At my university, we have something called ’learning platforms’. In our case, they are called Cambro and Moodle and their main use is for communication between students and teachers in courses and programmes. I am sure most universities today use things like these. They are inventions that result from the idea that computer-mediated communication and — in later years — social media may be of economic as well as pedagogic benefit for education institutions. They help when organizing distance courses, and adds an extra dimension to campus courses.
That the learning platforms are aimed to gain from the affordances of computer-mediated communication and social media shows in how they are constructed. Commonly used services are chats, blogs, forums, ’e-meeting rooms’, messaging, and audio and/or video hosting. I am the first person to applaud the introduction of such tools in teaching. In themselves — if used in the right ways — they certainly have the potential to add new levels of interactivity, and even creativity, to the drowsy routine of lecture, seminar, lecture, seminar, lecture, seminar.
But however well constructed, well functioning and welcome the learning platforms are, I can’t help but feeling that we could do more, better, or maybe even something else.
When I give talks for politicians who want to know how to use social media most effectively, I tell them to go where the people are. Don’t put your money into designing a static website that very few people will visit. Focus instead of entering a variety of social media flows that are already active. When I give advice to media companies that want to encourage audience participation, I say the same thing: Don’t build your own copy of Facebook. Start a Facebook page! Don’t waste time and energy bringing people to your own gated discussion forum. Go on Twitter! To schoolteachers who want to find ways of working with visual methods in the classrom I say: Go on YouTube! I don’t say this to support Facebook, Twitter or Google (who owns YouTube) as companies. I say it because we can’t benefit fully from social media dynamics by building our own little enclosed systems.
Let’s compare learning platforms with e-mail lists and static Web 1.0 websites. What can we do with learning platforms that we cannot do with these 1990’s tools? Posting the course schedule and study guide is just as easy with the old tools. Electronically handing in papers and assignments is just as easy. Getting a discussion going in the group is just as easy. Reaching everyone quickly is just as easy, etc. But since learning platforms have functions like video, blogs and forums, it seems as if they aim to reach further than this. I think, however, that it is extremely hard — if at all possible — to harvest the fruits of social media while being on a platform that is isolated from the rest of the Internet.
Collective intelligence. The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others.
Transmedia navigation. The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities.
Negotiation. The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms, etc.
Gaining from the power of social media, drawing on literacies like these, obviously demands loosening up the boundaries between the digital presence of the study programme/course and other online social networks. It also requires that students move far beyond the learning platform to meaningfully sample, remix and critically relate to other content that can be incorporated into the learning experience.
But are we really ready to post our lectures on YouTube? Can we start a Facebook group instead of having a course site on a ’learning platform’, live tweet seminars using a course hashtag, or collaboratively collect course resources on Pinterest? What about letting students edit the Wikipedia entry about a theory instead of writing a paper on it?
Please bear with me. I know very little about the Privacy Protection Law (PUL) and other regulations and considerations that play into this. Indeed, social media involves a loss of control and it raises a number of issues regarding openness and even philosophical questions about what a university should be. But if we allow ourselves to be visionary — doesn’t it seem strange to incorporate new media literacies into higher education by way of gated learning communities?