We’ve just had the opportunity to look inside Facebook (a phenomenally successful social networking site), thanks to Ellen our 19-year old guide. She began using it as an easy way to keep in contact with overseas friends. And the emphasis does seem to be on easy and fun, for this age group anyway, a bit like sitting in the pub catching up with your mates. You create your online identify with personal details and other interesting / quirky features, like your strippers name and quick contacts, for instance, friends may choose to lick, kiss or poke you!, as well as sharing what’s going on with your life, your photos, etc. And the user has control over who can access their site and what information they share.

But there seems to be a darker side to all this fun. Over the past month social networking sites have been in the media with stories of cyber bullying, gangs using them to recruit members, police surfing them for information about crimes, identity theft, and the ease of misrepresenting oneself for dubious purposes. There’s also the concern with Facebook owning all the information posted (does this include original art work or your own photos?), and how they may then use this information.

All this negative stuff aside, how might Facebook be used for education purposes? The following excerpts from Educause Learning Initiative (May, 2007) hint at its potential.

The current concerns …

that the actions and activities on the site may lack substance. Keeping in touch with a circle of friends and colleagues is fine, but if Facebook enables trite, superficial interaction, there is little educational value.

But there are possibilities it may develop into something more significant …

The interesting question is whether expanded access and a growing number of functions will lead users into more substantive activities on the site. Face­book may become a channel for dialogue and a destination for people interested in learning about or sharing information on current issues.

It could be used as a campus marketing and communication tool …

a campus can advertise jobs, a campus election, or other activities to students at that institution or perhaps also at nearby institutions.

And to forge more meaningful relationships between campus students and teachers in an informal social setting …

a central part of the college years is “learning to be”—experiment­ing with different personas, engaging with a variety of groups, and developing a set of core values. By allowing users a range of tools to negotiate and inhabit online networks, Facebook and sites like it can be an important part of this developmental process.

From this very brief introduction to Facebook I couldn’t see any immediate use for it in my teaching (or personal life), so I haven’t signed up. But people probably said that about blogs and youTube, so who knows, it might be worth keeping an eye on it.

In the last 10-minute talk Derek Chirnside described features of a constructivist, learner-centred, collaborative online course that he teaches. Here are some of the points that were discussed.

Blogs and journals encourage participants to reflect on the course content and their learning experiences, and interact with each other through sharing their stories and problems. Weekly postings and collaboration are a requirement of the course.

Learning experiences revolve around authentic (personally relevant) activities and projects.

While some parts of the course are open and public (for example the student blogs), there are closed environments and opportunities for private discussion between the course participants and individually with the lecturer. This stimulated quite a lot of discussion around the necessity for closed places in health courses where participants can safely share their experiences in private.

As the course progresses, students begin making connections beyond the course and become part of a wider learning community.

I was very interested in the strategies Derek used to encourage and support participation and interaction. He was realistic with participants about the challenges ahead in the course, was clear about course expectations and requirements, provided an environment that allowed participants to build up confidence, identified and supported at-risk students, used teaching activities that required contribution / peer feedback / collaboration (for example, sharing stories and problems), provided teacher feedback that invited more discussion and helped to connect people / ideas / examples, and linked participation to assessment.

I’m beginning to appreciate the complexity of online learning communities and achieving the optimal mix of challenge, participation, connection, independence, and support. And the roles that facilitators and participants play in bringing this all together to meet the needs of each particular group of learners and individuals within a group. This discussion certainly provided some useful insights and practical advice towards this.

I haven’t left the course but have spent the last couple of weeks engrossed in exploring a number of web tools and playing with them. I’ve found that there seems to be two parts to this course, firstly there’s setting up and learning about the web tools themselves and then secondly, considering how they can be used to communicate, share and collaborate, in developing and maintaining a community.

So far my priority has mostly been on the first part. I have set up rss and google reader, have iGoogle as my homepage, have got del.icio.us and tags for bookmarking, explored flickr and uploaded some photos, used skype for chatting, explored youTube, worked on google docs, used gliffy and bubbl.us to make concept maps, tried out audacity, and taken a peek around myspace and bebo, and most recently have been looking at how to podcast, set-up slideshows and videos. This is a huge achievement given where I began!

I have to say though that even getting this far, nearly didn’t happen. Earlier on I was floundering around in cyberspace, completely directionless and disorientated; it would have been easy to give up. I knew I needed to fill in some basic gaps in my understanding of these tools, but I wasn’t sure how to do this. And then by chance, I found some resources that gave me the structure and guidance I needed:

Learning 2.0 program: 23 things, a course for librarians. I liked the course blog format, introductory podcasts, resources and discovery exercises, all with an emphasis on having a play and some fun.

Workshops and Resources wiki from University of Manitoba’s Learning Technologies Centre, with lots of really useful background information, advice and examples of using the web tools.

These both helped enormously and have kept me fairly busy over the last couple of weeks.

The best bits so far

  • the knowledge gained about these tools and my confidence in using the web has grown substantially
  • having the opportunity to hear from expert speakers in the 10 minute talk series
  • following everyone’s progress in their blogs and email forum

The worst bits

  • the earlier times of complete confusion
  • getting around to blogging (I have never managed to keep any kind of journal before! I’ve got some posts partly written, but it’s easy to lose the moment and find yourself engrossed in something else)
  • and leading on from the last one, not being a more active online participant in general, being here but mostly invisible (my online personality definitely doesn’t match my real-life personality and I’m not sure why, maybe it’s a confidence thing)

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