Friday, May 21, 2010

Academic Social Networking

The Social Networking Environment

The latest set of Web technologies, commonly known as Web 2.0, has given Web users the ability to create and modify live Web content without the need to know Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) and without having the technology to access Web servers. Constructing live Web content is now as easy as creating a word processed document. The ease of building live Web content by the lay-public is one reason the use of social networking sites ((SNS) have been increasing exponentially. FaceBook, MySpace, and Twitter have enrolled millions of users, many of whom have become dedicated followers. This concept has not escaped the business world. LinkedIn, PartnerUp and MeetTheBoss focus on the business user and entrepreneur. SNS’s have been in the news, used by law enforcement, caused national and international privacy debates, and have made it into the dictionary and achieved pop culture status.

The Problems

One of the top teaching and learning challenges is in creating learning environments that promotes collaborate learning. The X Gen student is well connected; sometimes so well connected it interferes with the learning process. As instructors, we see them in the class, more in tune with their host of i-devices, cell phones, text messaging and/or perusing the latest SNS news, rather than paying attention to what is going on in the class. Students do not want academics to be a part of their social networking world, just as they do not want their parents as friends in their SNS’s. Students do not seem to have an issue with the learning management system, or LMS, used by their school for uploading assignments, checking their grades, or getting announcements from the instructor. Some LMS’s have social networking components. These components may be an additional cost to the school, may be inflexible, and probably are dedicated to an individual cohort. One limitation of most LMS’s is students from different sections of the same course cannot virtually mix and mingle. Another problem is many instructors do not have the resources or sufficient technical knowledge to create an academic social networking site, or ASNS. Social networking software is available but can be expensive and requires technical expertise to establish and maintain. Open source LMSs are free but cannot be customized to the needs of the instructor and student.

The Solution
My idea was to provide an academic environment that closely mimics the familiar environment of an SNS. The demonstration will highlight an ASNS, which could be implemented as an arm’s length extension of the LMS. Not being a part of the LMS, the ASNS may appear to be more of a social gathering and informal virtual meeting place rather than an environment linked to the formal academic structure inherent in a LMS. Giving students the environment to meet and discuss issues in a virtual world, allows them to engage in academic topics in a modality that they are comfortable with, and in a more informal manner, without invading their SNS. Another advantage is students from a multi-section course can meet in the ASNS and discuss issues across sections. The novel characteristics of the solution are its low-cost, easy adaptation to suit user requirements, and minimal technical expertise required by an instructor. The solution includes using the content management system known as Drupal to create and maintain the ASNS. Drupal is an open source product that is well supported and very easy to use by non-technical faculty. The only cost is the fee for Web hosting. If a school’s information technology department already supports Drupal hosting, there would be no fees required. The demonstration will show the ease by which an ASNS can be created and maintained using Drupal, and how flexible it is in allowing additional components to be added or removed.
The features of the ASNS are similar to those of non-academic SNS which would include:
  • Messaging
  • Collaboration
  • FAQ’s,
  • Google calendar link
  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Assignment calendar
  • Text messaging
  • Games
Work to Date and Future Direction
The ASNS created  can be found at and is pictured below. It is scheduled for beta-testing in the Winter 2010 term and will go into full use by my students in the Fall 2010 semester. The plan is to monitor the students and write a report comparing the results of the treatment group against those students who have chosen not to partake in the ASNS.

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