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Posts Tagged ‘MySpace’

Among the many social networking sites (SNS) that have emerged in recent years, Ning stands out as a unique and useful tool for educators. Ning is a Web 2.0 tool that allows users to create their own social network. Although the company has only existed for five years (i.e., 2005), Ning has proven to be a powerful, attractive and free tool for SNS enthusiasts.

One of the most appealing features of Ning allows users to produce an original social network that focuses on a particular topic. In addition, creators can customize the features, widgets and design of this SNS. The user-friendly interface and easy setup is perhaps the greatest component of this creative opportunity.

As mentioned earlier, Ning is a free application, but the tradeoff for this free access is a series of adds posted on each page of the SNS. However, these ads are not intrusive and quickly fade away as one focuses on the content of the page. If a user desires to eliminate ads, then Ning offers ad-free SNS for a fee.

I enjoyed creating a Ning website for this assignment. The variety of tools offered within Ning allowed for a great deal of imagination on each page. I chose to construct a SNS for a Music Appreciation class that will be taught in the coming school year. Ning served as an ideal platform to host the variety of media that I wanted to incorporate in this class. For example, the top portion of the home page for my Ning site is illustrated below. The home page contains a graphic representation of each member, welcome, audio player, video links, chat area, course content links, announcement board, discussion forum, picture widget and group area. In addition to the home page, I created 11 additional pages that can be accessed by the navigational tab menu at the top of each page. These tabs range from personal information on each student to a link to my personal blog.

Ning Example SNS

The possibilities of Ning seem limitless in an educational settings. Promoting community, enhancing classes and teaching classes are examples of this potential. I do have to admit that I was surprised and saddened to discover that Ning would no longer be a free service as of May 2010. Certainly, there are similar tools on the Internet that can accomplish what Ning does, but Ning seems to be the leading competitor at this time. However, I will find a new, free service rather than paying to prolong activity in Ning. I believe that Ning will lose many customers because of this decision, and I think Ning underestimates the free market and open source options.

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Social networking represents the most ubiquitous Web 2.0 technology to date. Evidence of the value and importance of social networking sites (SNS) can be seen in the huge online communities that have recently been formed. For example, Facebook is only six years old (born in 2004), and this SNS now has a population of over 400 million, which would make it the third largest country in the world. As with most great forces or tools, there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with social networking sites. While these applications have great potential, they also allow for a number of dangers and immoral activity.

The vast potential and inherent dangers found in SNS were discussed by Ewbank, Kay, Foulger, and Carter in their article “Conceptualizing Codes of Conduct in Social Networking Communities.” This discussion was primarily focused on the potential and dangers associated with educational use of SNS. Yuen and Yang (2010) wrote a corollary article, “Using Social Networking to Enhance Sense of Community in E-Learning Courses,” that primarily focused on a specific, positive aspect of using SNS in teaching and learning (i.e., building community).

Boundaries of SNS in Education

As technology evolves, educational institutions must be leaders in adopting those technologies that have the potential to support and enhance the learning process. Balancing this pursuit, institutional and corporate policy makers should help insure a safe learning environment for participants that use such technology, specifically SNS for this discussion. Adding to this recipe of adoption, news agencies tend to only focus on the negative aspects of items and scenarios, such as the Facebook killer. The article “Conceptualizing Codes of Conduct in Social Networking Communities” provides a research-based discussion on what concerns educators should be aware of while developing and participating in SNS.

The authors alluded to several legal battles that have ensued because of various aspects of SNS. In some cases, parents of students have sued institutions because of a violation of “free speech” rights (e.g., J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, 2007 or A.B. v. State of Indiana, 2008). Conversely, some teachers have filed suit against students for defamation, intimidating speech, and harassment (e.g., Wisniewski v. Board of Education, Weedsport Central School District, 2007). While the parameters of teacher conduct outside of school is often embedded in organizational codes, some teachers have lost their job because of content placed online (e.g., Tamara Hoover and Austin Independent School District).

Knowing the Minefield
In this litigious atmosphere, teachers must be guarded in how they conduct activity on SNS. The authors pointed to three issues that seemed to be especially vulnerable in the context of SNS. First, SNS present a “magnified forum” for students to be embarrassed or mistreated. Second, private and public information often becomes indistinguishable on SNS. Last, SNS tend to blur the lines between users’ personal and professional identities.

This fog is further enhanced because students do not necessarily have the same moral code online as they maintain offline. The example given by the authors described that students might deem hacking and piracy behaviors as acceptable, yet theses same students defend privacy and property rights outside of the technology realm.

Proceeding with Caution
The authors made an excellent suggestion in relationship to creating codes of conduct for SNS. Most organizations already have a policies and procedures manual that outlines a code of conduct, and similarly, most institutions have an Acceptable Use Policy for the Internet. Schools should begin to tackle this issue by applying those policies to the SNS. Obviously, some tweaking would need to occur, but this seems like an excellent place to start. A balance can be found between ensuring safety and allowing for creativity.

Building Community in Social Networking Sites
Despite the negative aspects of SNS discussed previously, the potential for SNS to enhance online learning is immense. This is especially true as it relates to building community in an e-learning environment. Yuen and Yang discussed this potential in their article “Using Social Networking to Enhance Sense of Community in E-Learning Courses.”

I have taken a large number of online, hybrid, and web-enhanced classes. In a large portion of those classes, a disconnect could be found between both the student-to-teacher relationship and the peer-to-peer relationship that is normally present in a traditional class. The purpose of Yuen and Yang was to explore the possibilities of SNS to help fill such a gap.

Case for Community
The authors discussed the fact that most learning management systems (LMS) were contrived and organized to meet the needs of the organization rather than the students. A number of researchers are beginning to raise questions about the monopoly of LMS to drive e-learning (Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Rovai, 2002a, 2002b). Simultaneously, some researchers have argued that a sense of community is an essential part of the e-learning environment (Yang & Liu, 2008). This body of research is driving educators to look for a solution to a missing link (i.e., community) in the current e-learning environment, which is driven by LMS.

Yuen and Yang provided a convincing argument to use SNS to meet this communal void. A major factor in this argument is based on the pervasive standing of SNS. As mentioned earlier, SNS are an accepted part of everyday life for a large segment of the population. Therefore, it is a technological tool that is already being employed by the majority of learners, especially younger students. In fact, SNS are beginning to reshape the “social fabric” of many educational organizations.

The authors also provided a backbone of research on community. Several studies reveal a relationship between a sense of community and certain aspects of students’ outcomes and perceptions. Yuen and Yang also identified a sound approach to measuring community in an online environment.

The research conducted for their project focused on two classes of graduate students in the field of technology. Ning (www.ning.com) served as the SNS used in conjunction with each class. At the end of the term, each student was given a questionnaire to determine his or her perceptions of the class.

In both classes, the learners signified a positive community spirit, interdependence, trust, and cohesion. The students gave a favorable response when asked about the shared learning environment through their interactions with classmates.

Future Trends
The growth of SNS in education seems imminent. Currently, a large number of institutions are using SNS for a variety of purposes, from recruitment to alumni relations. This growth will probably continue to invade the online learning environment. It will be interesting to see how this infusion will occur. LMS will probably begin to incorporate more and more features of the SNS. To a large degree, the battlefield will be based in money. Will the fee-based LMS (e.g., Blackboard) be able to offer a product that is so superior to open source SNS (e.g., Ning) and LMS (e.g., Moodle) that it is worth the cost?

I would imagine that at some point, the free systems will be deemed “good enough” for most institutions. This is already the case in many educational organizations. A tough economy will quicken the pace of adoption toward these free applications. Will the security of a fee-based LMS play a role? For some institutions, I would argue that this would play a large role in choosing what direction the e-learning might purse.

These two chapters were excellent. They provided a research-based explanation of community in SNS and the perils of using SNS. Educators will need to keep a sharp eye out for developing SNS technologies and evolving LMS. Also, it is the responsibility of the educational community to constantly measure the culture of the ever-evolving learning community.

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