Let me just begin with my own brief definition of social software. Social software refers to software programs used to achieve learning and collaboration via the internet among regular individuals as well as between learners and teachers, in addition to, or instead of, traditional, face-to-face teaching in the confines of the classroom. What is characteristic of conventional face-to-face learning paradigm is that the teacher is seen more or less as a source of knowledge whose job is to transmit knowledge to students whose charge is to receive that knowledge. What social software does is to provide a frame where learners stand a much better chance at achieving learning through personal engagement as well as through social networking with the teacher, with their peers and with knowers all around. Though in most cases, the teacher still has monopoly over the goals performance objectives set for the course, students play a more active role in learning individually and collectively.
My experience over the past few years with social software have mostly been with the following platforms: wikis, blogs, GoogleDocs, Elluminate, and GoogleWave. One difference between such platforms and learning management systems (LMS) such as Nicenet, Blackboard, Moodle, and Sakai is the latter tend to be closed spaces where the course is restricted to the students enrolled in it, whereas the former tend to be more open. The other difference is that LMSs have often been conceived as one-way systems of communication where the level of interactivity is generally less than it is with wikis and similar platforms. It is noteworthy that nowadays, the distinction is less straightforward because LMSs like Moodle, Sakai, and Blackboard for example do provide the functionalities of chatting, blogging, and internal messaging. Below is a description and evaluation of my experience with blogs and wikis.
Wikis and blogs
I started using blogs and wikis almost concurrently at the University of Sfax, Tunisia. In one teaching methodology course, I hosted all course materials on a wiki provided by Wetpaint. The course requirements were a set of nine assignments that had to be answered through a blog students had to create either Blogger or WordPress. Despite the difficulties this involved, students, whose digital literacy was pretty for the most part when I gave the course in 2007 valued and enjoyed the experience. Excepting the few whose sole goal was just to hit the pass mark, many felt empowered with having ‘constructed’ a space bearing their own name, biography and photo and displaying content that is mostly theirs. A few of them even initiated reactions to classmates’ work, and it felt like a community of learning was in the making. In hindsight, I realize I should have integrated the writing of a reader response as one of the assignments factoring into the final grade.
I also used wikis for student research and created space for each wiki member to host their own research project both at the University of Sfax, Tunisia and the University of Wyoming in Laramie. The idea here was for students to feel accountable for what they write; whereas conventional classroom assignments often meant student had to write for the teacher as main reader and grader, what comes to the fore in this exercise is that students understand the need to target a much wider audience of readers and commentators in addition to the teacher. Their work was no longer something between their rater and themselves but rather involved anyone who chanced to read the research. We are talking of a much wider circle than the classroom or the institution. This could be a world wide audience; knowing your product can be scrutinized and commented upon by anyone inside or outside the group somehow puts you on the spot. With visibility comes greater responsibility. Plagiarism is going to become an issue because the moment a sentence I google appears to be not the result of the author’s genuine work, they realize the importance of intellectual property and that they can only engage in such behavior at their risk and peril.
Another important perk for using wikis is that research writing is seen as a work in progress on display. Students had access to my online comments on a minimum of two to three drafts, and they could easily compare and see, on the same screen, how they have progressed from first to final draft. At the same time, students with poor scores could easily access examples of finer models completed by other students in the group and model them. This is a simple way of harnessing so called ‘collective intelligence’.
What has yet to happen?
The movement from the ‘one-way’ Learning management system to the wiki should have meant that students feel empowered enough to actually effect changes on anything they see, as I ask them to join not just as members with such regular privileges as mailing, initiating and responding to discussion topics, but as writers with the ability to change anything they see on the wiki. I make it amply clear on my wikis that everything is in draft mode and I encourage students to implement any changes they see fit, as the wiki has the added advantage of logging the history of its own changes. I note though that students choose not to ‘take liberty’ with material the teacher writes, especially not the course description. Mind you, there is a section in one of the wikis I have developed for course evaluation and some do intervene there, but I have yet to see students clicking on the ‘Easy Edit’ function to reword, correct, enhance, or delete something I have written, as a teacher. Saying this may be one thing, and seeing it done is another, and this may take some doing and learning, on their part as well as mine.
In my next post, I will evaluate my experience with GoogleDocs.