The Web Has Gone Social – How About Your Class?

Google has been bit by the social bug. A big, crazy, infectious social bug. Social networking is becoming a part of everything they do. I was recently working on an online Google Presentation for an upcoming conference presentation and noticed that GTalk is integrated in to Google Presentations. You can chat with people online as you give your presentation.

Now Google is going to let any website tap in to existing social networks – some how. Details are still sketchy, but Google Friend Connect will allow web site owners to add snippets of code and add social networking features. Site visitors will sign in to these features using existing Facebook, AIM, Yahoo, or other OpenID accounts. Yep – they did say Facebook on their site. Yes, Google’s Orkut is a direct competitor of FaceBook. That is just the way the Web is going – competitors are actually starting to work together.

So as the web grows more interconnected and social – where does that leave your online class? What does this say about building courses in huge walled fortresses called “Learning Management Systems” ? If your students create work that is only seen by the 15-30 or so other students in your course, will they really be ready for the social world out there?

What about you as the instructor or expert in your field? Experts in many fields are increasingly being determined by the voice that they have in an online community as much as they are being determined by older concepts like “publications.” I get more requests to contribute to publications through this blog than I do through my conference presentations.

And what does this say about current learning management systems? If websites that interact with competitor websites becomes the norm – where will that leave BlackBoard? Programs like Moodle and Studeous are taking steps to create social networks that cross course boundaries. Moodle admins have found that they can even network their Moodle installation with other Moodle installations at other campuses. But will they start being able to connect their social networks with their competitors?

The issue of course is not the tool or the medium. The issue is how you use it. For example, many people call for the death of the learning management system. I just say – why? It’s just a container for your class content. Content that can build a big, walled fortress of information, or content that can get students out in to the social world. How are you designing it? Almost all social network tools provide you with code that can be inserted in to any web page. Do you like the idea of Google Friend Connect and want to use it in a course? Paste the snippet in to a page and upload that page in to your LMS.

Instead of looking at killing the poor LMS, or figuring out how to transcribe our course lectures in to text and putting that online, why not look at our LMS course as the launching pad… a good place to securely store necessary information like grades, course rosters, course specific sensitive discussions and reflections, and other stuff like that. Then insert links to social sites or embed social widgets and features in to the course. Get students the basic information they need and then get them out there participating in the global conversation on your subject. Trust me – your students will be glad to have a “home base” to serve as a starting place for all online courses. Where I work, we hear all the time from so-called “digital natives” that get tired of having to hunt for lost links or bookmarks for the instructors that have moved out on to the social web without leaving a “home base” back on our WebCT installation (and there really are not that many instructors that have done this yet). Yes, I know we are told that “digital natives” would love to free float and jump all over the web for online learning – but we are finding that they do appreciate an easy to find “home base” on the school’s website.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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