In a very interesting post titled Social Network Transitions, Fred Stutzman discusses the often lemming-like move of the masses from one social site to another. Of particular interest is Fred’s distinction between between object and ego based social software sites. Fred writes “An ego-centric social network places the individual as the core of the network experience (Orkut, Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster) while the object-centric network places a non-ego element at the center of the network” (Flickr, Digg, del.icio.us etc.).
In our attempt to design and build education social software sites to support distance education students, I wonder what combination of ego-centric versus object-centered site is most appropriate? Obviously artifacts created during learning activities are important components of any educational social software (ESS) application. Thus, the capability to upload, share, version, collaboratively edit, and add multimedia to documents is critical and aligns our needs with other object-centric network sites. The most prominent of these artifacts will likely be the e-portfolio, in which learners aggregate, synthesize and reflect upon their learning. Like other object sites, ESS should allow the owner to set access and edit rights to the objects that they wish to display in their personal network space at the site. These rights should be categorized such that classes of people (those enrolled in the same course, friends, the wide open net and even personally defined classes such as “my relatives”) can easily be created, managed and assigned to indovidual and sets of learning artifacts. In fact the object-centered collections already owned by learners, such as lists of favorite references (CiteULike) should be easily linked to and manipulated within ESS applications.
But just as obviously, education sites should be social sites where learners are afforded opportunity to interact with existing friends (developing bonding types of social capital) as well as meeting new friends, teachers and collaborative learning colleagues and expanding their personal networks (creating bridging capital). After all, one of the major reasons learners put themselves through the strenuous, often boring and usually expensive ordeal of formal education is to meet new friends and create new social networks. Ego-centric sites excel at this type of networking since they allow learners to selectively reveal personal interests, hobbies and activities (boards, profiles, list of friends) and share insights, questions and concerns (blogs, vid or podcasts).
Thus, perhaps the best ESS combines ego and object centric features allowing learners and teachers to build on both types through social exchange of their artifacts and their personalities.
The second contribution to Fred’s post is his analysis of the movement of millions of users from Friendster, through to MySpace, Face book and beyond. He notes the vulnerability of ego-sites to large scale dissertion by users, especially once the entertaining game of establishing friends and linking to so-called communities is complete. This of course raises the question if students will expend the energy to populate ESS sites and in particular, will enough students do so, such that the site gains the critical mass of activity necessary to attract postings and contributions and of course return visits. It is likely too early to say how much interest students will have in formal education centric sites. One can certainly not extrapolate from the forced student participation on closed and course centric sites created on school based LMS systems and assume that students will be natural contributors without the inducement of marks and the dread of assessment. But on the other hand, being a part of a university based community has a long history – as noted by participation in student sports, clubs, newspapers and student governments. If the ESS can add value to the learning experience, through opportunity to collaborate in both formal (ie course related) and informal learning and if the site can attract critical numbers of learners, then I think it can become a compelling reason for students to contribute and enjoy the development of their social networks and capital.
Finally I note a third type of educational social network that colleagues at the Dutch Open University refer to as “ad hoc ad hoc transient community …. to denote smaller communities within a larger whole that fulfil a specific learning related goal and exist for limited period of time. The Dutch OU, like Athabasca University has large numbers of students using self-paced study with continuous enrolment. This model creates challenges for the development of educational social networks since one cannot assume that students are beginning nor progressing at the same pace through a common program of study. Thus, learners must be able to collesce quickly in a supportive community that might only exist to answer a particular problem, work on a project or informally support each other, outside of the context of a semester like period of study. The Dutch Open University is working on a number of technologies that allow learners to identify each other and common interest, while NKI in Norway helps learners find study buddies or groups to synchronize schedules and develop their own ad hoc social learning communities.
It seems that ESS communities cannot be neatly bundled into either object or ego centric- indeed many new social software applications are expanding to try to meet both foci. In addition ESS communities that are built upon assumptions of face-to-face blended opportunities for socialization, or are structured by semester like timing, have very different (and I might add simpler) challenges than those designed to serve distance and self-paced learners. Ironically, this later group shares many of the characteristics of the ‘auto-didactic’ learner embarked in lifelong learning. Thus, solutions devised for the self-paced learners in formal education, may well meet the need of graduates and the other much larger body of learners engaged in informal and self-directed learning.