Inspired by the insightful posting by Ulises Mejiasteaching social software using social software, I would like to share my own experiences with a course I taught this fall in which educational social sofwatre tools were used.

The course, was MDE663 a senior, elective course in the Masters of Distance Education program at Athabasca University. The course is titled “Emerging Issues in Educational Technology” and the course outline is here. The focus of the course is the construction of four ‘learning portals’, by small teams of learners. Each portal focuses on one of the four emerging technologies – chosen by myself. This years technologies included:

  • Podcasting
  • Copyright and Free education
  • Design Patterns
  • Next Generation LMS

The target audience for the portal was other graduate students interested in the topic as well as the general public. Links to this year’s four portals as well as ones created in past years are available here

This is the 3rd time I have run this course- each time using a different LMS. This year, I wanted to expand the delivery model beyond a single enclosed LMS and opted for four technologies see figure 1 :

MDE663 software

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We continued to use a weekly (more or less) audiconference using Elluminate. This provided a pacing function to the class and allowed for easy, spontaneous interaction as stimulated for example by the “Question of the day?” that started each evening session. The teams also used the common audio/graphic workspace of the Elluminate environment for small group discussion, project planning, prototyping etc. An Elluminate class room was made accessible to enrolled students, 24 hours a day through out the course. Synchronous interaction always challenges time zones, but one student from the United Arab Emirates managed to log on regularly at 4:00 AM local time. For the first time this year, I also noted students maintaining ‘side-talk’ conversations using SKYPE and IM that (unlike teacher-centric Elluminate) are not monitored by the teacher/moderator.

A social book marking system (FURL) was used to gather and annotate relevant web resources related to each topic. I had spent some time over the past year gathering links for the 4 topics. Rather than store these links in private bookmarks on the browser, as I had done in past years, I FURLED the sites. This proved to be a time saver for myself as the public nature of the resource allowed access by both myself, a teaching assistant and participating students to add to, organize and annotate the links.

The main content of the course (calendar, syllabus, assessment etc.) was displayed in Moodle. This was my first experience with Moodle but a welcomed one, as Athabasca University has recently decided to adopt Moodle as our primary enterprise LMS. We used the major features of Moodle including surveys, text conferencing, assignment drop box, activity tracking, grade box etc. I found the Moodle system to be much more feature rich than other LMS systems I have used and about the same learning curve for creating a first course with minimal professional technical or instructional design support.

The final tool was an instance of the ELGG social software tool (christened that provided individual profiles, blogging, groups and communities.

Of primary concern in this type of course is the means of learner-learner and learner-teacher interaction. In past years the asynch text-conference based systems, sustained the bulk of this interaction. It soon became apparent that the blogging in Me2U could support much of this text discourse. However, we quickly slid back to the familiar and almost exclusively used the Moodle threaded discussion boards, Although the blogs were syndicated using RSS, I didn’t stress the need to set up harvesting of these individual feeds by each student, nor myself, so the blog postings seemed to lose the coherency of the threaded list. In addition, the daily email contribution alert from Moodle provided the ‘push’ notification, that one usually counts on from an RSS feed. Thus, there was contention between the two platforms for student-student and student-teacher interaction, with seeming advantage of ease of us and familiarity favoring the Moodle discussion. The affordance of ownership of BLOG posting seemed less useful as the blog environment was not really owned by the students, but like Moodle was an organization of the University.

I had encouraged the students to blog postings and use these as fodder for the assigned reflection essay on the learning processes. Eleven of 12 students used the blogs, but only one chose to use the blogs and then aggregate them as per my suggestion. The profile capacity of Me2U also seemed less critical for discovery of each other in this class as the weekly audiographic sessions, the Moodle phootgraphs and Moodle ‘coffeeroom” discussion board served to allow learners to get to know each other.

The Furl listing of resources was expanded upon by only one of the four groups as they gathered resources for their portals. Unlike Mejias, I had not assigned a set number of resources to be added to this class resource, and as result 3 of the topics were populated in most part by instructor entries. Again, there was redundancy as the portals themselves often contained annotated links, thus making the more generalized listing in Furl of little unique value.

The students were free to use any environment and tools they wished to create the portals. Two teams used Moodle itself as a form of Content Management System for this task, one team used a Wiki and the fourth team used standard web authoring tools to create the portal in HTML.

Lessons learned

The Me2u social software with its primary affordances being the blogging and profiling, seems less valuable in a paced cohort e-learning model fo distance edcuation as offered in this case. This is due primarily to redundancy with tools available in Moodle and other LMS systems. The ELGG tool set may be much more useful in self paced, continuous enrollment programming.

The Blogs seemed to have little advantage over threaded discussion groups with cohort programming. If all students had their own blog environment, then linking the spaces through a class RSS syndication may have worked. In order to enhance
the use of and our understanding of syndication, I will likely not establish Moodle discussion groups in subsequent courses, thus forcing use of the blogging and related syndication

The social bookmarking was useful, but minimal levels of contribution should have been set to maximize the value of this public resource.

Establishing and running the ELGG, Moodle and Furl systems was relatively easy, though I had technical support for installing both the Moodle and the Elgg instances. The cost for the Open Source Tools was minimal and Furl is currently available free of charge. The cost for Elluminate is considerably higher than some alternative audio-systems, (see IRRODL Technical reports #52 and #53) but its capacity to handle large numbers, automatically record and archive sessions and its ability to support both dial up and high speed connectivity, make it a robust and useful.

One of our students was not pleasantly surprised to find their profile and blog posting for the course via a Google search. The default setting for the Me2U profile fields and blog posting had been set to ‘public’ meaning it was accessible to the world. A draw down menu allowed restrictions on this access to those enrolled on the Me2U system, those in a particular class or community etc. Subsequently, we changed the default to those enrolled on the system in order to create a more secure learning space. I should have made this distribution practice clearer at the beginning of the class, as experienced distance students tend to think that things are restricted and closed as is normal in current generation of LMS systems.

In summary, the social software use by itself was valuable in giving learners in an educational technology course valuable first hand experience with educational social software tools. Redundancy amongst tools (especially the discussion boards versus blogs and use of a social bookmarking system like FURL versus the WIKI in Moodle) can create confusion and place greater loads on class participants as they may not know where to look for or post relevant information. In future revisions of this course, I will have to be clearer about which component part of these multifacetted programs to use, for which task.

Finally, I think that Educational Social Software will find its real niche in self-paced, continuous enrollment, informal, lifelong learning and other more self directed forms of learning. Cohort based models of distance and blended learning boast LMS tool sets that were specifically designed for this institutionally driven context and the added value of social software is considerably smaller in less constrictive forms of learning.