Building a SLE: Part 2 – Using Google tools

Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, November 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.

In Part 1, I described a Social Learning Environment (SLE) as (a) a place where individuals can come together to co-create content, share knowledge and experiences, and learn from one another to improve their personal and professional productivity; and (b) 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. But the key thing, for me, about a SLE is that it doesn’t focus on managing, controlling and tracking users but rather on providing an open environment for them to work and learn collaboratively.

In Part 1, I listed what I considered to be 10 key elements of a SLE: social networking, tagging, social bookmarking, file sharing, communication, collaboration, blogging, podcasting, RSS syndication and micro-blogging. I also showed how a SLE could be built using best-of-breed, free, public, social media tools and “integrated” using a personal dashboard service.

However, although there were great advantages in this approach – namely the huge range of tools available to choose from, and the relative ease to set them up and use, I identified a number of significant disadvantages for organisational use, e.g. the possible duplication of functionality across the different tools, with users ending up maintaining different profiles on different systems, the fact that there is little if no interoperability between these tools, and no single-sign on, which means that users will need to have different logins to the different tools. So in this second part of the series I am going to take a look at how these disadvantages might be addressed using the range of Google tools.

First I am going to take a quick look at how the different Google tools themselves can provide the essential elements of a social learning environment.

  1. Social networking: This lies at the heart of a SLE, and provides the ability to establish and build online relationships with others. Google has a couple of tools in this category. Orkut is Google’s public social network and operates in a similar way to Facebook, whereas Google Groups lets users set up private groups for members to discuss issues as well as upload files and pages into a group  space.
  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 tools, it would be relatively easy for users to find related content.
  3. Social bookmarking: The functionality for individuals to save links to web resources is provided through Google Bookmarks which lets you save them online, rather than on your own computer, although they are not sharable, it is possible to share links using other tools too.
  4. File-sharing: The facility to create, store and/or share files in different formats is provided through a number of Google services, e.g. video sharing is available through Google Video and YouTube; photo sharing through Picasa; file (and folder) sharing through Google Docs, which supports the sharing of documents, presentations and spreadsheets; calendar sharing through Google Calendar; and map sharing through Google Maps. The resources from these file sharing services can also be easily embedded into web or blog pages.
  5. Communicating with others: There are a number of Google tools that let users communicate one another. There is Gmail (or Google Mail as it is known in the UK)  which provides an effective webmail service with lots of storage space, and Google Talk which provides a real time instant messaging and video and voice chat service over the Internet either from the desktop or within Gmail when it is known as Gmail Chat.
  6. Collaborating with others: One of the major Google tools that enables users to work and learn together to co-create documents, presentations has already been mentioned, that is Google Docs. It can also be used in conjunction with Google Talk to present synchronously to a group of individuals. Google also has a wiki tool, called Google Sites where you can easily create a group web site. A recent product Google SideWiki also provides a way of contributing information to any page on the web.
  7. Blogging: Blogger is Google’s own blogging tool, and allows a user to quickly and easily set up their own blog and start posting straightaway. Blogs can be set up to provide information or instruction, perhaps to help keep learners on track with their studies.
  8. Podcasting: Google has a service where you can upload and share podcasts , this is called Google Base.
  9. RSS feeds: RSS (short for Really Simple Syndication) allows individuals to subscribe to blog, web, news, podcast and other feeds to keep up to date with new content. Reading feeds in this way can thereby provide a regular “dripfeed” of news, information and instruction. Google Reader is the place to do this. You can also share postings within Google Reader with other users.
  10. Micro-blogging – This enables users to send, receive and reply to short messages to keep up to date with others in their network. Google’s micro-blogging platform is Jaiku It offers a way to connect with people by sharing updates with them on the Web, instant messaging and SMS

All the tools mentioned above will provide the essential social technologies to build a social learning environment based on Google product set, but the beauty is that they only require one Google account to be set up which can be used to access all the Google tools. Once you have logged into your account, there are a number of ways in which you can access the tools or the content within them:

  • Via the My Account link, where you can also change your profile and personal settings.
  • Via the Google menu bar, which is visible at the top of many of the Google tools, providing you with links to the other main tools like Mail, Calendar, Documents, Reader etc. This provides a quick way to move from tool to tool.


iGoogle is an online service where you can create a customised version of the Google Search page by aggregating content from your tools using gadgets like the Google Reader gadget to read your RSS feeds, the Google Docs gadget to view your active Google documents, the Gmail gadget to display the mail in your Gmail/Google Mail inbox – as well as chat with your Google contacts. There is also a range of “social” gadgets that let you share and collaborate with others. You can also customise the look and feel of your iGoogle page, and set up a “sharable” tab, which provides yet another way to share content with others.

Google Apps

Whereas all the tools mentioned above are available for free for individual use, Google Apps is a service to both businesses and education that provides a branded suite of communication and collaboration applications. Although this is free for education, for other organisations there is a cost, but it is nevertheless becoming a popular way for organisations – large and small – to quickly set up a social environment for individuals to learn and work collaboratively.

Google Wave:  Any discussion of Google has to include mention of their new real-time communication platform, Google Wave.  A wave is described as being “both a conversation and a document where people can discuss and work together using richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more”. Google Wave combines aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, chat and social networking, and it is primarily a way for group of individuals to communicate, collaborate and share – key aspects of our social learning environment. At the time of writing this article (October 2009) Google Wave is still in limited preview, but there has been a lot of speculation about how important this platform will become – particularly for learning. It clearly opens up enormous possibilities for real-time teaching of groups in “learning waves” which are yet to be exploited.

As it won’t be till 2010 that we will really see the full potential of Google Wave once large numbers of users are using it, this discussion of a Google-based SLE unfortunately can’t include it at this stage. So finally, let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages of building a social learning environment with the different tools mentioned earlier

First the advantages:

  • Google offers the full range of social media functionality across its suite of tools, which can be used by individuals either to create a personal learning environment or by a team or an organisation to create a social learning environment.
  • As all the tools are hosted, they are very easy to set up and use, and don’t require any internal IT support.
  • In the case of Google Apps, Google recognises the importance of the privacy and security of corporate data in their care.
  • The content from the different tools can easily be “glued together” or “integrated” within a personalised dashboard using iGoogle
  • A user only requires one Google account, and one set of login credentials, to access all the Google tools.

Now for the disadvantages:

  • Each of the tools is very sophisticated and has its own interface; it could prove quite overwhelming for someone who is not very social media savvy to use each of the tools effectively and efficiently.
  • It is not easy to move or share content between the different tools (although with Google Wave this will become easier).
  • Organisations may still be worried about how individuals make use of these tools, since their personal, professional and organisational identities on the public tools could still overlap, which could result in what might be consider “inappropriate” online behaviour.

To summarise then, the versatility and sophistication of the full range of Google online tools is unbeatable, however, for some teams or organisations the disadvantages may still outweigh the advantages. In the next edition of this magazine, I am going to address these disadvantages and take a look at how to create a fully integrated, seamless and customised social learning environment that provides a secure and private place for individuals to work and learn together – using the open source social engine, Elgg.

Meanwhile if you’d like to find out more about social technologies and social learning environments, take a look at my Social Learning Handbook.

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