Building a SLE: Part 1 – Using free, public social media tools

Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, October 2009

In this series of 3 articles I will be looking at three ways to build a social learning environment for free or at low cost.

What is a social learning environment (SLE) and how is it different from a learning management system (LMS)?

Most traditional LMS provide the functionality to upload course content, deliver it to learners and track and monitor usage. They generally have very little, if any social functionality, and where it is present, it only supports social learning within a formal, course context. A SLE, on the other hand is a place where individuals and groups of individuals can come together and co-create content, share knowledge and experiences, and learn from one another to improve their personal and professional productivity; and is also a place that can be used both to extend formal content-based e-learning to provide social interaction with the learners and tutors, as well as to underpin informal learning and working in the organisation. In other words a SLE doesn’t manage, control and track users but rather provides an open environment for them to work and learn collaboratively.

What does a SLE look like?

A SLE comprises a number of social elements, notably

  1. Social networking – this lies at the heart of a SLE, and provides the ability to establish and building online relationships with others
  2. Tagging content – this allows related content to be bound together
  3. Social bookmarking – this provides the functionality for individuals to store and share links to web resources
  4. File-sharing – this supports the creation, storage and/or sharing of files in all formats: pictures, videos, presentations, documents, screencasts, etc
  5. Communicating with others – this allows users to contact one another both in real time via e.g. instant messaging, chat and in live web meetings as well as asynchronously via e.g. email and in discussion forums
  6. Collaborating with others – this enables users to work and learn together both synchronously or asynchronously to co-create documents, presentations, mindmaps, etc
  7. Blogging – this supports the reading, commenting or writing of chronological blog posts. Blogs can be used for information sharing or within a formal context for keeping learners on track with what they need to be working on. Reading blogs, either internally or externally created, can also provide a regular “dripfeed” of news, information and instruction.
  8. Podcasting – this supports the creation and sharing of audio (MP3) and video (MP4) files. Just like blogs, podcasts can be used for information sharing or instruction.
  9. RSS feeds – this allows users to subscribe to blog, web, news, podcast and other feeds to keep up to date with new content.
  10. Micro-blogging – this enables users to send, receive and reply to short messages to keep up to date with others in their network.

Is a SLE the same as a social network?

A SLE is much more than just a social network since it provides a wide range of social functionality, which can be used whenever required. But more than this it supports the integration of the tools such that they are easily available to users. This might be via a personal dashboard or through an integrated suite of tools within a platform.

In the three editions of Learning Technologies magazine I am going to take a look at three different ways to build a social learning environment as well as the pros and cons of each. In this edition I am going to start with how you might create a social learning environment using best-of-breed, free, public social media tools

How can you build a social learning environment using best-of-breed, free, public, social media tools?

In this approach to building a social learning environment, I am going to suggest a set of best-of-breed tools that could be used to provide all the social functionality mentioned above. There are a huge number of social media tools available, but those I am mentioning are ones that have been considered valuable by over 200 learning professionals worldwide. The tools I refer to have rated highly on the Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009 list, which has been compiled from over 200 contributions from learning professionals worldwide. Note that the majority of these tools are not “dedicated” learning tools, but are a general tools with wide applicability for working and learning.

Note too, that I have avoided Google tools in this list, since they will be the focus of the next approach I will be describing in Part 2, but they could easily be swapped in, in place of the ones I mention below.

  1. Social networking: Although social networking systems likeFacebook  and LinkedIn have all the functionality for profiling and relationship building, as well as the establishment of groups, the public nature of these sites is not viewed as appropriate by many for organisational use. The Ning platform, on the other hand, means that you can create a social network which only invited members can join, and thereby provide a more private space for networking.
  2. Tagging content: Most, if not all the tools mentioned here support the tagging of content. Although content can’t easily be bound together across the different tools, if the same tag(s) are used within the different systems, it would make it easier for users to find related content.
  3. Social bookmarkingDelicious is the most popular place to store and share bookmarks to online; although tools like Diigo provide extra functionality like annotation and highlighting of content
  4. File-sharing: There are many sites available for storage of existing content as well as for creating content online, e.g.

    Storing files on sites like this means there are bandwidth advantages since you are not serving out the media from your own servers, and you can simply link directly to the resource or even embed the resources into web pages or blog postings.

  5. Communicating with others: Some useful tools in this area include
    • Skype  – for instant messaging and voice chat
    • Dimdim  – to hold web meetings, and
    • YahooMail  – to provide a webmailing system
  6. Collaborating with others: As there are a number of different collaborative activities, there are many tools that can support these., e.g.
    • Bubble.us  – for collaborative mindmapping
    • Wetpaint  – for collaborative document authoring
    • Etherpad  – for real-time collaborative authoring
    • Udutu  – for collaborative course authoring
  7. Blogging: Blogging has almost become a mainstream activity, with bloggers providing news, opinion and/or commentary on every topic under the sun. You can easily keep up to speed with what others in your field are writing, e.g. here is my selection of 100 Featured Learning Professionals who write blogs about (e-)learning:For those who want to blog there are many blogging tools available, but WordPress is a particular favourite, and can be used for both individual and multi-author blogging.
  8. Podcasting: Just like blogging, there are now plenty of places to listen to podcasts, but  iTunes is probably a good place to start. Download the software to organise, browse and play your media, and then access the iTunes Store where you can find both audio and video podcasts in many different categories. Selecting iTunesU will also give you access to some free open courseware.If you want to create podcasts of your own, then Audacity is a useful little tool to record audio and (with the extra LAME encoder) convert it into an MP3 file for podcasting.
  9. RSS feeds – To keep up to date with blog and podcasts and receive new content when available, you can subscribe to the feeds, and the content comes to you. Bloglines is an online feed reader that will help you manage your blog, website, wiki, social networking and other feeds, whereas within iTunes you can easily subscribe to audio and video podcasts.
  10. Micro-blogging – Keeping up to date with what your colleagues and contacts are doing is very easy by signing up to a service liketwitter . Simply by following them, you will then receive their tweets, i.e. short updates of maximum 140 characters. And anyone who follows you, will receive yours.You can also use Twitter to follow others in your field, e.g. my selection of 100 Featured Learning Professionals also gives details of their Twitter accounts, or you can go to a TweepML page where you can follow them all (or selected individuals) with one click!

How can these tools be integrated?

The tools mentioned above will provide you with the essential social technologies to build a social learning environment. However, one thing that is also required is a way of “gluing” them together in one place. This might be done in one of two ways, (a) by individuals setting up their own private dashboard using a tool like Netvibes which lets you display widgets with recent content and access to tools on a web page, or (b) via organisational integration, perhaps using Netvibes Universes (i.e. customised public startpages) or even Netvibes for Enterprises, which provides a personalized face to the front of any enterprise system.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?

But finally, we need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of building a social learning environment in this way. First the advantages:

  • There is a huge range of tools available to choose from.
  • Users can either individually select their own tools to create a personal social learning environment or an organisation can decide which ones it will promote and support.
  • The tools are relatively easy to set up and use.
  • They don’t require any internal IT support

Now for the disadvantages:

  • If a large number of different tools are in use, this could prove rather overwhelming for someone who is not very social media savvy, since many of the tools have very sophisticated functionality – some of which might be overkill, and they will certainly all have different interfaces.
  • There is likely to be some duplication of functionality across the different tools, for example many are incorporating social networking functionality, so a user could end up with different profiles on many different systems.
  • There is no (or very little) interoperability between these tools; and there’s no single-sign on, so users will need to have different logins to the different tools.
  • There may also be concerns about the privacy and security of personal and organisational data which is now scattered over the Internet in multiple sites.
  • The tools may have limited backup facilities, so if they crash important data may be lost, and there is also a concern with the viability of provision by free providers; some services have been known to close down with immediate effect leaving their users high and dry.
  • There may also be worries about how individuals make use of these tools, since their personal, professional and organisational personae on the tools might well overlap, which could result in what the organisation might consider “inappropriate” behaviour.

Bearing all the disadvantages in mind, I therefore think that this approach is best used by individuals to build their own personal or professional social learning environment outside the organisation – which is the way that I use public social media tools – to share and collaborate with colleagues worldwide.

As for organisational use, in the next edition of this magazine, I will look at how to build a SLE using Google applications, which I will show goes part way to resolving some of the disadvantages above, and in the conference edition of this magazine, I will look at the free, open source, social engine, Elgg, that can be used to create a fully integrated and customised social learning environment, which addresses many more of the issues raised..

Meanwhile if you’d like to find out more about social technologies and social environments, and in particular how to get started yourself, take a look at my Social Media page. Remember, that social media is something you do rather than something you just talk about!