September 8th, 2010

Integrating Social Media into Online Education

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Many people take it on faith that online education must be run through a learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard, Angel, etc. Those systems were originally designed to allow faculty to move their courses online without having to learn HTML coding. They provided all of the tools needed to deliver an online course in one package.

Teaching with Technology column

As online learning grew, so too did the functionality of course management systems. As the systems grew more and more complex, they became more and more fragile, necessitating the new administrative function of instructional designer to manage the systems. Control of distance learning gradually shifted from faculty to administrator as instructional designers started dictating how online courses would look and function.

Now faculty are starting to wrestle control back from administrators through the use of social media such as blogs, wikis, and VoiceThread. These systems can be easily set up by faculty and students to foster interactivity and user generated content that is not possible in course management systems. Best of all, instead of spending hours stocking the modules of a course management system, a faculty member can create a blog in minutes and spend nearly all of his or her time communicating with students.

But few colleges have a social media strategy. The assumption is still that all content must be housed within the LMS. Systems such as Blackboard are adding social media modules like blogs and wikis, but moving them into the locked-down LMS removes the very openness which gives these media value. The better approach is to understand that the LMS is just one tool among many for delivering online learning, and just like a carpenter, use the tool that best suits the job.

Here are some ways to incorporate social media into your course:

  • Faculty members who want to create a hybrid course should use social media systems such as blogs or wikis rather than an LMS. An LMS is good for a fully online course, but requires needless administrative time for a hybrid course.
  • Many faculty are teaching fully online courses though a combination of social media and LMS systems. For instance, Michelle Pacansky-Brock uses Moodle to manage assignments and maintain her gradebook, and Ning to teach her class. Steve Kolowich uses Moodle plus Skype and Elluminate to add interactive elements to his online courses. At Norwich University, I’ve added blogs, wikis and webinars outside of our LMS to provide students with an opportunity to explore issues within the profession that interests them.
  • Schools are starting to attach social media “shells” to their LMS. GoingOn provides blogs and other forms of discussion that exist outside of the classroom to allow collaboration between students across the institution. For instance, all students in a business program can carry on discussions related to business outside of their particular courses. Learning Objects is another system that provides students with a “personal learning space” where they can create a blog, share sites, and collaborate in a variety of ways with like-minded students. It also allows clubs and departments to create Facebook-like sites to share information.
  • Schools are changing to an LMS built on social media principles, such as Drupal. An open source platform, Drupal gives faculty the flexibility to make student blogs the homepage of their course, rather than administrative functions, encouraging collaboration. Better yet, any part of a course can be made public so that students can engage in conversations with other students, faculty, or professionals in the field.

Education is changing, and social media is presenting a world of opportunity to improve learning outcomes.

Feedback
As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of this blog.

Resources
Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching
http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2530/2303

Learning Management Technologies: Enterprise Systems or Consumer Goods?
http://www.educause.edu/E09+Hybrid/EDUCAUSE2009FacetoFaceConferen/LearningManagementTechnologies/175842

Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network
http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/EnvisioningthePostLMSEraTheOpe/199389

The Traditional LMS is Dead: Looking to a Modularized Future
http://ideaentity.ning.com/profiles/blogs/the-traditional-lms-is-dead

Drupal: http://drupal.org/

GoingOn: http://goingon.com/

Learning Objects: http://www.learningobjects.com/

John Orlando, PhD, is the program director for the online Master of Science in Business Continuity Management and Master of Science in Information Assurance programs at Norwich University. John develops faculty training in online education and is available for consulting at jorlando@norwich.edu.


  • Keith

    Although I also favor the use of social media tools to support teaching and learning, there is one issue that can be a problem. With every faculty member sending students to her/his pet Web 2.0 tools, it can be confusing to students and lead to 'application fatigue'. ("Oh great, I have to sign up for yet another website for this new class….")

    I think the LMS still has important roles to play, not just for the secure gradebook and internal suite of learning activities, but as a central hub or launching pad from which students can access the suite of external tools that faculty may want to use. But it's critical then that the LMS itself be open, which is why we have adopted Moodle and why I'm such an advocate. So to add to your list of resources:
    Moodle community site: http://moodle.org.

    One other aspect that anyone wanting to use Web 2.0 applications needs to consider: what is the business model and potential for sustainability for your favorite outside tool. For example, how does Ning plan to make money in the long run, and what impact will that have on your use of it for a critical instructional tool?

  • Wayne

    John, I agree with the majority of your statements regarding diversifying tools and encouraging interaction, engagement and dialog. I have an issue with your slam of instructional designers.

    "As the systems grew more and more complex, they became more and more fragile, necessitating the new administrative function of instructional designer to manage the systems. Control of distance learning gradually shifted from faculty to administrator as instructional designers started dictating how online courses would look and function."

    The profession of instructional design did not evolve from the learning management system and really has little to do with technology. It is rooting in teaching and learning practice. Good designers are not seen as adversaries or controlling, they should work with the faculty members and media personal to help create a learning community and explore the impact of these new tools and processes. We have a pretty progressive social media strategy (with blogs, wikis, LMS, Adobe Connect centrally supported and drupal (ELMS – developed and released as open source), voice thread, google apps and ning used at various colleges), a large part of the success and practical application should be credited to faculty and designers working together to solve teaching & learning problems.

  • Wayne

    Good point Keith. What is your exit strategy when Posterous is purchased by Google? LMS or a portal for a class is essential, there needs to be integration. I like the model being developed by BYU and Canvas (which originated at BYU) because of the open integration model.

  • John

    Keith and Wayne:

    You are right about needing an exit strategy in case your platform gets purchased, but this applies just as much to the LMS. How many people have found their WebCT or Angel platform gobbled up by Blackboard? Plus, even sticking with one system like Blackboard requires implementing new versions, which often involves as much work as changing to a whole new system.

    Wayne, I agree that there does not need to be a struggle between faculty and instructional designers. Your school is way ahead of most in adopting Social Media, and using platforms like Moodle and Drupel. This demonstrates that you have the structure in place that avoids the battles being fought elsewhere. More institutions should be doing what you are doing.

    John

  • Sal

    I don't think it's a problem that the site you use get's purchased by someone since that ensures the site will be around and will get cash for upgrades. The more serious problem is that the site dies because of lack of revenue.
    There are many great tools out there and yes it can become tiresome to register for a bunch of sites across your classes but in the end I think it's worth it. May I also add Enterthegroup.com to the list web 2.0 tools for the classroom. This is a new site designed for managing group projects and classrooms online.

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