Last week I had the pleasure of being at the SocialLearn workshop held for OU students, staff (including many Associate Lecturers - the vital members of staff who act as learning mentors to students) and alumni to discuss and get input for the SocialLearn project (a next-generation educational social network platform, more information can be found in Martin Weller's slideshow). A few of the participants have already written blog posts describing their experience of the event, Jo Badge asked if this is a new OU philosophy, Nigel Gibson reflected that the event was a chance to "an opportunity to share space with some really imaginative, smart, intelligent, bright, awesomely clever and switched-on people", ok I like that quote I have to admit! Martin Weller reflected on the use of Twitter and how it added an extra dimension to the workshop. I've been working with my OU colleagues Nick Freear and Alex Little to produce some add-on applications for the platform, early forms of which were demonstrated. I also got the chance to run a small spin off workshop (for the first time) to explore scenarios for the use of mobile technology with SocialLearn.
It was great to spend time with people who are very keen on exploring the possibilities of Web 2.0 in education and they are very clued up as well. There were various presentations to explain different aspects of the platform, and the presentation I was involved in was to demonstrate three different plug in applications all interacting with SocialLearn to help somebody achieve a goal they had set themselves. Using a story to illustrate how these applications would be used was a very useful method, concepts are so much easier to grasp this way, and people could easily think of similar situations where they could use the technology. Our demonstration was well received I think and people seemed genuinely excited by the potential of the platform and the fact it will be possible to extend it with 3rd party applications, bringing infinite possibilities.
The workshop did not just consist of presentations though, everybody brought laptops (I noticed a few EEEs there too) and hooked into the provided WiFi so they could interact. Simon Buckingham Shum, who organised the workshop, set up a Ning community for participants that provided many facilities including a place to get to find out a bit about the other attendees through profiles and a forum system to capture the proceedings and discussions. Interestingly though, another phenomenon made itself felt: microblogging. Not everybody was involved in this, but the majority were, and even a couple of people who hadn't tried it before decided to jump in and give it a go. Two services were in use, the old favourite Twitter and a newcomer, complete with its unusual but strangely compelling user interface; Plurk. As Jo mentioned, some of us had "met" before (in the sense that we communicated over Twitter and Plurk), and it is a bit odd in a way to meet somebody "in real life" who you have been communicating with for a fair while anyway, but still a nice experience. During the whole event people were communicating in this way, sharing ideas, forming ideas, even reflecting on the marvelousness of free chocolate. All of this created quite an amazing communications experience, and helped towards generating a real buzz. There might be some who would say this intercommunication is a bit of a Borg-like idea, but I think it gave the workshop a real edge, the chance for everyone to be continually involved, to contribute and discuss. We only had about twenty-four hours together so this made sure we could get the most out of it. Martin commented that he thought having this channel of communication more visible would have helped the workshop. Maybe a project like Twitterspaces would offer clues on how this might work.
I've heard a lot of discussion about the digital divide, and how Generation Y have an advantage with Web 2.0 technology, but the workshop has left me unconvinced about such arguments. I noticed that a feature of a lot of the participants was that they were located remotely from the main OU campus. This is true of virtually all of our students and Associate Lecturers, even many central academic staff are dotted around the country so can miss out on that peer interaction you would get at a workplace or traditional campus. Services such as Twitter can create these connections and more, you can get to know people regardless of physical distance. I'm wondering here if the old saying "necessity is the mother of invention" is useful here? The need to connect to peers in this case has been met by Twitter, rather than in a more traditional face-to-face sense. Those who are not persuaded now might be when they see a benefit in it for them, acquiring the skills might not be such and uphill struggle with such a prize in sight. This must be particularly true for distance education. Now we are thinking outside of physical distance, using the power of social networking sites, it will be possible to get a much wider range of people interacting which should lead to some exciting results in the educational sector with SocialLearn.
If all of that sounded rather interesting you'll be glad that there is going to be another workshop aimed at the wider community on 1st-2nd July near Milton Keynes in the UK. Further details are here: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/socialearn/2008/06/20/sociallearn-workshop2/