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Social Software: The Age of Connection and the Connected Learner
Social Software: The Age of Connection and the Connected Learner
Social Software: The Age of Connection and the Connected
Social software provides an opportunity to humanize the often alienating experience of e-learning.
By Anne Bartlett-Bragg
Early implementation strategies of e-Learning products in organisations focused on
delivery, accessibility, and small chunks of learning available to learners anywhere,
anytime. Huge investments in time and money spent on intranets, online courses,
learner management systems (LMS), and other enterprise software was supposed to
provide improved delivery and other workplace efficiencies.
Yet there is little evidence to suggest that these implementations have enhanced the
learning experience. And, in fact, they have come at a cost – human interaction has
been ignored, and the learning experience has been reduced to a product, measured
by completions and adherence to compliance regulations. The focus has been on
access to technology where learners have been forced to adapt to the capabilities
and limitations of software, rather than on adapting the software to fit to learner
needs and as an aid to enhance learning.
Consequently, the role of the organisational trainer has become increasingly focused
on dispensing, enforcing, and managing the distribution of learning through overly
bureaucratic, inflexible systems that de-personalise and disconnect the learner from
not only the context but also other learners within the organisation.
Now, with new technologies developing in the social software domain, organisations
have an opportunity to reignite the personal element of learning, enhance the
learning experience, and reconnect the learner to distributed networks of people that
will allow them to be more flexible and responsive to the changing demands and
needs of their current workplace environment.
So - what is social software?
The introduction of the term ‘social software’ has been attributed to Clay Shirky
(cited in Allen, 2004), his definition is simply: “software that supports group
interaction”. The Wikipedia, an exceptional example of open source social software,
elegantly explains the term as software that “…lets people rendezvous, connect or
collaborate…it results in the creation of shared, interactive spaces.”
Futurist Stowe Boyd (2003) comments that social software encompasses one or
more of the following elements:
Support for conversational interaction between people or
groups - includes real time conversations like instant messaging or
asynchronous conversations like those facilitated by discussion forums.
Support for development of personalised social networks -
many social software applications create a digital layout of a person’s
social network and facilitate adding new connections – including the
sharing knowledge through syndication and aggregation tools.
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Development of the social network will also be based on reputation
What are Social Software Applications?
Social software has developed from the demand of users to have more freedom from
the limitations of large, clunky software tools that restrict users’ ability to collaborate
and effectively maintain the social aspect of their online needs.
The list of current social software applications is extensive and growing rapidly -
outlined below are just some of the more commonly used applications and some
examples in the learning and organisational context:
Instant Messaging (IM) – a popular form of text-based synchronous (real time)
communication software, where the user can be notified when any of their “buddies”
are online. IM is becoming accepted as a business tool in many organisations and is
starting to find a position in knowledge sharing and e-Learning situations, where
learners have immediate access to knowledge experts or learning advisors.
Chat – Another text-based synchronous form of communication that generally
occurs in designated areas called chatrooms. Users can enter or join sessions that
are generally based on topics of interest. Most LMS have chat facilities embedded
into their functionality and have been used in many learning situations already.
Collaborative Spaces – web-based collaborative publishing spaces are becoming
increasingly popular in both the organisational and educational context.
Weblog, or blog, applications are powerful personal publishing spaces that allow the
author to self-organise information or knowledge. In addition, readers are able to
leave comments, or link to particular entries of interest and subscribe to updates
through syndication tools.
Weblogs are now prevalent across a number of learning contexts. For example, I
have over 100 students currently using weblogs as their personal publishing space,
posting their reflections, critiques on readings or topics, managing their learning
content by categorisation, and participating in collaborative learning networks.
Other shared spaces like wikis include the functionality to communicate, co-edit
documents and web pages, share calendars, view multimedia presentations and
much more. The popularity of these applications has been attributed to the ease of
use and flexibility which only requires the user to have internet access and no HTML
RSS – syndication & aggregation
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) allows content to be imported into other web pages.
RSS enables readers to subscribe to webfeeds from sites of their choice, monitor
updates, and view them in a single page from a web-based service called an
aggregator, eg. Bloglines. The power of the aggregator for learners comes from the
ability to control and manage the flow of information in a centralised manner.
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Social networking sites – labeled by Roush (2005) as a form of human search
engine, they exploit the concept of helping people to make connections with friends
of friends of friends who share common interests.
Yahoo’s initiative, My Web 2.0, is a search engine that becomes a shared resource
based on the collective wisdom of friends and business colleagues that focuses on a
user-generated approach to searching - the results will be displayed based on a
ranking system that is linked to your network of trusted associates.
Social bookmarking or tagging with folksonomies - social bookmarking, a
recent addition to the social software applications, is a web-based application similar
to a Favourites list in a browser, except that it allows the user to bookmark, manage,
publicly publish, comment upon, and create their own tags for each URL. The
objective is to publish your resources for other people with similar interests. The key
to the shared resource is the development of a social tagging system – called
folksonomies – derived from the term taxonomy, a hierarchical list or categorisation
- it focuses on a group co-operatively organising information into agreed categories.
A popular example is Delicious which my students to share our web resources as we
research topics and bookmark the URLs under agreed tags. A powerful research and
resource gathering tool!
Social sharing services – similar to social bookmarking, these are applications that
share other services – for example, Flickr, a web-based photo sharing service that
uses the folksonomy tagging process to collect and share photos publicly or privately
across the web. In the educational context, photos can be gathered for projects and
the agreed tagging systems allow collective sharing.
The Age of Connection
Roush (2005) observes a state of continuous computing that is related to the rapid
convergence of technologies that provide people with portable information fields on
commonly carried digital devices eg. laptops, multimedia phones, and through
wireless networks with increased access to the internet and web-based tools that all
focus on finding information, communicating and collaborating with other people.
According to Bryant (2005), to capture the significance of social software, an
alternative approach will required that is informed by new ways of thinking about
social networks and online behaviour.
What are the implications for learning?
George Siemens (2005) has introduced a new theoretical approach in the Age of
Connection that considers the application of social software to the learning context.
The theory, Connectivism, recognises the significant trends in learning contexts that
includes the informal aspects and the influence of technology on our thinking
processes. Connectivism contends that:
learning is a process of connecting specialised information sources
maintaining connections is needed to facilitate learning
and the core skill of learning is the ability to see connections between ideas and
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So – what does this imply for organisational learning?
I discussed this question with James Farmer (2005), of Deakin University, who
recently initiated the edublogs.org project. James believes that social software is
changing the very essence of what it means to communicate and learn in an
organisation. It radically reconceptualises the learning culture, turning it upside down
and placing the learners on top by connecting individuals to each other rather than to
a centrally constructed alien environment – and it starts a learning conversation.
Initiatives are starting to undertake this shift in perspective, such as projects
developed at Headshift and more recently, ELGG, a project that provides a
customizable learning landscape. The ELGG system is a hybrid of web-logging, e-
Portfolios, and social networking, developed with the intention of promoting learner
engagement through reflection in both an institutional and social setting.
And what are the implications for the role of the organisational learning &
The role of the organisational trainer has undeniably changed with the integration of
technology. The learning and development (L&D) practitioner can no longer avoid the
use of technology, rather they should be viewing the shift as an opportunity that will
enrich the learning experience and provide a more fulfilling role in the future
strategic development and enhancement of learning in the organisational context.
If we adopt the metaphor of the learning landscape as the organisation’s learning
strategy, then the L&D practitioner becomes the landscape architect or designer,
where they become the trusted source in the social learning network, guiding and
advising learners on technology options, facilitating the establishment of network
contacts, and empowering individuals to identify and customize their personal
landscape to best support their knowledge and learning needs in the current complex
What are the issues or challenges?
The two greatest challenges presented to organisations developing learning
landscapes will be the paradigm shift to the perspective that technology is only an
enabler that should aim to augment social interactions and enhance learning, and
secondly, the organisational IT policies that have the current learning landscape
enclosed within firewalls that will inhibit the development of social network contacts.
If we accept the premise that social networks are the focus of the new Age of
Connection and learning is fundamentally a social process, then if learning strategies
are to recognise this, the challenge for organisational educators is how to embrace
the new technological developments and embed the design of online communication
and interaction tools to empower our learners and create an enriched social learning
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James Farmers’ edublogs
Social Software Associates
List of references
Allen, C. (2004), Tracing the Evolution of Social Software, Life with Alacrity, accessed
online 8 August, 2005.
Boyd, S. (2003), Are You Ready for Social Software?,Darwin Magazine, May 2003,
accessed online 14 August, 2005.
Bryant, L. (2003), Smarter, Simpler, Social: An introduction to online social software
methodology, accessed online 5 July 2005
Bryant, L. (2005), personal discussions throughout July, 2005. London, UK.
Farmer, J. (2005), personal discussions throughout July & August, 2005.
Roush, W. (2005), Social Machines, TechnologyReview.com, August 2005, accessed
online 12 July 2005
Seimens. G. (2005), Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age,
International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, January, 2005.
http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm (accessed online, 25th June 2005).
Wikipedia (nd) Social Software, accessed online 5 August 2005
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