Designing and evaluating social media for learning: shaping social networking into social learning?

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  • Designing and evaluating social media forlearning: shaping social networking intosocial learning?jcal_484 177..182

    Introduction: current status of social mediaand learning

    Although the adoption of social media (or Web 2.0 tech-nologies) within our everyday lives is relatively recent,many have attempted to embrace these technologies andrelated digital literacies for learning in educationalinstitutions and the workplace. The state of the art in thisrespect before 2010 was reflected in two key publica-tions edited by the editors of this Special Issue. Thesewere a special issue in this journal on social software,Web 2.0, and learning (Ravenscroft 2009), and a Hand-book of Research on Social Software & DevelopingCommunity Ontologies (Hatzipanagos & Warburton2009). These covered a wide range of perspectives andprojects that collectively conveyed the energy andenthusiasm for embracing more open and participativeapproaches to learning, mainly through applying andadapting existing social media technologies, such asweblogs (blogs), wikis, and popular social networkingtools (e.g. Facebook). This collection of work alsouncovered some deep misalignments and paradoxes inthe context of traditional education:

    There is also the clear tension between the tradition oflearning as a highly structured and organized experience,involving clear levels of authority, and, the more collabo-rative, volatile and anarchic nature of the social web.(Ravenscroft 2009, p. 5)

    One particular factor in this respect was nicely pointedout by Clark et al. (2009):

    More needs to be understood about the transferability ofWeb 2.0 skill sets and ways in which these can be used tosupport formal learning. (Clark et al. 2009, p. 56)

    This initial and somewhat fractured discourse is whatthis Special Issue aims to develop significantly as wearguably move to the next generation of initiatives thataim to support learning with social media. One of thekey challenges in this respect that is represented by twoarticles in the Special Issue (Fitzgerald, Ravenscroft

    et al.) is to clarify and distinguish what we consider tobe informal and formal learning, and what we considerto be important about relationships between the two.This is important because the claim that is often madeabout social media is that it is an effective bridgebetween informal and formal learning.

    Reconciling informal and formal learningthrough design

    One of the key ongoing agendas, across the Europeaneducational landscape in particular, is finding ways tocapture meaningful informal learning experiences byexplicitly linking these to formal structures, and provid-ing frameworks within which informal learning canthen be validated and accredited (Cedefop Report2007). The idea is to harness individually motivated andinterest-driven informal learning within wider and morestandardized educational practices and organizations.This is recognized as especially pertinent given theprominence of the lifelong learning agenda and thediverse nature of student profiles, from adult, voca-tional, part-time, distance, digital natives, and so on.Social media technologies can offer significant poten-tial if they can support informal and formal learningpractices within the same digital space through thesharing of common digital literacies. Similarly, spe-cially designed social software can focus on semi-formal learning practices (e.g. Ravenscroft et al. 2008)that deliberately bridge informal and formal dimensionsof the learning process.

    Nevertheless, given the pace of change in the possiblesocial media configurations, or digital ecosystems,that can be deployed in support of informal and formallearning, it is clear that we need to focus on a morefuture-proof concept than the technologies themselves,which will assist us in both better understanding andrealizing learning, or new forms of learning. So theframe adopted in this Special Issue collection is theargument that design is a suitably rich, flexible, and


    doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00484.x


    2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2012), 28, 177182 177

  • yet formal enough concept to help us engineer, or atleast favour, better learning with social media while alsosupporting a better understanding of the underlyingsocial processes at play. The articles by Fitzgerald andRavenscroft are particularly clear in illustrating thistheme of using design frameworks to specificallypromote informal learning with social media, in twocontrasting contexts, creating user-generated contentfor location-based learning and informal learning andknowledge maturing in the workplace, respectively.This stance (of focusing on design) is also partly a reac-tion to research in the technology-enhanced learning(TEL) field that has been overly predicated on technolo-gies, as this reliance is no longer feasible given the con-tinued speed of technology development.

    The interplay of problematization, design,and evaluation

    Interestingly, the fact that social media can potentiallyencompass social networking and social learning withinthe same technological spaces raises specific problemsas well as providing unique opportunities. If we con-ceive of design as increasingly becoming a process ofintervention within emerging or existing digital culturesthat are difficult to clearly define, as they are usuallyopen, participative, and constantly evolving, this raisessignificant problems in promoting clearly defined learn-ing processes and outcomes. Indeed, design becomes asmuch about understanding and promoting the desiredtechnology-mediated processes and practices as theimplementation of a specific technology or orchestra-tion of technologies to address a defined problem oropportunity. Further, deploying and embedding socialmedia innovations then changes the nature of the under-lying learning and communicative practices that are atplay. We argue that the way to address these complexi-ties is to have a more explicit and closer linkage amongproblematization,1 design, and evaluation. This meansthat we need to pay careful attention to addressing theinterplay of (1) understanding the learning problem andcontext, and how it evolves; (2) designing social mediainterventions; and (3) ongoing evaluations. Within thisapproach, these three processes (problematization,design and evaluation) constantly feed into one anotherin an ongoing spiral-like fashion and are not discretephases of a staged design process. These perspectivescan all be articulated within a holistic design approach

    that conjoins Design-based Research with ActionResearch. The articles in this collection advance ourunderstanding of social media and learning throughbeing applicable to features of this frame of Design-based Research in Action, where design and evaluationof social media are seen as clearly interconnected pro-cesses. This stance is clearly illustrated through thedesign approach that is adopted by Ravenscroft et al.Similarly, the emphasis on problematization (of thelearning situation) is shown by Huang & Lo in relationto a thorough examination of what makes bloggingattractive to bloggers?, and the link between problema-tization and evaluation is systematically articulated byJimoyiannis andAngelaina in relation to their investiga-tion of engagement and learning within educationalblogs.

    Towards a more critical discourse andnewmethodologies

    The implications of the challenges and perspectives thatare raised earlier are that we need to move away fromthe hype and overblown expectations about socialmedia and learning, and instead adopt a more criticaldiscourse. This discourse needs to include thoroughempirical examinations of social media for learning,and accommodate new or revised methodologies for thedevelopment, deployment, and evaluation of socialmedia for learning.

    The first article by Friesen and Lowe provides a pow-erful critique of the alleged promise of exploiting themost commonplace and popular social media, such asGoogle and Facebook. They do this through adaptingthe work of the media theorist, Raymond Williams, whooriginally wrote about the relationship between adver-tising and television. They argue that Williams (1974)notions of information design, architecture, and algo-rithm that applied to television also apply to commercialsocial media (such as Google and Facebook). Theseauthors point out:

    In recent years, new Web-based social media have beenportrayed as placing the learner at the centre of networksof knowledge and expertise that potentially lead to newforms of learning and education despite the fact that thesemedia themselves make no educational promises.

    They follow this by pointing out that not only aresocial media not designed for learning and education,but that the commercial model behind popular social

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  • media actually prohibits learning because they funda-mentally promote conviviality and deliberatelyexclude fostering the capacity for debate and disagree-ment. The latter is considered fundamental to learningand has a long pedigree from dialogic (e.g. Bahktin1986; Wegerif 2007) and dialectic (e.g. Ravenscroftet al. 2007; Ravenscroft & McAlister 2008) perspec-tives and social constructivist approaches to learning(e.g. Vygotsky 1978; Wertsch 1991). Although recentwork (Ravenscroft 2010) has deliberately addressed thisapparent contradiction between social media-drivenconnectivist theory (Siemens 2006) and social construc-tivism, a specific and important point is clearly and reso-nantly made by Friesen and Lowe:

    We work toward this conclusion by making the case thatsocial networking offers only a truncated capacity tofoster disagreement and debate because dominant pro-grammes and models primarily foster conviviality andliking.

    This position is then powerfully developed through acomparison with television and advertising, and seri-ously questions whether existing social media canprovide new versionsof learning and education that itsproponents claim (e.g. Downes 2005; Siemens 2006;Selwyn 2008). Their concluding position is conciselyand powerfully proposed:

    Education is clearly a social process but it is probablymuch closer to an ongoing discussion or debate than anextended celebration with an ever-expanding network offriends.

    This initial account, that is constructively polemical,provides an excellent starting point and platform forthe rest of the collection. A previous special issue(Ravenscroft 2009) has also highlighted the misalign-ment of social process for networking with those forlearning from a pedagogical perspective. This freshapproach predicated on the implications of implicitbusiness models adds more strength to the argumentthat learning with social media requires clearer under-standing and analysis of the underlying social processesat play, designing to promote social interactions specifi-cally for learning, and addressing the current paucity ofmethodologies that truly embrace the implicationsarising from these first two points.

    The second article by Fitzgerald advances this debateby proposing an authoring framework specifically forlearning with user-generated content within location-

    based learning contexts. The study places itself at theintersection of informal learning and location-awaremobile technology. Fitzgerald recognizes, as withFriesan and Lowe in their article, that the opportunitiesfor access and content creation afforded by new tech-nologies and a social Web do not translate readily intointeractions that might be deemed pedagogically valu-able. As she states:

    The integration of the mobile and social web presents uswith particular challenges as well as new and innovativemechanisms for learning. In particular, when designinguser-generated content specifically for teaching andlearning, how can we ensure we are providing informa-tion in an appropriate way?

    In response, the author has examined a particularcontext for informal learning that is mediated throughlocation-based technologies to support learning at spe-cific physical locations, for example a nature reserve ora heritage site. The envisaged scenario is that of brows-ing or creating geolocated content by visitors to such asite using mobile devices to learn or inform about thesurroundings from a number of different disciplinaryperspectives.

    Fitzgerald devised the framework by combiningseveral distinct domains of expertise that include envi-ronmental aesthetics, humancomputer interaction, andpedagogy. Subsequent testing has been carried out byperforming content analysis on three authoritative web-sites where identified content has been matched to theframeworks classification system.

    The results demonstrate that the framework provesitself as analytically sound, and therefore can potentiallyprovide a base for future scaffolding of user-generatedcontent where informal learning is a desired outcome.Their approach to building the framework also providesa methodology for others working in different fields todevelop ways of directing content production by infor-mal non-specialist providers to gain maximum valuefrom each item. In the conclusions drawn from the work,it is clear that by problematizing informal processes ofsocial knowledge production, we should consider whattype of steer we can provide to user-generated content.The paper cleverly highlights the delicate balance thatexists between ensuring continued sharing and engage-ment within a particular domain of activity, and disrupt-ing that engagement by overformalizing and impedingthe natural curiosity and pleasure that stems from infor-mal interactions. As the author comments:

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  • The phenomenon of stigmergy where a trace left in theenvironment by a particular action invokes a similaraction resulting in indirect and spontaneousco-ordination can also be applied here.

    The third article by Huang and Lo provides anotherperspective on design through a focus on extractingdesign features through an evaluation of a particular andwell-known social networking tool, the blog. They iden-tify weblog design features that should or should not beemphasized based on blog participants interests.Employing a learner-centred weblog evaluation, theyinvestigate a set of criteria that attract blog participantsto engage in blogging in a higher education context. Thestudy determines which blogging practices improveblog quality, management, and educational effective-ness, and makes two contributions. First, the extractedweight values of the critical factors from the proposedframework serve as guidelines for enhancing the robust-ness and attractiveness of weblog content. Second, theevaluation process provides insights for managingweblog quality and effectiveness. This study also pro-vides a clear example of enhancing bloggers motivationto participate in and remain a part of blog communities.Furthermore, they show that blog participants expect aflexible learning environment that encourages and pro-vides a general...