Educational Social Overlay Networks

Scott Leslie nicely raises a discussion of the relationship between educational social software tools and the current generation of Learning Management Systems (LMS). The challenge is to recognize which components of the learner’s life should be situated in their individual web space and those that should be running in the space of the formal educational institution. Privacy and document control issues provide some guidance, but there are many applications that could run in either, but likely it is wasteful and confusing to have them run on both. Unfortunately, the technology itself is not well established for linking Blog, Portfiolios and personal space to education systems ( thought there are many interesting projects in progress).

Developments using syndication, agent harvesting and other semantic web applications will enhance this connectivity in the near future. At present we need to define the appropriate application space and design the functionality and interface between the individual web space and the rather structured enterprise of formal education. This postings addresses these issues and considers social software as a tool to implement this interface as an overlay network..

Educational social software can be used effectively to create a type of overlay network to enhance the more formal institutional network consisting of student support , library, tuition, registration and other institutionalized services. An overlay network is a term from computer science that describes a virtual and often semantically based indexing system that rides on top of physical network. The overlay network serves to facilitate routing, search and retrieval of information in the physical network (Doval D. & O’Mahony, 2003). Ash Maurya (2005) expands the concept and discusses social overlay networks that operate at more abstract levels and focus on enhancing social relationship and collaboration in both online and offline contexts. These social overlay networks use web based technology to not merely connect people to information (as in a search for a music file) but more specifically to connect people to people. By their nature educational social overlay networks are fluid, emergent and self organizing. A further refinement is to define educational overlay networks, as systems that serve to connect and support social interaction among students enrolled in formal education programs.

The VS supports interaction and social collaboration on a number of levels.

In this first instance as systems to support social and web space connections to current students. Educational overlay networks can be built upon groups of students through cohort type enrollment and learning activity systems, but their more natural context is emergence on a choice basis through individual recognition of affinity, common interest or joint purpose. This is especially attractive to those institutions that offer programming while retaining maximum student freedoms (Paulsen, 1995; Paulsen, 1993) including the capacity to self pace one’s learning and to take advantage of continuous enrollment opportunities.

Context Spaces, Tags and Feeds.

Maurya, 2005 argues that the most effective use of these social overlay networks is “for implicit discovery through context spaces, tags and feeds.”

Context: The context space refers to opportunities that arise sponatenously as well as those planned to invite cooperation and sharing of knowledge growth opportunities. In formal education these contexts are created by the course designers or teachers and are nurtured by teacher, tutors and learners. They are also created by system architects in their design of social spaces, opportunities and support for planned and spontaneous conversation and opportunities for sharing and self disclosure. Increasing attention is being paid to the construction of these spaces in both physical and web based, to maximize learning on campuses and off. (see for example Here as in many areas of convergence, we see increased interest in creating and capturing in patterns (Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein,1977) architectural features of both physical space and online space to capture the famous QWAN (Quality Without A Name).

Tags The tags Maurya mentions include the formal metatagging schemes of the IEEE LOM, Dublin Core and IMS LD, but more importantly extend to folksonomie tags created by learners as they identify and categorize their learning artifacts and contributions to the emerging social learning community. Examples of social tagging systems like Flickr, Furl and illustrate that for some activities (for example sharing of photos or useful links etc.) individuals are willing to take the time to upload and categorize their contributions. Flickr currently has over 60 million photos on line of which 80% have been tagged as being available to anyone. Erick Schonfeld’s notes this emergence of a photo based overlay as one example of a larger trend towards multifaceted overlays spinning connections between thousands of individual users who find value in social connection. Schonfeld argues that “To use Flickr is to belong to the culture of participation sweeping the Web — where you write your own blog, produce your own podcast, and post your personal photos for all to see.”


The feeds Maurya notes refer to are the RSS and other forms of syndication emerging from both formal (feeds from publishers, academic journals etc) and informal publication (blogs, student portals). Key to the application of feeds in formal education is the notion that the contribution is owned (and retained) not by the institution in a posting in an LMS, but by the student themselves. Certain subsets of these contributions are linked and archived in social overlay networks (say for an introductory philosophy class) to make retrieval easier by other participants in this class, but they are still fundamentally artifacts of the individual students. Such extreme distribution creates massive headaches for those charged with creating and maintaining closed spaces in educational computer rooms. Within the net world of the institution access and rights of participants are routinely reduced, and traded away for security, privacy and authenticity benefits. Outsiders are restricted from entry beyond public spaces, thus creating safe and secluded spaces for communities. Finally, the institution web space provides a sense of security and high quality backup and support services.

Developments on trackback systems and structured blogging are providing glimpses of how such distributed content can be contributed and effectively merged in yet other educational overlay networks.

A Graduating Class example

I just wasted 45 minutes in nostalgia land looking at the names of the 68 persons who have registered on from my high school graduation class. I was actually tempted to write a “ghost from the past” email or two, but didn’t. I had an opportunity to fill out a profile of myself, noting what a success I have become and how my 2.45 kids are wonderful- but didn’t. Here is another example in which it is unclear whose space my information should live in. My profile information is mine and I’ve entered it in quite enough social systems already. I wouldn’t mind providing a link from my space to Classmates space, but I don’t have time, inclination nor trust in these guys to bother filling out their profile questions- nor paying $4.00 a month for ‘Gold Access’. But it illustrates the point. My history belongs to me. I don’t mind sharing parts of it with my old school buddies. But I won’t maintain a presence on this commercial site, nor even the school space owned by my old high school.

Social Software tools and Learning management Systems

Open source social software tools such as Elgg and Barnraiser are designed to enhance learning through provision of blogging, groups support and ways to grow one’s social capital in very distributed contexts. Thus, they become candidates for the tools to create educational social overlay networks. These systems have some tools in common with ubiquitous LMS systems, however their capacity to provide persistence beyond the course, to give ownership of content to the learner, to support tagging, context spaces and feeds make them more likely candidates as useful educational social overlay networks. It is best not to see these tools as replacements for, but as important enhancements to LMS systems.

In the following diagram I illustrate the functions of four software systems used in this graduate level distance education course offered through Athabasca University’s Centre for Distance Education.

Software used in MDE663

Networked sofwatre used in MDE663


As can be seen the Moodle LMS plays an important role, but so does realtime voice communication (Elluminate), social connectivity and blogging (Me2U instance of and the social knowledge polling and bookmarking capacity of FURL. They each play a role in building educational social overlays that are creating the next generation of formal education webspace.

Reference List

Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977). A pattern language: towns, buildings, construction. York: Oxford University Press.

Doval D., & O’Mahony, D. (2003). Overlay networks: A scaleable alternative for P2P. IEEE Internet Computing, 7(4), 79-82.
Retireved Nov. 2005 from

Maurya, A. (2005). Social Overlay Networks. WiredJournal Blog,
Retrieved Nov. 2005 from

Paulsen, M. (1993). The hexagon of cooperative freedom: A distance education theory attuned to computer conferencing. DEOS, 3(2)
Retrieved May 28, 2004 from

Paulsen, M. (1995). Moderating Educational Computer Conferences. In Z. Berge & M. Collins (Eds.), Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom. (pp. 81-90). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.