Landing : Athabascau University

Moving the social networked learning (the Landing) forward

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By George Siemens July 8, 2010 - 2:12pm Comments (4)

The Landing is progressing nicely since our launch earlier this year. We're continuing to deploy (and develop) new plugins to improve the functionality of the service. 

Social Glue

Jon Dron frequently uses the term "social glue" to describe the Landing. Traditional campuses have social spaces where learners can interact with each other on topics and interests of their choosing (and even study groups). These social spaces may not directly support academic activity, but they are critical for the formation of learner identity and sense of connectedness to the university. Within AU, the Landing will hopefully serve to increase social interaction, learner connectedness to AU, and identity development for both the learner and the university.

Social glue, however, requires a different metric of evaluation than online courses. It requires a certain level of trust on the part of AU to advance and promote social interactions that are not shaped and driven by the university. It requires a different view of success as well. Developing a new program can be assessed on a cost input/output basis. How can social connectedness be measured? How will AU know if the Landing is successful?

For Teaching

We (TEKRI and CLDD) recently ran a networked course on Teaching and Learning in Social and Technological Networks. The course focused on how faculty and staff can use the Landing as an educational tool. Obvious uses include: blogs, wikis, discussion forums, groups, image sharing, micro-blogging, and splicing information streams as "collections". The entire course was conducted in the Landing so participants could get a sense of the initial somewhat disorienting "centre-lessness" of networked courses. 

This is only one perspective. Faculty can use the Landing to augment existing moodle courses or as a program-wide social connection. Going back to the traditional university example: social spaces have a permanence that courses do not. If you're completing a degree at University of Manitoba, classes and courses are held all over campus and locations fluctuate from term to term. But the gathering places for studying and for interacting with friends are more permanent: libraries, pub, eating areas, student commons. In this sense, at AU, the Landing is to Moodle as social spaces are to courses in a typical university.

How to start with social networking (the Landing)?

Most use of social networking tools in higher education are currently driven by individual faculty: a prof decides to add a facebook component to a course...or to use blogs for learning journals...or to use delicious for resource sharing. This model is a great start. But more is needed. For maximum impact, the social networking needs to be implemented at a program level - particularly in self-paced open enrolment programs.

This approach helps in the formation of social spaces that have permanence beyond individual courses. Even though learners may not interact extensively with each other during the course, social spaces create "trailing identities" that are valuable in developing a sense of community and connectedness to AU and the program. Social interactions have a social presence that continues to exist well after the interaction has ended. I frequently encounter conversations on blogs from a year ago or so...and as I read the discussion, I feel a better sense of connectedness to the ideas and people involvement than I possibly could through only an article. Social presence trails well past the initial interaction.

Thinking larger

To foster these types of interactions, programs need to think about social networking tools at a higher level than an individual course (for obvious reasons - a course is a short-term construct whereas social spaces have greater permanence). Designers, deans, and faculty should plan for social interaction at the program-level: design for social interaction between courses much in the same way that social interaction (in Moodle) is often designed into courses). 

Most learners tend to the social. They seek interactions, connectedness. Sometimes, however, these interactions require a bit of social lubrication. To this end, a program director (or designer) should plan to include social events and activities in their Landing group: planned conversations, Q & A, recorded tutorials, live interactions (in Elluminate or on Skype), treasure hunts, etc.

Social connectedness needs nurturing. While we are still at the early stages or research on this, my bias is that successful uses of the Landing at a program level will be determined by fostering intentional and planned social activities. But this isn't really anything new, is it? Any successful community has regular social events and activities - concerts, festivals, and community suppers. Finding out how to best lubricate social interactions is an important area of research.

Making the Landing more intelligent

Social learning networks represent the future of education. By extrapolation of that unbiased statement :), the Landing is an important component of AU's future. As an online university, Athabasca should be focused on researching and understanding the nature of social interactions in networks. That's where TEKRI comes in. TEKRI has a threefold focus: mobile technologies, personalization and adaptation, and social networks and media (I'd like to add a fourth: learning analytics).

There is some obvious exchange of information across all three research areas, but I think the connections need to be made more explicit. In particular: how can we make the Landing more intelligent? How can we use the landing as a test-bed for basic research? How can we integrate mobiles and personalization/adaptation into social networks?

If that line of reasoning is extended, we soon bump up against questions about "what is a course"? What is the role of educators in social networks? How does self-paced learning with trailing social identity compare with cohort-based learning? What new tools are needed? What types of skills do educators and learners need in this environment?

I'm eager to discover the amplification effects of integrating mobiles and personalization into the Landing. Integration of these three research areas will have far greater impact than stand alone activities. After all, integration, not information, is power.


  • In my whole week of blogging, I've found that the greatest advantages to the Landing may well be at the inter-program and alumni-current student levels.  That might well be where you get perspectives quite different from those in your own course/program discussions.  It also probably bodes well for the Landing being the "glue" between self-paced learners at varying points in their academic journeys. 

    Tanya Elias July 8, 2010 - 7:20pm

  • Actually I prefer the term 'social velcro' - it's sometimes as important to unstick and reassemble as it is to stick. 

    There are many other communities that make up our broader learning community at Athabasca that are, IMHO, equally important as the academic aspects on the learning journey - administrators, technicians, researchers, designers, librarians, kitchen staff and cleaners, to name but a few. I also believe there is huge potential for sustaining connections with alumni and even passers-through taking the occasional course.

    I've talked in the past about the importance of enabling people to be all that they can be through education, and that is only partially to do with the subjects and skills that we teach. For any graduate, the things learnt through the formal courses and programs at university are at best a large part and probably the minority of the deeper lessons, which are seldom taught and even more seldom spoken of. It's about learning to see the world in a richer way, to be part of a scholarly community with some shared and some contested ideals and norms, to learn from models, good and bad, demonstrated by others and a whole lot more. I guess it's about culture, and culture is mighty hard to achieve in a highly distributed and, for all the small islands of connectedness the university provides, a largely disconnected way. What we have right now are many very loosely connected cultures bound by a small number of threads and some shared identity and rules. I think one of the most valuable things the Landing can help with is enabling that culture to evolve in a complex, multi-faceted, deeply connected way. That's one of the things I mean by 'velcro' (it also relates to the technical facilitation of connections between our systems, but that's another issue!).

    Jon Dron July 9, 2010 - 2:27pm

  • I like the "velcro" visualization as for me it highlights the potential for dynamic relationships within a network and facilitates creative solutions. I believe with an increased focus on the networks related to programs and domains of interests it will allow the AU network to be strengthened.

    Can anyone comment on the perspective of whether physical, facebook and landing social spaces will be different? I would suggest they would be different because they are driven by the goals of the network, so while the need for a social space exists in all three how they should be implemented will be different.



    Eric von Stackelberg July 9, 2010 - 5:35pm

  • Yes, I agree that they are and will continue to be very different, for all sorts of reasons. One of them (I think a pretty large part) lies in the opportunities they provide and the ways of acting that the constraints and affordances encourage, discourage, prevent or enforce. Another reason is that social systems are not only the tools but assemblies of a host of other soft and emerging technologies - patterns, processes, norms, rules and so on that govern how we interact in different circumstances. It's also a profoundly human thing in which our relationships with each other lead to emergent and probably contingent, historically determined forms that will always be unique to the context. But it's all (as Terry Anderson puts it) a dance, with each change and intervention affecting and being affected by most of the rest, and there are always going to be overlaps and intersections, so the lines are fuzzy and shifting.

    I think the existing communities and divisions such as programs, courses, research groupings and so on will play a large part in driving the system, but the deeper dynamics of overlapping groups, weak connections, serendipitous encounters and emerging social forms need to be nurtured and encouraged if we are to gain the power of diversity to enable creative, rich and vibrant social learning.

    Jon Dron July 12, 2010 - 10:27am

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