Recently, I have been using a new social media platform to run one of my classes. The idea was, that as we are studying social informatics, we could study the effect of using social media on our own workflows first hand. I also thought that – in these days of daily Facebook and Twitter use – a social media site would add some relevance to the class. My thinking was that the “right-brain” expression that Daniel Pink  extolls as critical to motivation in the 21st Century – the design, narrative, synthesis, empathy, play and sensemaking skills – would be enabled by the use of social media (Pink, 2005). The site has a WIKI, blogs, discussion forums, and an interactive chat facility. I was proposing that we used Google+ hangout for short class discussions by video. For the first week, I set students the task to post to the WIKI, to post to their own blog, to locate some web readings, and to join Google+ if they had not already done so.

By Thursday (from a Monday start), almost all of the students had posted to the discussion forum. Several had asked me questions by email. But no-one had posted to the Blog or the WIKI. By Friday, two of the more technologically-literate students had made blog posts. But most of the activity was still on the discussion forums – and only three students had provided me with Google+ contact details. Then I started to question my own assumptions. All of the students had used Blackboard for their online course access, which revolves around an asynchronous discussion board. So they were used to interacting via an asynchronous forum. I had assumed that they would be excited to use more “social” media for class interactions or for sharing what they had discovered about the topic. But how did this fit into their idea of how they would behave in an online class? Very badly. Most students sign up for online courses because this provides them with choices about what to do, when. They have a low learning-curve for using a discussion forum. Anything else is hard work.

Clay Shirky talks about the cognitive surplus that is available from zillions of digitally-literate people with mundane jobs and untapped creativity. He argues that this expresses itself in the groundswell of free, open source software initiatives and in the crowdsourcing phenomenon (Shirky, 2010). But graduate students with a full-time job are already using their cognitive surplus in grappling with new areas of learning. My assumption that they may have some left over for experimenting with social media may be false. The problem is that the learning curve gets in the way of the “right-brain” expression that I wanted to encourage. I may need to rethink how far experimenting with social media is constraining people’s’ ability to express themselves.

Daniel Pink  (2005) A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Berkely Publishing: New York.
Pink (2005) Revenge Of The Right Brain, Wired Magazine, Feb. 2005.
Clay Shirky (2010) Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Penguin Press: New York.
Clay SHirky (2010) An Extract From Cognitive Surplus. Wired Magazine, Business Video, June 16, 2010.
Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink  (2010) Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution. Wired Magazine, June 2010.

Designing Social Media Platforms For Online Learning

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