Creating a Social Software-based Learning Environment

The instructor in one of my courses has asked the class to write a blog post about our experiences and impressions creating social software-based learning environments. Regrettably, I am about a week late with this assignment as I get overwhelmed with end-of-semester requirements in all my classes. Nevertheless, here it is, better late than never. It may be a bit rambly, as I’m severely sleep-deprived at the moment, so please bear with me.

The overall assignment in the class is to create a CLE or PLE. I’ve chosen a PLE (personal learning environment) devoted to learning enough Thai to take a trip to Thailand. At first blush, this is an odd choice, so let me explain. My husband’s family is Thai, so that’s why I chose the topic. I’ve been trying to learn Thai off and on for 3 years, and I know a fair amount of basics, to get me around and to figure things out. I also work as an instructional designer at a language school, so even though I’m not a language teacher, I’ve picked up a fair amount of knowledge in that domain. So when my husband and I traveled to Thailand, we had enough knowledge of the language and how to advance prepare, but not everyone is so lucky.

When I started the class, I considered myself fairly web savvy. My eyes have truly been opened by how much is out there in the world of web 2.0, and I am extremely glad I enrolled in this class even though I had a full courseload and a full-time job already. I’ve had a lot of fun playing around, reading articles and blog posts on the implications of new technologies, and trying things out. Perhaps too much fun. Reflecting back I can see that there were certain stages to my experience in the class, and they’ve all been valuable. If I create another learning environment in the future (which I hope to do as I have about a dozen more ideas), I would define the process in 4 stages. Like most processes, even though I’ve broken them out into stages, it is possible to have overlap between the stages, so it may be more helpful to think of them as interwoven parts.

Stage 1: Draft your instructional idea. You want to take your idea and put it on paper (or computer screen) so you can see what you’ve got, analyze whether it make sense for an online environment, and identify the gaps. You should have an instructional goal before you start thinking about the technology so you have something to focus the use of the technology rather than using technology just for it’s own sake or because it’s cool. But leave some flexibility in this first draft so that your plan can accommodate new tools that would support the instructional goal.

Stage 2: Play in the sandbox.This is your time to play. Review your instructional idea and brainstorm on tools that could support it. Also keep your ear to the ground and your eyes open through ed tech blogs and delicious links for other tools that are new to you. Then go play around with them and test them out to see what works and what doesn’t.

I think the sandbox is very important in that it gives a definite place in the design process for exploration and free-form creativity. A lot of really great ideas can come out of this phase, and it can also refine your ideas of what works and what doesn’t. However, you also need to set very firm boundaries on this stage. Decide up front how long it will take and/or how many tools you will research. Then be strict and when you reach that cutoff, put the toys away. Otherwise, you can get stuck in the “this tool is great, I bet there’s another one out there for the same purpose that’s even BETTER” syndrome. This is where I got stuck. I knew early on that I wanted to use a portal system like Pageflakes, Netvibes or iGoogle. First I started with iGoogle but ran into problems early on with the number of widgets, so I abandoned it. Then I went to Pageflakes which I liked better, but then proceeded to gorge myself on widgets by trying to browse as many widgets as possible rather than narrowing down the search field to what I needed. But then, I was talking to a friend and she recommended Netvibes as it had more widgets. So I started up a Netvibes account, and repeated the “gorging on widgets” process. And I’m actually glad I switched because I do like Netvibes better, but the thing is, there’s always something more out there, something better out there. It’s impossible to see and explore everything in the web 2.0/social software arena because it’s growing exponentially every day. So at some point you have to have a cutoff. And the truth for me is that I played far longer than I should have, and am now rushing the other stages of the process as a consequence. If there’s one thing to take to heart in this post, it is to set clear boundaries for playing in the sandbox and then firmly move on once you hit those boundaries.

Stage 3: Refine your instructional idea. This is where you take your ideas about what you want to teach and merge them with all you’ve learned about the tools, and create a solid design document. Playtime’s over, so you should finalize everything at this stage. If there’s any instructional issues that you feel you didn’t adequately explore, you need to fill in those holes now. If there are tools you didn’t get a chance to test, that’s when you take a tip from software developers and declare that functionality something for “version 2.0” of your project. This may be a bit of mental gymnastics if you don’t plan to revisit this design again, but if it gets you past the issue, that’s all that counts. And you never know- you may decide later that you actually do want to come back and do a version 2.0.

Stage 4: Implement your plan. This is where you put everything together into the final environment. You’ve been building all along, but this is where you clean up the areas left over from the sandbox, put in the bits that are in your final research plan but haven’t been added to the actual environment yet, and then make it available to your target audience for use.

Sadly, I only see this process in hindsight. Like I said above, I got stuck in the sandbox, and that’s put me miles behind where I need to be. If I could go back and do it over, I would follow this model as an explicit way of developing my PLE. And I’d probably then have a version 2 of the process as I learned new mistakes!

All Information Has Value

The more I reflect on how I use the internet for communication, the more I’m surprised at what I never realized about interactions on the web. This week’s lesson has “all information has value.” Well, maybe not all, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that informal information, things that have not been formally published in the academic community, have value too.

My mindset has always been that what I am learning in the classroom has value for me personally as I learn the art of instructional design, not to mention the value of the grade that is reflected in my GPA. The papers and studies I read on the internet are things that “other people do.” Not me. I’m just a grad student. I haven’t formally published anything. And I don’t think this mindset is unique to me- I think many of my fellow grad students also share that viewpoint.

That mindset has shifted radically this past week. Saturday, someone posted to ITFORUM, one of the email lists I subscribe to and asked if anyone had done a comparison of 3D virtual worlds. It so happens that my group in a class last fall had done a competitive analysis of several virtual worlds, as part of a bigger project. I was one of the principle authors of that piece, and I’d never considered using it outside the context of the class project, especially as it had a very specific purpose and context. Nevertheless, after checking with the other principle author, I offered to send it to the person looking for information. I sent the email and thought that was the end of it.

By the end of the day, I had 15-20 requests for a copy of the report. Two people wanted to know if I planned to publish, and one person asked permission to cite the paper as an unpublished work. I had an invitation to consider presenting at a conference, and a request that my classmate and I participate in a discussion about the report next week on the email list.

It’s strange to realize that this report has value to others, even though it’s not a formally published paper, and it was written for a graduate class project, which I was very specific about when I sent the paper around. It makes me feel good (surprised, but good) to know that I and my classmates do is useful in a broader context. I’m pretty much a lurker on most of the lists I subscribe to. I think this experience will make me more willing to speak up and offer whatever knowledge I can contribute.

Now, if only I could convince someone that the poem I wrote in second grade about buttercups has value….