autocratic processes; they value the freedom of choice - the ability to select different social software technologies to meet the needs of their clients; the ability to choose where and how they learn themselves; and the ability to establish informal networks for knowledge sharing.

    Similarly learners value the freedom to publish. They particularly value the opportunity to negotiate and/or collaborate with their teachers on how the different technologies can be used to enhance their learning.

  • Lifelong learning competence

    Individuals using social software are excited by its ability to inspire people to become more self-reliant learners and sharers of knowledge. By its very use, they are learning to learn, and learning to share and make meaning of that knowledge. Atwell (2006) explores this further in his paper "Social Software, Personal Learning Environments and Lifelong Competency Development"

  • Community building

    By being part of a distributed network, managers, teachers and students are becoming part of a community or belong to many communities. For example, blogging tends to show the personal face of its writer, not just in their image if it is available, but by the way they write. Comments are invited, links to other bloggers given and more contacts made, thus becoming part of a blogging community.

  • Improved workflow and productivity

    Two key factors that are contributing to improved workflow and productivity are: the immediacy of publishing - no longer working through autocratic processes of having work signed off and published to sites by IT professionals; and the ability to "monitor vast amounts of information in real time" through the use of RSS and aggregators (see Trevor Cook's story).

    Instead of having to seek out the information, RSS seeks it out for you with some aggregators, eg Bloglines, presenting it to you in a central repository. The use of social bookmarking through sites such as is another way of quickly accessing information by linking to sites categorised by topics of interest (called folksonomies).

Other factors influencing improved workflow and productivity were: less travel time and costs, eg by holding online meetings through virtual conferencing or software such as Skype; and less printing and distribution costs with the ability to access and download from anywhere.

  • Relatively resource-free

    The key resource needed is time to learn (professional development) with most social software being free or of relatively low cost.

Preconditions and enablers for the successful use of social software

The critical elements identified as preconditions for the successful use of social software were: having an authentic need (real and not contrived); being relevant to the context and appropriate for the client; and being supported by an enabling organisational culture within a spirit of openness and a willingness to share and collaborate. The key enablers included:

  • organisational and ICT support

  • modelling by senior management and those already using social software, eg having a CEO blog to share organisational news

  • professional development, particularly just-in-time mentoring, action learning, work-based learning, eg LearnScope, coaching and workshops

  • immersion - using social software in the workplace.

Contexts and clients for using social software in VET

While conversations are just beginning about how and where social software can be used best, there seems to be few limits to the knowledge sharing, capability development, workplace and VET delivery contexts. Some examples include:

  • blogs for publishing organisational news and directions, sharing conference notes and reflections. In VET delivery, for developing written communication skills, student journaling and reflecting, posting study and assessment requirements, sharing photos from field studies, etc.
  • wikis in the workplace for everyday tasks such as project management, strategic planning, policy development, report writing and agenda setting. In VET delivery for collaborative projects, practice firms, student and teacher note taking, etc.
  • social bookmarking for sharing topics of interest within teams, the broader organisation and with other professionals as well as supporting research by teachers and students of specific disciplines
  • virtual conferencing can be used for meetings, presentations and demonstrations.
  • Similarly, social software is not restricted in VET delivery to any one client group, AQF level, teaching discipline or learning activity. The selection of the appropriate social software tool for the context and client is critical however, as well as ensuring its use is authentic and relevant.

    The tensions


    Adoption v Status Quo - the use of social software for knowledge sharing, capability development and in teaching and learning is new. As such, some of the tensions that apply to innovation and change are visible in the organisations that are beginning to test out these new tools, and are consistent with Rogers' (1995) Diffusion of Innovation theory and Gladwell's (2000) Tipping Point.

    A critical tension in the early stages of adoption of a new technology in education is whether it is actually applicable to the context of learning. The innovators and early adopters are 'trail blazing' but before the early majority will take up the challenge they will need convincing that its use achieves the required outcomes as efficiently and effectively as other strategies.

    Enabling v Compliance

    A key tension was the blocking of access by ICT firewalls to public social software sites being used by VET teachers and students. Stuckey and Arkell (2006) argue that there are two critical environments for the management of knowledge - a culture of compliance and an enabling culture.

    This research found that an enabling culture is required to support the successful use of social software but it acknowledges that ICT policies have a place. This supports Stuckey and Arkell's argument that this tension is a continuum and that both can co-exist - that a balanced approach will achieve sustainable knowledge sharing. Siemens posits that a key role of managers is to remove the barriers to support a more enabling culture.

    There was evidence that the positioning on the line of increasing personal agency within Stuckey and Arkell's four quadrant framework seems to move freely from enabling to one of compliance, and perhaps settles somewhere in the middle as individuals move to using social software in their working context or with clients.

    This may be short-lived as colleagues and students become more confident users of the tools and feel more empowered to use them as they see appropriate. For example, teachers who have embraced social software for their own use and within the teaching and learning context often dictate how the tools should be used initially. Petterd's experience supports this:

    "What I set out to do changed. I initially established a blog for my students and asked them to comment on my postings. [Compliance] They didn't comment but what they did do is start posting to Deviant Art, another tool for contributors to swap art work and digital images. When I realised where they were I joined them there and engaged with them at a different level. [Enabling]"

    And often it is about perceptions. For example, NSW LearnScope modelled the use of social software for project management and knowledge sharing in 2006. Project teams were asked to provide stories/progress reports that could be posted to their blog and were encouraged to contribute to a wiki for the collaborative development of showcase programs, etc. Anecdotal reports suggest that some teams felt controlled and resented this new requirement while others felt empowered as they engaged with the new technologies.

    Collaboration v Individualism

    Underpinning the use of social software is a philosophy of connecting, collaborating and community. Some VET practitioners and other educators using social software report a reticence by students and colleagues to participate and collaborate online. For some this is about 'trust' in the people with whom they are going to engage before they are willing to reveal themselves.

    "It did take us quite a time to feel comfortable about the process, but the fact that we did was largely down to the close ties and trust we already shared (our social context)."

    Bartlett-Bragg cites trust as one of the inhibitors that "restricts the learners' ability to participate in collaborative social software environments".

    Callahan offers some other reasons why people do not collaborate online:

    • when faced with the choice of learning new technology and chatting to colleagues on the phone and email to get a job done, if it can be done with what they already know they will go with that
    • the majority of people in organisations are baby boomers (I'm not sure this is true) and haven't been brought up in an environment using collaboration tools.

    Callahan also points to Pollard's blogging on this subject where he proposes that the lack of usability of the software and the lack of interpersonal skills generally contribute to lack of collaboration.

    LMS/CMS v Social Software

    There is clearly a difference of opinion among some VET practitioners and educators globally as to whether Learning Management Systems (LMS) and/or Content Management Systems (CMS) should continue to be used in educational environments and whether social software should be embedded within them.

    The argument is a philosophical one to some extent, ie social software is about freedom of choice, is constructivist and student-centred learning whereas LMS/CMS are perceived to be about content, control and teacher-driven.

    Some argue that you need an LMS to keep track of students' progress, and others consider the privacy of learning within an LMS provides a safety net for students and their work. There did seem to be some support amongst VET practitioners for introducing students to social software for learning within an LMS as a first step to them taking responsibility for their own learning.

    Dalsgaard argues that management systems are for administrative issues and "personal tools for construction, presentation, reflection, collaboration, etc".

    The challenges


    The challenges that need to be overcome for the successful adoption of social software include:

    • security of public storage - concerns that resources will 'disappear' as public sites disappear. Given the fast redundancy of knowledge this may not be an issue however
    • privacy of organisations' operational knowledge and students' work - connected to security (above) and perhaps influencing VET practitioners to use social software within LMS
    • potential of liability claims against organisations and/or individuals. This is causing some to use servers outside their organisations. Others believe it is a matter of educating students about their responsibilities
    • integrity of information available - learning to 'know who to trust' as reliable and valid sources

    "Indeed, a key question in the information society is that, as activities become more ICT mediated, the conventional "truth checkers" begin to lose their grip on the collective ability to make judgements. In a digital world, usually, alternative social systems of trust are established to compensate for the absence of authority, familiarity and physical presence. An example is the reputation system offered by the online marketplace eBay, where each buyer and seller is given a reputation score which fosters trust between people who do not know each other. (Purie et al. 2006 p 36)"

    • adaptation - managers, teachers and students are required to take on new roles within new learning communities. They are now creators and publishers, guides and scouts for new knowledge, moderators and teachers and learners. They are also required to have a new digital literacy and make choices about the different technologies available
    • time - making time to learn and time to implement
    • usability - while the Net Gen may be digitally literate, many existing managers and teachers, and more mature students, need to upskill. Also some teachers argue that it is a generalisation to say all younger students are technically savvy and they find many of them are not computer literate.

    "So if we then consider the situation with our students - there is this preconception that the younger generation is better with technology than us. This is definitely a myth. They are great at using technology how they want to use it - eg gaming, messaging, sms. But that doesn't mean they are great at using it for e-learning and in reality are often very reluctant users of technology - some to the point of hating it. "

    Many respondents could be considered digitally literate and perhaps this has contributed to their early adoption of the technologies. Similarly, the reason identified by some for not persisting with social software has been their lack of IT skills, their subsequent reticence to learn yet another technology, and their lack of time to learn.

    RSS and aggregators are considered the key, or the 'glue' to the effective and efficient use of social software. They direct the traffic and bring the knowledge to you. Yet the research found that this area is the most difficult to understand. Some respondents using social software for knowledge sharing reported that they still do not use it well. Social bookmarking is also poorly understood. Effort may be needed to increase understanding of and use of these tools.

    • bandwidth - in some rural communities in Australia VET practitioners and students are still using dial-up. Even in the major cities bandwidth is an issue with some social software tools.

    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

    Read Part II: Social Software And Its Contribution To Teaching And Learning

    Read Part III: Social Software And Its Possible Future Uses

    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 credits

    Hands: Marc Dietrich
    Boxeurs: Nicholas Sutcliffe

    Val Evans -
    Reference: Australian Flexible Learning Framework [ Read more ]
    Readers' Comments    
    2007-06-11 13:54:07

    Reno Provine

    Very informative article, well written. I firmly believe that the future of communication will come through the furthered use of these social environments and platforms.

    Reno Provine

    posted by on Friday, June 8 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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