In social studies a social network is the set of relations that links people, through their interactions and familiarity of various kind. Today, however, social networking indicates a growing phenomenon, characterised by Web technologies that create and keep together groups of people on the basis of common interests. These tools (social software technologies) include for instance: blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, social bookmarking, and offer new opportunities to promote collaboration, to assist conversations, to help in the sharing of knowledge, in work and learning contexts, both formal and informal. Although some of these tools are often used in LMSs, the main idea of this new approach is to consider the advantages coming from general purpose tools, widely available on the net, and characterised by an intrinsic vitality and spontaneity. In this context, also linked to a growing criticism of the current e-learning model, based on the extensive use of VLEs (virtual learning environments), new proposals oriented towards the definition of new models of Web spaces for personal learning (personal learning environment or virtual learning landscape) are being put forward. In these new systems the individual has a central place, in a network of resources and of social and friendly interactions that offer support on the emotional as well as on the cognitive level.
In recent years, the availability of services and tools that enhance the creation of Web content by common users has grown enormously. Most of these “personal contributions” implicitly create interactions and connections among individuals on the net. It is not accidental that one talks of social software, referring to applications that make possible for people to interact and collaborate on line, particularly to create on-line communities. “Social software” is a term with a broad meaning, which includes systems and technologies used in various contexts: for this reason Terry Anderson (2005) has introduced the concept of educational social software: “On line tools that support and encourage individuals to learn together with others, maintaining their control over time, space, presence, activities, identity and relationships”.
In this sense, specific tools such as wikis (1) and blogs, acquire particular relevance.
A Wiki is a special Web site that allows multiple users, to create and edit pages in real time. It has become emblematic of collaborative authoring of hypertextual documents, because one of the most widespread use is to allow different people to work at a distance, concurrently, on the same body of pages interconnected via hyperlinks. The system keeps track of the modifications carried out and of previous versions (versioning) making it possible for a coordinator to accept or, if necessary, to reject the changes made by the collaborators. The use of wikis in e-learning is linked to collaboration, the feature that more than anything else distinguishes this technology. In all those instances in which there is a need to collectively write a text, wikis offer a valuable technical solution. Through the versioning mechanism it possible to follow the process of the elaboration of the text, whilst the hyperlink management system allows for the planning and the preparation of complex investigations. The ease with which one can create glossaries, dictionaries, terminological indexes or organized collections of thematic pages, makes it possible, in many subject domains, to develop very interesting research activities. Compared to the traditional face-to-face group work, wikis offer higher capabilities, because they allow a reflection starting from the very textual nature of the product, and the possibility to operate simultaneously amongst many individuals, remotely.
Teachers as well can find wikis very useful for working on projects, preparing articles, putting together course materials. A wiki is ideal, for instance, for collecting proposals and ideas for a conference or within a research project. However, the main strongness of wikis can also be seen as a weak point: the possibility offered to all to modify content. For this reason the majority of sites is somehow monitored to avoid intrusions, spam, and other abuses.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Virtual Learning Environment (VLE): In general, Web systems used for the management of courses in schools and in Universities. They are often also referred to by the acronym LMS (learning management system).
e-Portfolio: A collection of material in the guise of digital artefacts (documents, multimedia clips, links to resources, notes, etc.) related to a person’s educational path. It can be referred to a specific course, or it can be seen as a permanent support for the individual, in the perspective of lifelong learning.
RSS: RSS stands for RDF Site Summary, a format for the diffusion of content through the Web. From a technical point of view, RSS is based on the XML mark up language, well known for being the “foundation stone” on which the present Web could rise, separating content from presentation and graphical aspects. The RSS technology has as its fundamental aim the feeding on the Web of headlines of articles, news, links and, more generally, any sort of “what’s new” of any site. It works as a kind of “announcement” that some new content has been added on a certain site. Blogs combine perfectly with RSS: each blog is equipped in fact with its RSS system that make it possible to keep up-to-date with the new articles that have been posted, without any need of visiting the Website directly. An alternative interpretation of the acronym RSS is really simple syndication: the term syndication is borrowed from the press (it would stand for “diffusion through a press office”). Leaving aside definitions and interpretations, the fundamental element is the means to disseminate “What’s new” on different Web sites.
Social Bookmarking: Those that once were known as bookmarks, or preferred sites that each user used to save inside the user’s own browser are now increasingly shared through specialised Websites. Social bookmarking, that is in pooling one’s own bookmarks, together with the tags freely supplied by the users. One of the main sites of social bookmarking is http://del.icio.us.
Folksonomy: A neologism that indicates the contribution from people (folks) in the definition of meaning and in the classification of information on the Web. It is contrasted to a-priori taxonomies complied by experts (for example in the library field).
Podcasting: The term podcasting groups all the techniques aimed at the production, the sharing and the use of audio/and or video material. The basic element of this technique is an audio or video recording—varying in the degree of expertise with which it is made, that can be used directly online or downloaded for listening or viewing off-line. This denomination is derived from the well known digital music reader Apple iPod; with the suffix “casting”, derived from broadcasting, it comes to indicate a system for the transmission of audio material that can be listened to on many different devices, from the PC to a digital reader, to mobile phones.
Microcontets: In the perspective of mashup, the microcontent is the ideal unit for the re-use of information (MacManus e Porter, 2005). The Web is no longer viewed as a set of pages, but instead of even smaller units (for example a single post in a blog or a pod-cast).