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Social Software: A Critical Review of Educational Worth

Paul Gartland

Education 6610
Memorial University of Newfoundland

October 14, 2008

Today’s students are part of the ‘digital age’, and they have access to information like

never before. In addition to being able access to a seemingly endless amount of information,

they also have the capacity to form connections with communities of individuals using a variety

of social applications. Terry Anderson (2008) proposes that in any online learning environment,

a variety of theories can be part of developing effective online learning experiences. From

behaviourist approaches for dissemination of factual information to constructivistapproaches,

they all have applications. For social software applications, however, the concentration is on

connectivism. A thorough discussion on connectivism is beyond the scope of this document, but

Siemens’ (2004) principles of connectivism are closely associated with the capabilities of social

software applications, namely the building of knowledge based on communities of learners and

the nodes of connections that they make.

Social software applications in and of themselves do nothing. The types of instructional

approaches used when designing effective learning opportunities must take advantage of what

these applications are capable of doing well, which in all cases involve collaboration of some

sort. One genre of social software applications is the wiki. Wikis are text-based delivery

vehicles that are collaborative in nature, due to their user-edited content. Robertson (2008) notes

in his study on collaborative, problem-based use of wikis, that although they are easy to use by

students and teachers, their usefulness is limited by the group dynamics. To be used effectively,

the membership of groups must be carefully considered and the roles of the members clearly

defined. As Williams (2008) points out though, wikis are valuable social software tools for

education, especially once the students have built trust in their learning community. Wikis can

be used so that students can build their knowledge in constructivist settings (Solvie, 2008), and

like blogs, can also serve as an electronic portfolio of a student(s)’ work.

Another of the primarily text-based social software applications is the blog (web log).

Blogs can provide opportunities for self-reflection and commentary from a social network. They

can serve as journals and student portfolios. (Shifflet, R., & Toledo, C. 2008) The blog author

can construct knowledge through reflective prose. Blogs, by way of their design and

configuration, can permit a network of learners to provide feedback. Similarly, the blog is

somewhat of a transcript of the learning process, if the instructional purpose is well-designed. In

a case study involving physiotherapy students (Ladyshewsky, R., & Gardner, P., 2008), they note

that the overall perception of using blogs was a positive one, with similar drawbacks to usage as

with the wiki. Group dynamics are an important factor, and a the instructional design must take

into account the timeliness of the initial reflective posting and subsequent commentary.

Facebookis one of the most popular social software applications currently available.

Traffic data from Alexa ( rank the Facebookwebsite as the third most accessed

in Canada, and fifth in the United States. With such popularity, how can it be leveraged for

effective teaching and learning? An obvious fit is within the realm of communication. Williams

(2008) envisions not only using applications such as Facebookfor teaching traditional concepts

of writing, but also for critical analysis of media, networking and collaboration and sharing of

knowledge. One concern of a commercial application such as Facebookis the lack of control one

has over the membership and the legitimacy of the content. Just as there can be discord in a real

community, social networks are not immune. Bullying can be detrimental side-effect of using

social software in education, whether it is spill over from online battles from home to school or

the reverse. (Goddard, 2008)

There arenumerous social software applications in addition to the ones mentioned here.

Others such as MySpace, Windows Live Spaces, Flickr,, and so on are the places

students frequent. They have a comfort zone in there use, and have a community established.
Taking advantage of the students’ preferred means of communicating can facilitate instruction.

Teachers must be open to collaboration and sharing, and open their classroom doors to the digital

corridors students travel daily.


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