Make way for virtual learning communities

Filed Under (e-learning, New Media, Science publishing) by Mark A.-W. on 25-03-2009 and tagged , ,

When I worked as director of publications at the Soil and Water Conservation Society, I set up the SWCS network. Within minutes of invitations being sent out, people started joining, posting information, and forming groups on a variety of topics of interest to them—conservation photography, water quality monitoring, cover crops, etc.swcsnetwork

The networking technology was a necessary component, but one of the most interesting aspects of the network was the social experience. Members of the network began voluntarily taking on the responsibility of welcoming other new members. Old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years, separated by geography, “bumped into each other” in forums in which they shared an interest.

The content generated in the network was user-centered. The old model of experts delivering information to audiences was, in this context, replaced by a network of individuals sharing information according to the needs of the network members.

So, I started thinking, social networks are social and technological, but are they educational? To answer that question, I had to start to understand the concept of social learning.

Social learning
Social learning “is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions” (John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler in EDUCAUSE Review).

In short, you are more likely to learn if you have an opportunity to ask questions, discuss with others, and apply the information in a social context.

Bingo. These are exactly the features that social networking technologies make available to online communities.

But that obviously isn’t all you need. Social networking has been weaving its way into almost every Internet environment, but most instances are not what you would call educational.

Another necessary component is content, and that requires knowledge and expertise.

Social networks and the publishing industry
One of our traditional vehicles for transporting content knowledge from experts to audiences has been publishing.

If the objective is to communicate content to audiences in ways that the audiences actually learn, “social network publishing” may be a more effective mechanism than traditional publication publishing because it taps into the power of social learning.

Periodical publishing seems a particularly likely candidate for migration to a social network because the audiences served are existing communities with shared sets of interests—whether they be regional, topical, or demographical.

In fact many publishers in the past few years have been redefining themselves—and their audiences—using social media. Does this sound familiar:

Yesterday you were a subscriber. Today you are a member of a network. Yesterday you were a reader of newspapers, magazines, or books. Today you are a participant in your communities of interest.

Many publishers now see themselves in a new role vis-à-vis their audiences. They are now providers of “opportunities for edification and involvement rather than just a provider of serial subscriptions” (David Leslie in the Journal of Mammalogy).

Here are some examples:

You don’t have to go far to find a newspaper that has implemented a social network to provide its readers/subscribers opportunities to comment on stories, post photos, or join forums on their favorite topics. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s network is called “My.STLtoday.” Here in Oregon, the Willamette Valley newspapers recently launched a community network, “Midvalley Voice.”

The newspaper model of social networking often capitalizes on a local community’s interest in being involved in local news, photos, sports, etc.

Some magazines with a loyal following around a specific interest area have successfully broadened their relationship with readers—from subscriber base to membership community.

For example, Rolling Stone’s community network allows members to review albums and “participate in forums with Rolling Stone editors.” Kiwibox is an online magazine and social network in one. The target audience, teens, can build their profiles, establish relationships, and consume and contribute to content. Scouter is a publication and online community for people involved in Scouting. The network allows members to read articles, join forums, and post comments.

The viability of magazine-based social networks seems to rely on the community’s passion for the topic.

Science publishing has also entered the brave new world of social media. The Nature Publishing Group, for example, hosts a very active social network. Members can self-select regions and topics to participate in groups and forums of interest to them.

Many professional and scientific society publishers are using social network technologies to enhance member benefits in ways that complement their publishing activities. The American Chemical Society network allows members and subscribers to network with colleagues, share recent work and ideas, and participate in discussion forums.

Who is going to provide our social learning networks?
Some of the potential benefits of “social network publishing” are on the publisher’s side—improved target marketing, increased brand exposure, strengthened customer loyalty, etc. Publishing companies may or may not be able to tap into these benefits enough to overcome the financial challenges that currently face the publishing industry.

But it doesn’t need to be the traditional publishers who shoulder the transition to social network publishing. In the context of educational publishing, for example, universities or nonprofits could facilitate social networks that bring together content experts, communicators, and interested audiences.

These ideal learning-focused social networks would be member-centered (member interests and needs determine what information is generated and what form it takes) and socially interactive (the content is socially processed as members add and share information). In other words, social learning, thanks to technology.

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6 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Mark Anderson-Wilk on 26 March, 2009 at 11:31 am #

Did anyone notice that this post on social networks did not mention Facebook? Yes, it is possible to write about social networks without talking about fb. Here is an interesting blog on niche social networking:

labellec on 1 April, 2009 at 1:37 pm #

Mark, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being an open or closed community from the perspective of getting a new virtual community off the ground?

Mark Anderson-Wilk on 1 April, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

The decision whether to have an open or closed community flows primarily from the purpose the network. For example, a closed network would work better for a known group of people who want to communicate just within the group. An open network, on the other hand, might work better for an interest-oriented community where the members want to expand contacts and benefit from a growing variety of perspectives.

I am involved in numerous networks, and it seems to me that the success of online communities is largely dependent on the members and how passionate they feel about the community’s area of focus.

In this respect, closed communities may be at a disadvantage because they are more reliant on the sustained activity of a limited group of people (only those who meet the criteria and are the type of people to be active on a network). Open communities, on the other hand, experience more refreshing of their populations with new, unexpected members.

Because members aren’t required to meet a set of criteria in an open community, participation is likely to include a wider range of contributions. In many (not all) contexts, this is a positive thing.

Open communities also tend to better represent their members, as opposed to being organized around a network administrator’s goals. For the community to be community centered seems to me to be one of the most important things about social networks.

Some other important factors influence the open/closed community decision. In the case of the SWCS network, we didn’t want to limit it to dues-paying members for two reasons: (1) that would create a future administrative burden of policing the network for people who have not paid dues and (2) that would limit the secondary benefit of exposing new people to the Soil and Water Conservation Society and the conservation work being shared on the network.

By the way, restrictions can also be placed at the group level rather than the whole network level.

meena on 11 May, 2009 at 8:56 am #

Thanks For infromation

john on 1 July, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

Nice information.

Private Schools Australia on 14 March, 2012 at 4:06 am #

I think that the success of online communities is largely dependent on the members and how passionate they feel about the community’s area of focus.

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