22 November, 2007

Using a Social Network instead of a VLE: Getting Started

We've set up a Social Network on the Ning.com site for one of our modules, to help the students share their work with each other and keep in touch during the module and the module placement.

We have an area for them on the institution's VLE, but Social Network sites work differently meaning that in some situations they are a better option for a class.

Social Network or VLE?

Our first decision was whether to focus the students on using the VLE or a Social Network area. The main differences are:

  1. In our VLE (WebCT/Blackboard CE) there are limited options for students to add content easily. Many Social Network Services make simple, and empower the students to share, create and communicate more.
  1. Students have to be invited to the area, and then set up their own accounts. This is an added level of complexity for them over having an institutional account to log into everything, but none of the students who started using the area today had a problem and it only took them half a minute.
  1. You can subscribe to RSS feeds detailing activity on the site. Although not everyone uses feeds, if you follow a lot of sites there's no good reason not to! If the VLE that we use had RSS feeds of updates, it would make it much easier to follow what is going on in each area.

Why use Ning?

There are many different social networking sites, and they are all different. This means the interaction of people in each of them is different. We’ve chosen the Ning social networking site to test at Edge Hill because:

  1. We wanted people to be able to join the private group without accepting the module leader as a friend. This seemed to be the case with Facebook (let us know if there are any settings to change this). We thought that students might not want to accept their tutors as a Facebook Friend as this gives them access to your updates about what you are doing and photos. Using Ning feels a lot less intrusive into students private lives.
  1. The groups can be set so that the module leader (or whoever set the group up) accepts requests for membership of the group. This means that they can keep control of access, but students can still take the responsibility to join themselves.
  1. Once students are members they can use the Video tool to share videos, the Music tool to share audio, the Photos tool to share images, the Forum to share ideas and attach documents. The module leader can send out notices via the Blog tool. This covers everything that they might want to share.

I'll try and write an update on how this Social Network was used, to see if there is anything that we can learn from it for the future. I think that using Ning is much more likely to encourage informal learning networks and connections that would benefit learning.

I've just watched Sugata Mitra's talk at the Lift conference about his work with kids in remote areas of India. Basically PCs were installed in a wall in a village and the kids who'd never seen a computer before, all helped each other learn to surf the web (including learning English). It's well worth watching as it goes to show the power of informal learning networks when people have something (like the internet) that empowers them, and they connect together to help each other learn.

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