In 2001 I wrote a book chapter entitled Revealing the hidden curriculum of e-learning. In this article I noted that “The hidden curriculum is a term that seems to be defined as much by a reader’s lurking suspicion of conspiracy or secondary agendas as by any single or precise definition.” Sambell and McDowell (1998) describe the hidden curriculum as “an apposite metaphor to describe the shadowy, ill-defined and amorphous nature of that which is implicit and embedded in contrast with the formal statements about curricula and the surface features of educational interaction” (p.391).

There are at least four ways in which educators have used the term “hidden curriculum”.

  • First, the term has been embraced by critical researchers referring to a variety of forms of indoctrination and attempts at maintaining social privilege that are imposed along with the formal curriculum.
  • A second use of the term is to refer to the subtle effects of the setting (the bricks, imposing architecture, statues etc.) in which formal education occurs.
  • A third use of the term is to describe the unstated rules necessary for successful completion of formal education studies (playing and winning the game).
  • Finally, and more positively, the hidden curriculum (especially in professional schools) refers to the capacity of the educational experience to develop a professional identity such that the student learns to think, talk and act like the members of what ever profession or trade they are studying.

The advent of educational social software gives me opportunity to revisit the term and relate below the ways in which these educational social software technologies both reduce and add new instantiations of the “hidden curriculum”.

Social Privilege: Superficially, one can argue that since educational social software requires access to the Net and given the Net is not accessible to everyone, then if follows that the use of these tools is exclusionary and reinforcing of social privilege. From a global perspective this is likely very true as there are great differences in access to networks and the necessary end-sure equipment. However, Internet café’s continue to sprout in all countries and the effusive discourse on the $100 laptop makes one think that we are not long for considerable leveling of this social privilege. Conversely, it can be argued that social tools such as Wikis, blogs, open discussion lists, collaborative bookmarking and specialized educational ‘meet up’ tools offer huge advantages in accessibility to learning opportunities – thus serveing to reduce, rather than increase social privilege. This subversive use of the technologies is neatly encapsulated in Patricia Perkin’s blog tagline “Social justice and poverty work is alive and well and living in a computer”.

erSocial privilege only works if it is controlled by a minority of the population. The Net in general and social applications in particular are not very good at supporting overt or even covert control as demonstrated by the widening nature and source of discourse on nearly any subject taking place on a global perspective on the Net. Although hardly focused on formal education online communities such as Sweden’s Lunarstorm claim that 50% of young people between 14 and 25 are active members, however we have also seen the emergence of “aSmall world” an invitation only network characterized as ‘snobster’.

On can conclude that social software can be used in ways to extend social privileged, but that its overall impact is to open and free information, knowledge and discourse that tends to decrease social privilege

Setting: Initially it may seem obvious that setting is much less of an issue in most virtual environments than in their physical counterparts. In many case the look and feel of the social software environment can be customized to reflect and celebrate rather than subvert or ignore the cultural and social preferences of the individual learner. Nonetheless, virtual settings are important and as we become more used to their pervasive effect, they become more meaningful and subject to potential manipulation. For example, the web presence of many formal institutions and LMS systems are designed to convey messages. Typically these are consumer orientated and attempt to attract potential learners, but they could as easily be designed to exclude or to celebrate one culture at the expense of another. The interesting move from virtual space to cash purchase of furniture and achievement points to use in virtual environments such as Habbohotel and Secondlife on E-Bay illustrates the growing perception of the value of settings in online environments.

Successful Completion: Social software tools can be very useful in providing opportunities for learners in both formal education and non formal learning endeavours to meet, socialize and learn from and with each in either online or F2F contexts. This meeting capacity increases the opportunity for social integration, development of social presence and opportunity for development of support that is often necessary to successfully complete formal education courses. The literature and many individual’s recollections are resplendent with memories of classmates, study buddies, study circles and course mates whose support, encouragement and assistance made possible the successful completion of challenging programs. It is likely that educational social software will play an increasingly important role in helping both campus based and online students and informal learners successfully “play the game”.

Professional Identity: Social software extends learning communities beyond formal course onto the same platform as used by many emerging professional learning communities. For example AccountingWorld provides discussion groups, relevant advertising, news, features interviews and other socializing and identity development activities. These professional portals are occupied by both learners as well as practicing professionals – providing opportunities not typically provided to pre professional study. Thus social software can be useful tool that integrates pre and post professional training and education with those actively engaged in the profession- thus enhancing growth of professional identity.

Conclusion: Educational social software seems to provide advantage to reduce some of the inherently exclusive components of the hidden curriculum, while enhancing some of the positive facets of this construct.