Exploring a Professional Social Network System to Support Learning in the Workplace

Exploring a Professional Social Network System to Support Learning in the Workplace

Anthony “Skip” Basiel, Paul Coyne
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-272-5.ch001
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The authors of this chapter explore how professionals can network, collaborate and capture informal learning in an online work-based environment. It addresses the pedagogical approaches that underpin emerging Web 2.0 technological trends and provide recommendations for future use of such online environments.
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Middlesex University work based learning (WBL) has been operating for over ten years at the time of this writing. Its original distance learning design was a paper-based correspondence model which relied heavily on the content in the handbooks and one-to-one (1-2-1) tutorial support from WBL Learning Development Tutors predominantly through email and phone feedback. Over the past few years there has been a steady transition into the use of a commercial virtual learning environment (VLE) in the form of Blackboard/WebCT.

At first this system matched the WBL teaching and learning design since there was a strong reliance on the course handbook for information and guidance. However, as student numbers increased the student-teacher ratio meant this model was not sustainable for the future. The 1-2-1 pedagogic model would need to expand into a triad that would promote and support peer involvement. Students were growing in their ICT confidence and capability with the increased use of Web 2.0 social network systems such as Facebook and YouTube. This was evidenced by student representatives at the WBL Board of Studies sighting the need to continue to improve the VLE for the future (BOS, 2007).

Cohorts of WBL candidates identified the need for a shift from a content-driven eLearning system to one which could support the type of peer review that WBL was growing into. The WBL programme structure has three main stages. First, students construct a portfolio of their prior professional knowledge. This Recognition of Accredited learning (RAL or a.k.a. Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL)) stage benefited by candidates sharing professional experiences in constructing their areas of learning claims (Armsby, 2006). Next, WBL students would formulate an individual learning agreement that would guide the construction of the degree programme based on how much Higher Education (HE) credit was attained in the RAL stage. In conjunction with this activity they would learn about methods of conducting research in the workplace which would prepare them for the final stage of the degree. Lastly, research systems would be carried out in the workplace to amass enough credit to complete the programme. The nature of this learner-managed-learning approach to WBL meant that as the candidate progressed through the programme peer-support became increasingly beneficial (Stephenson, 2007).

In a work based learning context, then, there can be both a formal and informal learning scenarios. The traditional formal learning setting might be one of the blended learning tutorial sessions for WBL candidate getting an induction on how to compose a prior learning accreditation portfolio. Here the training pedagogy would be teacher-led and supported by on/offline discussions. But it could be argued that the ‘real learning’ transpired informally after the ‘taught session’. Informally the students may meet to debrief with each other at the café over coffee. There they would compare their interpretation of the learning event which would lead to the formation of learning partnerships. This learning support network would communicate to provide peer-review of draft work for the portfolio. An online system was needed to facilitate this evolving professional social network for practitioner researchers.

It was at a conference at University College London (2006) that a dialogue opened between the MU-WBL group and the Emerald Publishing InTouch contingent. The open source Elgg Social Network platform being developed by Emerald would be the new approach to address these needs.

A university / industry partnership association was also a positive deliverable of this network collaboration. Emerald Publishing had a good test bed and source of evaluation data in the WBL pilot case study group. This is discussed in detail later in the chapter. The Institute for Work Based Learning benefited by having a professional social network to support its learners. Additionally, both groups collaborated in scholarly activity. Co-authored research system proposals were written for JISC (2008) in the UK and the FP7 European Commission (2008).

Another joint effort was seen in international conference publications and poster-demo presentations. The 7th European Conference on e-Learning (2008) held in Cyprus gave both organisations the opportunity to get feedback from the eLearning community and share the services they provide to potential clients. Future collaborations are currently being investigated.

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