One of the most common questions I get these days in the land of Online and Distributed Learning concerns the validity of chasing the social networking monster for education.
Is there value?
What many instructors in online and face to face courses are seeking to do is create a conversation that pulls us past the "lecture and test" principles commonly practiced before the 1970's revolution of problem based learning.
PBL or Problem Based Learning is NOT new guys. See http://www.ntlf.com/html/pi/9812/pbl_1.htm However, everyone has had a different take on how to make it work.
Problem based learning is time consuming to engineer effectively. Instructional Design principles vary, but one of the most common engineering practices in curriculum development is backwards engineering. The use of rubrics with competencies to meet learning objectives for overall competence in a subject is for some a natural way of teaching and certainly lends itself to backwards engineering. However, the 'road map' so to speak of the learning objectives and competencies can expand at an alarming rate if you really engineer a course. See: http://www.desire2learn.com/competencies/what/ for a useful look at the simplest maps.
In online education, that road map is tantamount. Time has to be spent on aligning technologies that will best allow students to meet the learning objectives and competencies for maximum learning, easy assessment, and overall comparison to expected outcomes in the rubric. In a larger scale, graduation rates and program success depends even on the smallest learning objectives and competency. If the department fails to look at core courses and what is expected for all students in each level to have mastered before progressing, the students will fail at an undesignated point when that competency is the cornerstone of their next competency in an upper level course.
An example from my own discipline of Theatre might be:
Competency: Successful students in theatre must understand the collaborative nature of theatre.
Learning Objective: Students will be able to label the production position chart from Producer to Stage Technician and discuss the hierarchical relationships between the positions with a focus on the collaborative nature of theatre.
Assessment: Label the hierarchical chart
Read sample tasks or problems that may arise in a productions cycle
Use discussion boards to talk about who students would assign those issues or tasks
The instructor may comment to enforce or "teach" good choices students post
Media of "sample" production meeting issues to be reviewed by student
Essay using texts or other sources to support personal idea of how to best resolve issues, describe what is happening in the meeting to be assessed by the instructor on quality and thoughtfulness of response.
If a student understands the structure, they will know who to address the problem to and that their job is related to and dependent on other jobs. Critical thinking will allow them to independently select the most appropriate method to achieve a production goal.
Program Competency Achieved:
Program success would meant that the student who masters this seemingly "easy" learning objective and competency will be able to work and think at a higher level as a collaborative team member for planning and execution of anything from design work to being a member of an ensemble cast.
Returning to my point---->
Online development IS harder in the initial phase because the instructor must analyze their rubrics, competencies, and learning objectives with a finer eye to detail. Students are often learning in asynchronous formats without the ability to "stop the teacher" when they do not get it. They also do not constantly have the instructor reminding them of WHY it is important to learn what they are learning. In problem based learning, the WHY is a crucial element for students to foster trust, communication, and collaborative learning. Conversation is imperative to student success in any learning environment, social networking gives us that ability to converse out of synch with time about a common subject fed to places we live in most online or on our mobile phones.
There must be a balance between understanding for an assessment and understanding that endures through multiple assessments. Problem Based Learning is indeed a good method for fostering deep learning as well as critical thinking skills that will allow learners the ability to take the teachable moment into their own hands when you, the instructor, are not beside them in the work force.
Mind your media is my way of saying that all these tools for social networking and multimedia are just that, tools.
If you fail to think in terms of basic curriculum design, no cool video, no Twitter account, and no Facebook account will save you or increase learning.
One of the best books I ever read in grad school was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig. See: http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/401.Robert_M_Pirsig for good quotes. We have to find the, "right tool for the right job." A phrase that applies to many disciplines, even that of theatre.
Yes, these tools are valuable, but YOU the instructor are even more valuable because you have the ability to use the tool to increase learning, and help students to critically think, discuss, and relate to one another. One mind is powerful, but as cloud computing has shown us, many minds solve a problem more quickly.
In summation, yes, there is value in blogs, vlogs, wikis, twitter, second life, and a host of other flavanoid loaded options for collaborative discussion and work. However, none of them have value without you, the instructor, to guide students through conversations as you have always done. No technology is a substitute for that.
Mind your Media!