Building a SLE: Part 3 – Using Elgg, an open source social engine

For Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, Conference Edition, January 2010

In this series of 3 articles I am looking at different ways of build a social learning environment within an organisation – for free or at low cost.

Social Learning can be defined as a collaborative approach to learning where individuals co-create content in a variety of formats, share information and learn from one another.

Although it has now become common practice to differentiate learning as either “formal” or “informal” learning, when analysing examples of social learning in practice I identified 5 categories of learning that takes place in an organisation.

  1. Formal Structured Learning (FSL) – within formal training like classes, courses and workshops
  2. Intra-Organisational Learning (IOL) – where employees keep the whole organisation up to date and up to speed on strategic and other internal initiatives and activities
  3. Group Directed Learning (GDL) – where groups of individuals working together in teams, on projects support a group approach to learning
  4. Personal Directed Learning (PDL) – where individuals organise and manage their own personal or professional learning
  5. Accidental & Serendipitous Learning (ASL) – when individuals learn without consciously realising it (aka incidental or random learning)

A Social Learning Environment (SLE) therefore needs to provide an infrastructure that supports all these different kinds of social and collaborative learning; that is it needs to offer a secure personal working/learning space for individuals as well as group spaces for project and formal learning groups, and a community space for the whole organisation. A SLE will also integrate key social media technologies to provide the necessary social tools for collaboration and information sharing across then enterprise, e.g. social networking, social bookmarking, file sharing, blogging and micro-blogging. But more importantly it should provide an open, collaborative environment where individuals are not “managed” or “controlled” but rather “supported” in their working and learning.

In the previous articles in this series, I identified two ways of building such an environment – the first by using a variety of public social media tools, and the second by using a range of Google apps. However, organisations often have concerns about using these types of tools, for instance.

  1. they often feel they are not secure enough, and worry about the privacy and security of personal and organisational data which is scattered over the Internet in multiple sites. They may also be concerned about how individuals make use of these tools, since their personal, professional and organisational personae on the toolsmight well overlap, which could result in what the organisation might consider “inappropriate” behaviour.
  2. they may feel the tools are not well integrated, requiring different logins and interfaces and so causing confusion for users – together with the inability to share content between the tools.

So in this article I want to look at the options for creating a secure, integrated social learning platform.

In fact in the last year or so we have seen the rise of a number of integrated social platforms in the marketplace. Many of these platforms are commercial: some are referred to as Enterprise 2.0 systems as they are often used as corporate intranets for collaborative working; others are focused more on providing social environments for formal structured learning in an organisation. But, there are also a few open source tools that can be used to build a variety of different types of social environments (i.e. social networks, social learning environments and social intranets), and one of these is Elgg – www.elgg.org

Elgg has been around since 2004 and is currently in version 1.6. Elgg is a fully customisable, configurable and extensible platform both in terms of functionality and look and feel – by making use of core and 3rd party plugins. So with Elgg, you don’t have to rely on cobbling together a mish-mash of stand-alone social media tools but can provide a seamless environment where members can access a range of social media functionality.

At the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies we have used Elgg to power our own social learning environment, called SoLearn. This is a Social Learning Space for learning professionals to come together and share resources, ideas and experiences – in both formal social courses as well as for informal group projects.

Our customised installation of Elgg at SoLearn provides a number of social media tools that we believe are key for personal and group learning, so includes the following functionality.

  1. Social networking – to establish and build online relationships with other learning professionals. Users can create profile pages with information about themselves, and members can establish connections with one another.
  2. Social bookmarking – to store and share links to web resources
  3. File-sharing – to create, store and/or share files in all formats: pictures, videos, presentations, documents, etc
  4. Communication – to connect with others both in real time and asynchronously – via email, chat and internal messaging.
  5. Collaboration – to collaborate synchronously or asynchronously with others to work together and co-create documents,
  6. Blogging – to read, comment on and write blog posts from other group or site members
  7. Podcasting – to share and listen to audio (MP3) files
  8. RSS feeds – to subscribe to and read blog and web news feeds
  9. Micro-blogging – to send, receive and reply to short messages with others on the site
  10. Tagging content – to bind related content together from across the site

Members of SoLearn can therefore create, organise and manage their own personal resources and contacts as well as work and learn together with others in groups – co-creating and sharing content and resources – all within a secure, walled garden.

During 2009 we have helped a number of organisations – including universities, training companies,
non-profit making organisations, corporate and public sector organisations – implement and customise Elgg to provide an integrated social learning environment for their own specific requirements. Here are some of the lessons learned from implementing social learning environments in a number of different contexts.

  • Platform choice – choosing the most appropriate platform is very important for your SLE. Each has their pros and cons, so consider these carefully.
  • Terminology – the name of the site and its description is important. Do you call it a “social network”, “social environment” or “collaboration platform” – or even use the term “social” at all! The use of appropriate terms within the site, like “friends” is also important; this might be alright for Facebook, but not for business. We’ve renamed the term “Friends” to “Contacts” or “Colleagues” on many of the sites we have worked on .
  • Piloting – if you pilot, make sure the size is right; community projects require large numbers; group projects can be smaller.
  • Growth– let the site grow naturally and organically – tend it and nurture it but don’t force it. Slow steady growth is better than fast use and then tail-off. Evolution is better than revolution!
  • Promotion – when promoting the site, viral marketing techniques work well – i.e. don’t force everyone on it as a user – work with groups that are enthusiastic– let them talk about it; sooner or later others will want to join in,
  • Usability– bear in mind that when people have used other social networking systems, they will be influenced by them; users new to social media seem to adapt faster as they have no preconceived ideas of what a platform should look like or how it should behave.
  • Success measures – don’t worry about stats, i.e. the number of users, number of posts, number of discussions etc. Focus on the value that it brings to the different groups. Get the groups themselves to say how they will determine whether their own group space has been successful. This will probably be in terms of “better communication”, “easier collaboration”, “increase in productivity or performance”, etc – rather than how many times X or Y made a blog posting.

Finally, to summarise, the advantages of implementing an integrated platform mean that you can:

  • put in place a secure infrastructure that supports all types of personal, group and organisational learning; and
  • provide an integrated suite of social media tools – with one consistent and seamless interface
    to use all the tools – and one login.

Additionally, the advantages of using open source software, like Elgg, means that you can configure the
platform to your exact needs. There are some disadvantages associated with implementing integrated platforms, e.g. each of the tools in the suite probably won’t have the full extent of functionality that sophisticated stand-alone tools have – but they will certainly provide all the essential functionality.

There are issues with self-hosting using open source software; it can be complex – to install, configure and customise – without technical help – although there are, of course, specialist consultants available to help with this – e.g. our own Social Learning service. Managed hosting does get round this problem, but is more costly. ElggCampus – for instance, currently in closed beta, offers a number of pricing plans, and commercial social platform providers do, of course, also offer managed hosting services.

In my opinion, providing an effective social (learning) environment within an organisation is going to become a high priority in 2010.