Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Case for Social Networking in College Learning has interrupted the flow of my blog posts recently.  Hopefully, many of you have had the time to reflect on Ning's new business move.  I, myself, have not had time yet to explore other free social networking options but will be focusing more closely on this task in June.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ning has offered a low cost service for $2.95/month or $19.95/year which provides a Mini Network option.  The network is limited to 150 members and removes the option to create Groups or upload videos directly into Ning (although embeds are still supported).  This is the option they've crafted for educators.  Fortuitously for K-12 educators, Ning Mini networks will be provided to you for free at the generous funding support of an unnamed educational foundation.  Unfortunately for higher ed, there has been no matching offer to support the free integration of Ning networks into college learning.

Social networking is now used by 95% of our 18-24 year old college students, 70% use a social network on a daily basis (2009 ECAR Report of Undergraduates' Use of IT).  Traditional college age students today do not remember life before the internet.  Participatory learning -- learning in a peer-based environment through shared interactions online -- is no longer remarkable to most of our college students (The Future of Thinking, MIT Press, 2009).

Online learning in higher education continues to grow rapidly at roughly 17% in 2008 (Sloan-C) and if we hone in on community colleges we see an even higher growth rate at 22% the same year (Instructional Technology Council).  The significance of this growth in online enrollments is felt most profoundly when we understand that growth in higher ed overall in 2008 was relatively flat at 2% (Sloan-C).  And who is learning online?  82% of online college students were undergraduates in 2008.

The more college learning environments remain entrenched in traditional delivery of content, rather than integrating participatory learning experiences, which are naturally fostered with the use of social networks, the more extensive the gap remains between informal and formal learning in the lives of our students.  The recent decision to eliminate free Ning networks is a moment for us all to re-evaluate the importance of social networking.  If you've used Ning with positive results, then figure out a way to move forward. As for paying for Ning Mini networks, I'm not opposed to this option either.  I do find the cost worthy of the learning benefits.  The question becomes, "who pays?"  Is it appropriate for individual professors to pay for the tools leveraged to craft their students learning?  Are institutions open to supporting the use of social networks?  What if only a handful of early adopting professors are "ready" to do so?  Do they have less of a chance of gaining institutional support? Are their foundations willing to support college integration of Ning?  These are all questions I've been mulling over for weeks.

How does the Mini Network option support my model?  When I used Ning, I create a unique network for each of my classes (unless I'm teaching multiple sections then I have rolled them into one network).  So, there is potential here for a college professor, leveraging this model, to create many (six or more?) networks each year.  Each network surviving the course of a term, say six months, at roughly $3/month equates to about $110/year.  This also results in my networks being eliminated after the course of a semester, which feels simply wrong to me.  Shouldn't this be content that students can continue to learn from and experiences I should leverage and share with my colleagues?  Doesn't eliminating a social network immediately after a class is over undercut the very model of interaction and participation, not to mention life long learning?  More questions I have pondered recently.

I will continue to support social networking in college learning because I think it's essential for our students to experience formal learning experiences that are more closely aligned with the way they are learning outside of our formalized institutions.  Social networking increases opportunities for personalized learning, allowing students to share images of friends, family and images that support the course content (in art appreciation, students regularly share images of trips they've taken to architectural sites or museums, for example).  Encouraging videos to be embedded from YouTube promotes critical thinking through enabling students to apply course concepts and identify videos that synthesize ideas from class in new, interesting ways.  The use of media rich blogging stimulates expression of ideas beyond text, providing a method for sharing images (from field trips) or visual representations of course concepts.

A few free social networking options that have been shared with me are listed below. Again, I have not evaluated these myself and only share them because I've received many requests to do.  Please comment on this post with any feedback you have about these or other sites:
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas about moving forward with participatory learning in higher education.  And I look forward to the day that a social networking environment is part of every college professor's standard teaching "toolkit," like an LMS.

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