Social Software And Its Possible Future Uses (Part III)
Social software is a concept that embraces the whole world of those Internet-based interaction systems (i.e. wikis, blogs, instant messengers, podcasts) that allow distance collaboration and communication by emphasizing the richness of the human potential instead of the technologies that make these exchanges possible.
Photo credit: Alexandre Stolbstov
In the first article dedicated to this topic we analyzed the phenomenon of social software and its impact on the lives of the individuals and organizations while in the second one we measured its growing influence on learning and teaching in the era of the Net Generation.
We learnt how positively disruptive social software can be when it meets traditional learning and working environments by fostering a new image of individuals (in this case students and professionals) that collaborate through means that highlight their creativity and receptiveness.
The one I introduce today is the third article I have excerpted from the uniquely fascinating report released by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, and which focuses exclusively on analyzing the possible uses of social software in the near future, while relying on the already available research data.
Social Software: The Future Vision
The storytellers were asked to visualise a future that incorporated the use of social software for knowledge sharing, capability development and VET delivery. This was to gauge an understanding of 'how it could be' if social software was more widely adopted by VET practitioners. There emerged a passionately held belief that this future is very very close!
"Social software will force us to completely re-think our business and delivery models for many activities. It's already happening in the media and many other industries from telecommunications to music and book-selling."
This is supported by Semple, previous Knowledge Manager for the BBC and now an independent consultant. In his story Semple talks about the changes ahead being "quite profound" and says that the future
"... is way beyond how people learn - it is about how organisations see themselves and how they do business."
Integral to the visions of the future is the realisation that the 'Net Gen' is a significant part of that future. Oblinger's (2005) work cited in the literature review, Semple and other research sources all mention the new generation of learners and workers forcing the changes ahead. They understand that the 'Net Gen' has different expectations and won't tolerate slowness.
They are already engaging with social software and making connections and sharing knowledge. The 'Net Gen' is a significant driver in the uptake of new technologies, along with business in its quest for efficiency. Organisations and education need to 'catch up'.
The sense of urgency for change is perhaps being forced by the convergence of the changing nature of working and learning in a knowledge era and responding to the needs of the 'Net Gen'.
In reference to 'digital natives' Jennings, Global Head of Learning Reuters, said at the Global Summit:
"This generation are natural multi-taskers (or, at least, very good fast-switchers). They innately use technology to communicate within and outside of their working lives ."
The need for learning experiences to be changed to meet the needs of a new generation of learners was being discussed as far back as 2003 with Norris et al arguing:
"In a world of ambient technologies, pervasive knowledge networking, and multitasking learners, the dynamics of learning experiences must change to provide value to new generations of learners."
In his paper "Teaching is dead, long live learning", Blackall (2006) contends that the Internet and technologies such as social software provide a much richer learning environment than more traditional methods.
In this research two key strategies visualised as part of a future supporting the successful use of social software included the use of corporate wikis and personal learning environments.
The establishment of corporate wikis to share ideas and manage projects within organisations was highly recommended by some of those already using social software. There are indications that corporations in Australia are beginning to do this with consultancies emerging in the creation of corporate wikis.
Semple's story tells how the BBC uses wikis internally and notes that staff seemed most comfortable using wikis as a starting point. Their perception is that they are "working or actually doing something". Noteboom cites Dodds' (2006) strategy for deploying corporate wikis in his organisation, Ingenta. His implementation plan included:
- establish a need
- choose a wiki
- build your community
- stay relevant
- avoid attachments
- lay down pathways (navigation structure for wikis)
- employ a gardener (for overall maintenance of wiki)
- naming is everything (naming the wiki)
- avoid a wiki explosion.
Personal Learning Environments
Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) are becoming increasingly popular as learners take responsibility for their learning. Many respondents saw these as a key feature of the future. In establishing a need for PLEs, Attwell (2006) blogged:
"Learning is now seen as multi episodic, with individuals spending occasional periods of formal education and training throughout their working life. The idea of a Personal Learning Environment recognises that learning is continuing and seeks to provide tools to support that learning. It also recognises the role of the individual in organising their own learning.
Moreover, the pressures for a PLE are based on the idea that learning will take place in different contexts and situations and will not be provided by a single learning provider. Linked to this is an increasing recognition of the importance of informal learning. Ubiquitous computing and social software are changing the way in which we learn."
Other visions for the future relating to the use of social software were:
- a spirit of openness, not containment of information and knowledge within closed communities
- 'unconferences' for networking and collaboration, empowering participants as they develop programs together
- social software tools being integral to training delivery and support
- better use of social bookmarking for knowledge sharing and VET delivery
- everyone a producer, a creator, a teacher, a learner
- the further development of personal aggregation environments
- more sophisticated personal content management, including federated searching capability
- robust e-portfolio systems that support life-long learning
- greater emphasis on the use of mobile technologies as the means of interfacing with these environments
- anything that promotes and supports the aims of personalising learning.
Survey respondents were asked about their expected usage of social software over the next two years compared with now. VET staff rate their current usage of social software with students as once every few weeks (29%) compared to their expected usage in the next two years of at least once a day (46%). (See Chart 8)
Theories and models to inform the vision
Learning taxonomies are integral to the teaching and learning process, and new theories and models overlaying the taxonomies are now beginning to inform practice. Reference has been made earlier in this report to the most critical of these:
Other emerging concepts and models that may inform the implementation of social software include: the learning ecology; e-Learning 2.0; Life Based Learning for capability development and a balanced approach.
The learning ecology
Recently Siemens (2006) has proposed the concept of a learning ecology to represent learning in this new knowledge era. Not only does knowledge no longer reside in a given place but learning also has become "a network of distributed elements".
Siemens refers to ecologies as "complex, systemic and adaptive - capable of reacting and adjusting to external pressures and internal developments". By its very nature, a learning ecology is self-organising and adapts to the different forces impacting on the system.
The learning ecology metaphor is not new. Staron et al (2006) also use the metaphor of a learning ecology for understanding the changing nature of learning within the knowledge era and how a strength based approach might be used for capability development within this context.
Stephen Downes (2005) has coined the term e-Learning 2.0 in recognition of how e-learning is evolving with communities of practice and the new web 2.0 technologies are becoming integral components of e-learning.
Downes posits that what is different about e-Learning 2.0 from e-Learning 1.0 is that the topics and the learning content are no longer driven by online platforms such as LMS and CMS. Rather the learners are empowered as they seek out the learning opportunities themselves by making connections and forming communities of practice.
Life Based Learning for capability development
Life Based Learning (Staron et al 2006) is a strength-based approach to capability development that grew out of a study of appropriate PD strategies for VET practitioners working and learning in "increasingly uncertain, complex and paradoxical" learning environments. This is the environment in which social software is beginning to be used.
Life Based Learning, it is argued, is the next step in professional development and expands the potential of the previous models of work-based learning and expert-centred learning by acknowledging the learner as a "whole person" - a person who will learn from work, personal, leisure and family experiences.
It makes sense to use a contemporary model of capability development to support VET practitioners to develop the skills required to use social software efficiently and effectively for knowledge sharing, their own learning and that of their students.
A balanced approach
The Phase 1 Knowledge Sharing Service research by Stuckey and Arkell (2006) highlighted a cultural emphasis for a range of knowledge sharing activities that assist VET practitioners in:
"...solving new and unique problems and accessing knowledge that may not be able to be codified in documents. People are not always dealing with 'commoditised' problems, like basic technical hints and tips, which can be readily accessed from a repository. Many problems are complex and ill-structured in nature. (p 7)"
The Phase 1 paper recognised the value of integrating social processes into knowledge management systems and identified social software as the vehicle by which this can be achieved. Thus people can access one another's expertise in a serendipitous/emergent way that takes advantage of processes which achieve shifts of tacit to explicit knowledge.
The following two concepts relate to knowledge sharing and show the development of thinking since the Stuckey and Arkell paper:
- swarm intelligence - first coined by Beni & Wang in 1989 and made popular by Popcorn and Hanft (2001) in their Dictionary of the Future. It is now being used to describe the behaviour of ants and how their collaboration yields problem solving strategies that can be systematised to improve human tasks. Although there is normally no centralised control structure dictating how individual agents should behave, local interactions between such agents often lead to the emergence of global behaviour.
- collective intelligence - the capacity of a human community to evolve toward higher order complexity thought, problem-solving and integration through collaboration and innovation.
As part of the Phase 1 research two critical environments for the management of knowledge were described as:
- a culture of compliance - where the institution has significant control over the method and timing of engagement; and conversely
- an enabling culture - where there is support for individually driven initiatives, guided by norms not rules and emerging from a bottom up process. (See Figure 3)
This Phase 2 research recognises this duality and the importance of both cultures co-existing within VET organisations. Each culture serves an essential function. Stuckey and Arkell promote a balanced approach between the two polarised cultures in order to achieve sustainable knowledge sharing.
On the one hand, organisations need to provide codified corporate knowledge, and on the other, they need to provide environments where innovative and collaborative thinking can occur. These latter environments are dependent on social processes that foster increased personal agency.
Summary: balance and sustainability
Following on from the Phase 1 thinking about a "balanced approach in order to achieve sustainable knowledge sharing", it needs to be remembered that VET business environments are "... dynamic, diverse, and characterised by constant change ..." (Staron et al 2006 p. 3). They operate in the Knowledge Era and are dominated by knowledge work.
"This form of work is non-linear and non-routine, more intuitive, opportunistic and networked, and less driven by allegiance to pre-planned critical path or mindset, and therefore more innovative. (Staron et al 2006 p. 3)"
The implications are that the concept of balance is one of equilibrium (ie a dynamic working balance) or homeostasis (a process of constant internal regulation in response to changing circumstances). This Phase 2 research sees the achievement of a balanced approach as an ongoing quest, rather than an achievable endpoint.
It places this concept in a change management context and uses the adoption and diffusion of innovation to understand how a social software tool can be seen as initially heretical, and then after some time, integral, i.e. in relation to Figure 3 move from the lower left quadrant (informal/individual driven) to the upper right quadrant (formal/ institutionally driven).
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.
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.
Eye: Petr GnuskinVal Evans -
Reference: Australian Flexible Learning Framework [ Read more ]
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