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Social Networking Sites A New Educational Tool Information Technology Essay

This paper presents the influences of social networking sites on student education. Highlighted as major applications of Web 2.0 technologies, SNSs offer three main characteristics: personalization, socialization, and transparency.

The article goal is to discuss the advantages and the drawbacks of using social networking in the academical environment by students sharing information from their own experience, ideas and knowledge. Also, we present a model of interactivity teacher-learner using social software methods while maintaining a professional relationship with students.

Key words: social networking site, e-learning, web 2.0

JEL Classification: A13, O31

Introduction

In the last years we assist to a whole new orientation on teenagers’ life which is reflected also in their education: a step-by-step isolation from the real world and a powerful socialization in the newly-created virtual worlds. In this paper we try to define this migration and to emphasize the advantages of socialization forms on student’s education.

The term „social software” is used in many different contexts, and the different technologies covered by the term are not developed for educational purposes. The concept of educational social software was introduced by Terry Anderson (Anderson et al., 2005) within a context of distance education as networked tools that support and encourage individuals to learn together while retaining individual control over their time, space, presence, activity, identity and relationship.

Social software is a very difficult to define concept to define not only because it includes a wide range of different technologies, but the social aspect of the application often emerges from a combined use of these technologies. The examples of social software technologies include social networking sites, weblogs, wikis, RSS feeds and social bookmarking.

The concept of social networking site describes a global phenomenon, that can be defined as web-based services that allow individuals to build a public profile within a bounded system, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system (Boyd et al., 2007).

Social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter may be considered tools of the e-learning system because they facilitate the transparency and flexibility of student works, development of ideas and sharing thoughts. Also, we consider that teachers may cooperate using social networks for educators and realize the interaction with their students by weblogs.

This paper will discuss how this approach may be used within university environment by students sharing information and resources that are originally developed for themselves, but made available to others.

Social learning theory implemented by Social Networking Sites

First, it’s necessary to prove the connection between the forms of social infrastructures and e-learning. Thus, two important researchers Dron and Anderson (Dron & Anderson, 2007) have developed a model for network learning that focuses on learning in three levels of aggregation of students in either formal or informal learning:

The group - consists of individuals who accept themselves as part of that whole. The group is often structured around particular tasks or activities that may be term-based or ongoing. Some groups may institute various types of access control to restrict participation or transcripts to members so as to provide a less public domain in which to operate. Group members often use and create opportunities to meet face-to-face or online through group synchronous activities. Classic examples of groups include online education classes and short or long term business teams.

The learning network - an ensemble of actors, institutions and learning resources which are mutually connected through and supported by information and communication technologies in such a way that the network self-organizes. Learners may be connected to other learners either directly or indirectly and may not even be aware of all those who take part in the wider network. Entry in and exit from networks is usually easy and persons drift in and out of network activity and participation based on relevance, time availability and other personal constraints. Many of the social networking sites such as Facebook, Linked In and MySpace are recent web examples of network support and facilitation tools, but earlier email lists and threaded discussions can also support networked learning.

The collective - is machine-aggregated representation of the activities of large number of individuals. It achieves value by extracting information from the individual, group, and network activities of large numbers of networked users. There are many so called web 2.0 applications that create value through aggregation and analysis of collective activities such as user clickthroughs (Google PageRanks), informational contributions (Wikipedia), photo, video tags and downloads (Flickr, YouTube) and article evaluations (Digg, SlashDot). For example storing one’s favorite Internet resources on a social site can have individual benefit as the resource can easily be retrieved, organized and managed by that individual owner. These resources, especially when they are aggregated with recommendations from others, could be very useful to group or network members.

In respect of the described model, the concept of networked learning defines the connections among learners, learners and tutors, and among learners and the resources used in learning process (Anderson, 2006). Further, it’s necessary to establish a direct line between e-learning activities and different types of social relations. Through e-learning active processes students are directed to solve problems and to achieve a goal, increasing the importance of the individual activities. Also, this approach means that individual efforts serve as an objective, which relates to an overall collective activity. We observe the reflection of individual activities in relation to others, which implies the starting point of social networks, based on awareness and collaboration.

But not all kinds of social relations are possible within e-learning environment. For instance, there is a distinction between the relations established in a study group working on same project and the relations among individuals within the same course. The second case indicates a type of educational work on related subjects, but not collaborating. At universities it can be difficult for students to follow the activity of other colleagues, since they have their own assignments. However, they can use each other’s resources, if they consider relevant. This kind of relations (socio-cultural) may be equivalent with a tool for online education.

Social networking sites are websites used to support such type of individual networks, called also “networks developed on the basis of individual relations” (Boyd et al., 2007). Each individual has his own unique relations and it’s rarely seen the case when people have the same relations. SNSs are different to the media sharing sites that evolve around media information or to the discussion forums, in which communication happens in a shared environment, whereas their starting point is socialization.

The basis for social interaction in SNS is the personal profile, usually a webpage created by the individual. Choosing the look and the content information such as texts, pictures, videos and links, the individual uses the opportunities for personalization, his own representation on the web. The profile page is personal, but not private, in the sense that it can be made public in the individual’s network. Also, the personal profile provides a basis and a starting point for socialization that begins when an individual’s personal page is connected to other personal pages, building his own network of personal relations (“friends”) (Dwyer, 2007).

The communication in social networks is achieved by classic ways (sending messages, adding comments on personal page) or by the new way of notification, meaning the announcement of friends whenever a personal page is modified or a person performs an action within the networking site. This indirect form of communication by editing, developing and updating personal services shows that the SNS works based on transparency principle.

Web 2.0 – a new version of World Wide Web?

The social networking sites use the concept of Web 2.0 which is commonly associated with web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration on the World Wide Web (Boyd et al., 2007). A Web 2.0 site allows its users to interact with other users or to change website content, in contrast to non-interactive websites where users are limited to the passive viewing of information that is provided to them. Although the term suggests a new version of the World Wide Web, it does not refer to an update of any technical specifications, but rather to cumulative changes concerning the ways to use Web 1.0 for both categories: software developers and end-users.

Figure 1 presents the architecture of the Social Networking Sites, which is Web 1.0 based. Other examples of Web 2.0 include web-based communities, hosted services, web applications, video-sharing sites, wikis and blogs.

SOCIAL NETWORKING SITE Components

WEB SITE

Personal profiles

Social site services

Relation networks

Information to share

Security Services

Social Networking Services

Content and Applications

Fig. 1. The architecture of the Social Networking Site

The client-side/web browser technologies typically used in Web 2.0 development, called RIA (Rich Internet Applications), are:

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax),

Adobe Flash and the Adobe Flex framework,

Microsoft Silverlight applications,

HTML 5 (recently defined components).

Ajax programming uses JavaScript to upload and download new data from the web server without undergoing a full page reload. To permit the user to continue to interact with the page, communications such as data requests going to the server are separated from data coming back to the page (asynchronously). Otherwise, the user would have to wait for the data to come back before they can do anything else on that page, just as a user has to wait for a page to complete the reload. This also increases overall performance of the site, as the sending of requests can be completely independent of blocking and queueing required to send data back to the client. The data fetched by an Ajax request is typically formatted in XML or JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) format, two widely used structured data formats. Since both of these formats are understood by JavaScript, a programmer can easily use them to transmit structured data in their web application. When this data is received via Ajax, the JavaScript program then uses the Document Object Model (DOM) to dynamically update the web page based on the new data, allowing for a rapid and interactive user experience. Using these techniques, Web designers can make their pages function like desktop applications (S. Buraga, 2001).

The critics of the term claim that Web 2.0 does not represent a new version of the World Wide Web, giving two arguments:

The techniques such as AJAX do not replace underlying protocols like HTTP, but add an additional layer of abstraction on top of them.

Some ideas of Web 2.0 had already been featured in implementations on networked systems well before the term Web 2.0 emerged. For example, Amazon.com has allowed users to write reviews and consumer guides since its launch in 1995, in a form of self-publishing.

Advantages and drawbacks of SNS used in university environment

In terms of Web 2.0's social impact, critics such as Andrew Keen argue that Web 2.0 (Keen, 2007) has created a cult of digital narcissism and amateurism, which undermines the notion of expertise by allowing anybody, anywhere to share – and place undue value upon – their own opinions about any subject and post any kind of content regardless of their particular talents, knowledgeability. The core assumption of Web 2.0, that all opinions and user-generated content are equally valuable and relevant, is misguided and is instead "creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary, unseemly home videos, embarrassingly amateurish music, unreadable poems, essays and novels".

Beyond the criticism, the extension of SNSs is more and more important. Thus, Facebook increased its dominance of the online social networking market and recorded in December 2009 about 110 million unique visitors. MySpace is the second-most popular SNS, having 50 million of visitors that represents a decrease in comparison with 2008. Twitter recorded 18 million visitors in December 2009, a considerable growth from 3 million visitors in comparison with previous year. The evolution of the SNSs visitors is shown in figure 2 (Andrew, 2010).

Fig. 2. The US visitors of Social Networking Sites

There are several social networks for educators where they may share their ideas, lessons and best practices without direct interaction with students, such as:

The Apple - where teachers meet and learn;

Classroom 2.0 – the popular social networking site for educators;

Classroom Earth - a social network for environmental education created in partnership between the Weather Channel and the National Environmental Education Foundation;

Educate Interactive – the educational community with opportunities to connect and collaborate in order to share resources and lessons;

TeachAde - the online community for teachers (figure 3):

Fig. 3. A teacher profile on TeachAde Social Network

In this context it’s essential for students, a major segment from SNS users, to formulate and find answers to the a major question: what is the educational potential of social networking within an university environment?

The three main characteristics of social networks (personalization, socialization and transparency) are relevant for distance education. Transparency in student relations offers flexibility to education with continuous enrollment and examination. A challenge of flexible education is to get students to engage in joint work. Transparency means that students are visible to each other as potential partners and resources. Further, the starting point is the problem-oriented individual or a group working together on a common project.

To follow the outlined socio-cultural approach, an important objective is to support an individual’s consciousness and awareness of activities of others.

This can be achieved by development and use of personal tools, which first support the activities of the individual or group. It’s now possible to use the personal tools as the basis of social networks. Students can connect to and subscribe to personal tools of other students. The result is a different kind of transparency than in discussion forums. Whereas discussion forums and other tools for direct communication and collaboration focus on direct sharing, social networking can support students’ indirect sharing of resources, thoughts, ideas, productions, writings, notes, etc. This kind of sharing can provide students with insights into the workings of other students, and, thus, give them an increased awareness of the activities of other students (Ellison, 2007).

So, it’s obviously that the educational potential lies within developing social networks, where students share their individual or group activities. The potential is to support transparency through a combination of personalization and socialization.

A model of the interactivity teacher-learner using social software methods

In e-learning process we defined a model that includes the collaborative activities to the traditional method. At the moment this may be considered a research method because it is experimented on students or groups of students that accepted the cooperation. The scheme of our experiment is presented in figure 4.

That scheme means:

Teachers may cooperate using several social networks for educators:

It’s important for maintain a professional relationship with students, so our recommendations is to not accept students as “friends” of teachers by using profiles on SNS;

Teachers may build their own weblogs for courses or projects:

It’s an appropriate way to develop communication with students and increase the effectiveness of education activity by using weblogs;

Students have their own SNS, the most popular being MySpace, Twitter, MySpace:

They can work to some projects and this connection develops teamwork skills;

They may initiate friendships with other students but not with their teachers;

The interaction teacher-learner is made by comments and questions addressed on teacher weblogs:

For educators this the most appropriate way of dialogues;

The student interaction with his teacher is beneficial for his support and for surveying the evolution of his activity.

Social Networking sites (MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter)

Social network for educators

Weblog T1

Weblog T2

Teacher 1

Teacher 2

Teacher n

Weblog Tn

Student 1

Student 2

Student m

Fig 4. The model of the interactivity teacher-learner

Our experiment is at the beginning, we have selected the students and we have built teachers group on Education networks. Two teachers have built their blogs (fig. 5) and then they have posted the courses and the plans for seminars.

Figure 5. An example of teacher weblog with student comments

Now we collect their comments and we wait their ideas about the subject of social networking sites. Also, we are interested in the perception of this teaching method so we sent them a questionnaire about this subject.

The interview results demonstrate that the most part of students choose to participate in collaborative activities, there is a significant interest in enhanced forms of interaction with teachers and other students.

Conclusions

Every implementation of e-learning depends on the chosen pedagogical approach. A discussion of the educational potential of social software, and other tools, needs to be started from the point of view of an understanding and description of specific learning activities (Dalsgaard, 2006).

Problem-based activities describe a learning process in which students are directed at solving a problem. It’s important for a social network approach that a student tries to solve the problem him or herself. Students' self-governed and problem-solving activities are considered the focal point of a learning process. This conception of a learning process means that it’s not possible to structure or pre-determine the students' activities in a learning activity – the activities must develop on the basis of the student's own problem-solving abilities. Students' activities in constructivist learning environments are initiated by a problem or project.

In the final section of this paper and based on the foregoing, we propose to continue that learning experiences by enlarging the interactivity teacher-learner without affecting the quality of student education.

The analysis presented above shows the approach between e-learning and social software technologies to empower both teachers and students in their self-governed activities.

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