Learning the Web 2.0 way (1/2)

When I was in primary school, the most intolerable subject I had to endure was something called Needlework. Only girls had to take this class while the boys did woodwork. The hour-long weekly lessons involved learning how to stitch buttons, knit with those two chop-stick-type objects, and sew little cushions – skills that were apparently necessary to our education. Apart from the fact that my school perpetuated the sexual division of labour and tried to socialise girls into being “good housewives” one day, my point is that this type of education was archaic and boring. The teacher sat at her desk in the front and tried to demonstrate a backstitch, while the rest of us tried to stay awake and not prick ourselves to death.

Thanks to the new OBE system, Needlework no longer features on the list of skills that students need.

And thanks to Bill Gates and the rest of the techno geeks for new educational tools like Showslides and Moodle that have moved into the mainstream. E-learning is becoming increasingly acceptable and popular among students and teachers, and so too is the use of social media in education. In this post, I review a few (almost brand new) e-learning resources, and in the next, I’ll discuss the use of wikis in education.

LearnHub, which launched last month, is a social network for students and teachers/lecturers. It’s made up of a range of user-created communities around a specific topic, like Mathematics or Photography. Students can interact with other students and with educators. They can join a community created by a “lecturer” who teaches a course by posting lessons (including powerpoint presentations) and tutorials, and initiating debates. The “lecturer” can also set tests and track students’ progress. What’s most impressive is the site offers real-time tutoring through live video, voice and document sharing. All of this is free, but teachers can charge a fee for their courses and for tutoring in the LearnHub marketplace.

The more I use LearnHub, the more I’m impressed by it. While the line between student and teacher is blurred through this mode of learning since anyone can teach a course or offer a solution to an equation, what makes LearnHub an effective educational resource is that many professional teachers and experts have joined the network and are offering courses. The information on the site then is, for the most part, trustworthy. LearnHub also has a reputation system for users to rank other users’ answers/courses. The higher your ranking, the higher your authority on the network. It’s a great way for students to find credible sources, and for teachers to market their expertise or offer it freely.

In the words of its developers, Socrato is a “web-based test preparation and assessment platform”. Professional teachers can use the application to post multiple-choice tests, which their students then take online. Socrato boasts analytical tools that tracks students’ progress and helps them identify their strengths and weaknesses. Students can also create study groups and share content with their peers. The application is currently in its beta phase and freely available to the public, but will become a pay-to-use service soon.

Unlike LearnHub and Socrato, this social network is aimed exclusively at students. While professionals can sign up, skoogO automatically links all students to each other. Based on the profile information you provide, it connects you to other students at your university/school, or those from around the world who are doing a similar course, or even using the same textbook as you are. Students can then ask and answer questions relating to their course, and engage in online peer-to-peer learning this way. Although skoogO aims to be an educational resource for students, they seem to be using it more as an alternative to Yahoo!Answers or the local Answerit, rather than for purely educational purposes. (Questions range from “Is it better to be feared or loved?” to “What shampoo and conditioner is best for naturally curly hair?”).

I’ve e-mailed my younger siblings the links to these sites because I think they really can be valuable and useful to them (and me). While e-learning resources are not a substitute for face-to-face education, they can augment students’ learning and provide them with a variety of knowledge that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. I’m not saying do away with classroom-based education, I’m saying that if a teacher wants to engage with his/her students, he/she should use the technological medium that most appeals to them. This way, they’re less likely to doze off in the middle of a lesson – or prick each other with needles, they way my friends and I did in Needlework class.

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24 April, 2008 at 2:37 pm 4 comments

The underdogs of social networking

Despite bandwidth issues and warnings from their bosses (in my case, the Rhodes IT department), South Africans have gone gaga over social networking. Justin Hartman’s nifty stats show that there are over 730 000 of us on Facebook, making SA the country with the 10th highest number of Facebook users in the world.

What’s equally interesting is that many local social networks have emerged in the past year or two, some aimed at connecting the general SA online population, and others at forming interest-based communities.

Home grown

There’s Blueworld, where users can network, share pics and videos, and set up a blog. It also has a free SMS service, and a feature that’s similar to Thunda.com: Blueworld “photographers” cover various clubbing scenes, and then upload the pics to the site. Vrinne is another social network aimed at connecting South Africans from around the world. It’s still a work in progress though, and offers only basic features at the moment.

MyGenius and BizJam are geared towards young entrepreneurs. It seems like a good way for freelancers and small businesses to market themselves.

GayPeers is another network aimed at connecting the South African LGBT community. It has the usual features: blogging, chats, polls, and video and photo sharing. Judging by the number of blog posts, this social network seems to be quite popular.

Then there’s Digspot and StudentVillage, geared towards connecting university students across campuses. One can catch up on the recent events across universities in the form of news bulletins. StudentVillage seems to be more interactive though, due to its live chat option and classifieds section.

My personal favourite is ZoopedUp, a social network for car lovers. Members can create their own “cyber garages”, share pics and videos, and chat about everything automotive on blogs or forums.

Local vs. Global

Despite the variety of local social networks available, South Africans don’t seem to be using them that much. I had a look at South Africa’s Alexa ratings this morning, and Facebook and MySpace featured in the top 20 of the most popular sites in the country. None of the local social networking sites above made the list.

A possible reason for this could be that users simply prefer the “global original” rather than the local equivalent. I’ve joined the BlueWorld and StudentVillage networks, but their novelty has already off for me because none of my friends are members. What’s great about Facebook though is that because its so popular, you’re most likely to find people you know on it, and you can then network with them in a single, convenient space.

While I think social networks like ZoopedUp and BizJam are useful and innovative, those aimed only at South Africans can’t compete with their global counterparts. Partly because of the latter’s colossal appeal, and partly because a South African – or Canadian or Spanish – social network restricts users’ scope of communication. We’re in the age of globalisation, not nationalism, after all.

14 April, 2008 at 3:41 pm 1 comment

Blog Debut

Having just completed an academic essay on social media, I could regurgitate the wonder of Web 2.0 and how it has turned users into producers; how social media use blurs the boundaries between media/audience and reception/production; how the new web allows for a reconstitution of… I’ve started to lose you already, right?

The purpose of this blog is to unpack social media for the average web user (that’s me included).  I’m an avid Facebook user and blog reader, but I haven’t given much thought to the medium, and if and how the incalculable hours I’ve spent online have changed anything about me.   

There’s so much that’s already been said about social media, but also quite a bit that hasn’t.  Through a blog series that begins next week, I’ll be looking at a range of social media forms – blogs, social networks, wikis and the rest – and reviewing some of them.  I’ll also consider social media’s general impact, its influence on users’ identity, its utility for businesses and traditional media, and its democratic potential.  All this, I promise, without causing you to keel over your keyboard from boredom.

As I’m proudly South African (except when the electricity cuts off), I’ll also be covering our flourishing social media scene and finding out what the “experts” have to say.

Now excuse me while I go change my Facebook status to, “Qudsiya is now a blogger!”

6 April, 2008 at 2:38 pm 4 comments

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