Documentation:Developing Social Space/Learning Module

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In this module, we will begin to explore ways of increasing social cohesion and learner-centredness within an online course. We will also look at some current assumptions that surround the use of digital technology in higher education and how that impacts the design and development of online courses, particularly with respect to developing social space. However, rather than focus on how to incorporate particular Social Media tools such as microblogging or social networking, this module will help you to frame some of the key issues as they pertain to your course and how you might leverage these tools to support your desired learning outcomes.

Learning Objectives

At the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • identify the key issues surrounding the use of social media in your course;
  • strategize ways of developing more effective socialization online;
  • assemble a small 'toolkit' for promoting online collaboration;
  • develop online activities that facilitate the expression of individual and group identity.


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Brown, M., Auslander,M., Gredone,K., Green,D., Hull,B. and Jacobs,W. (2010)A dialogue for engagement. EDUCAUSE Review, 45(5): 38-56.

Bullen, M. Morgan, T. Qayyum, A. (2011). Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 37(1).

Hemmi, A., Bayne, S. & Land, R. (2009). The appropriation and repurposing of social technologies in higher education. Journal of computer assisted learning; 25(1), pp. 19-30.

Pachler, N. and Daly C. (2009) Narrative and learning with Web 2.0 technologies: towards a research agenda, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 25, 6-18.

Rheingold, H. (2010). Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies. EDUCAUSE Review, 45(5): 14–24.

Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native – myth and reality. Aslib Proceedings, 61(4): 364-379.

Smith, S., Salaway, G., & Borreson Caruso, J. (2009). The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009 – Key Findings. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research.

Trentin, G. (2009).Using a wiki to evaluate individual contribution to a collaborative learning project. Journal of computer assisted learning; 25(1), pp. 43-55.


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Education for a digital world

UBC Learning Commons Study Tool kits

Digital Habitats


Watch Dr. Jessica Motherwell on social learning support, journalling and the Wimba Voice tool.

Watch Alexis Ohanian talk about the power of social networking and the advantages of giving up some control of the online content.

Putting Learners at the Centre

As Selwyn (2009) & Bullen et al. (2011) argue, it is not clear whether there are significant differences between generations when it comes to digital literacy. As such, or until the research is more conclusive, when it comes to studying in an online environment, it is important that course developers and instructors not assume that particular groups of students do or do not have specific skills or access to specific technologies, especially when it comes to deploying Web 2.0 tools. As can be seen in the ECAR (2009) study of undergraduates, for the majority of students, what they value most is access to instructors and a moderate use of technology, even if they are comfortable with the newest tools and devices.

Putting learners at the centre of the learning process means that they need to be given choices with regards to their learning path and that means their existing knowledge schemata and abilities need to be leveraged according to the course requirements without imposing undue technological requirements. It also means that there must be sufficient institutional support capacity, in either official or unofficial channels, to ensure effective adoption of a particular technology. This is especially true when it comes to deploying Web 2.0 tools. Consequently, in order to be able to be able to utilize specific tools to develop the online social space, instructors need to obtain a clear understanding of the technological skills and limitations students may have and provide opportunities for support accordingly.

That said, perhaps the primary affordance of using Web 2.0 tools to develop social space within a course is that the ensuing conversation that develops will help to provide the learner with the variety and flexibility needed to keep them at the centre of the learning process. This in turn will help to ensure that the course also remains learning-centred overall through the use of clear and responsive communication, a focus on active learning, and timely instructor feedback.

Circle question.pngReflection

  • In your course, how much control do students have over their learning pathway?
  • What other opportunities for furthering student-student and student-instructor conversation exist within your course?
  • What level of support does your institution or department offer for the use of Web 2.0 tools?


Educators know and value the power of collaborative knowledge building, but developing group activities that both engage the learners and facilitate the desired outcomes requires a balance between designing an activity and then allowing it to develop naturally. The successful use of student collaboration is a key component of developing productive and engaging social space in a course. However, as Alexis Ohanian highlights in his TED Talk on the power of social networking, collaboration also means that it is unlikely that a single person or organization can control the message or outcome. This presents a dilemma for the instructor. How much guidance do students need when engaging in collaborative activities and how much freedom is required to ensure that the collaboration is authentic and meaningful[1] for the students?

As Xie and Sharma(2004) and Richardson(2006) show, using tools such as blogs can help students to deploy meta-cognitive strategies for monitoring learning arcs. Pachler and Daly(2009) suggest that the natural narrative structure (or narrative learning trail) of Web 2.0 tools such as wikis and blogs highlight the potential to further develop and enhance educational transactions due to the number of decisions a learner must make when determining the degree of engagement s/he will have with the content. In other words, the meaningful exchange of ideas and experiences that arise from the inclusion of collaborative tasks and activities, in which particpants are able to portray themselves in a personal and meaningful way, contributes directly to knowledge construction and critical awareness. The value of collaborative tools does not come directly from the information they contain. Rather, it is the relational nature of social media, and the concept of networked publics [2], that offers the greatest potential to foster the desired learning outcomes. Good collaboration starts with strong social connections.

The UBC Learning Commons Online Groupwork toolkit provides a valuable framework of ideas to guide students successfully through the groupwork process to help ensure that student efforts are directed towards meeting the educational goals desired and not simply on managing the group.

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  • How might your assessment strategy be modified to leverage greater student collaboration?
  • How extensively are students required to deploy meta-cognitive strategies when navigating course content?
  • What difficulties might students face when collaborating within your course?


  1. Harrington, J. Oliver R, and Reeves, T. (2003). Patterns of engagement in authentic online learning environments. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 19 (1), 59-71. Retrieved 04 January 2011, from
  2. boyd, d, (2008), Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. Retrieved Dec 23 2010 from


When is it best for a student to post anonymously? How much personal information should a student reveal in an online course? What does the digital tattoo for your course look like? How do you foster an online environment that encourages, rather than hinders, a learner's ability to project a meaningful online portrait? What is the students' perception of you as the instructor? How does this impact your interaction with them?

Just as every face-to-face cohort develops its own identity and dynamics, each online course will evolve in accordance with it inhabitants. Fostering a vibrant online community requires participants to project an authentic online portrait while developing the skills and confidence required to achieve the course objectives. Even though some activities might require students to adopt roles that may not come naturally to them (e.g. skeptic, summarizer, peer-instructor, researcher, initiator) it is important that learners be able to demonstrate self expression while developing the cognitive skills required to successfully complete the course. This means that not only must the learners engage with the course content, but they must have ample opportunity to engage with each other and with the instructor. Courses that promote socialization and provide opportunities for participants to project themselves socially while interacting with each other will invariably be more successful than courses that focus only on student-content interaction.

Circle question.pngReflection

  • Does the use of external tools in your course respect the institution's privacy policy?
  • Are there enough opportunities for students able to project themselves socially in an authentic manner in your course?
  • How might the use of roles help/hinder the students' mastery of your course material?

Participation and Engagement

The primary means of fostering engagement online is to ensure that your course has sufficient opportunities to promote authentic conversation instead of just information transfer. In other words, it is the ongoing exchange and clarification of ideas amongst the cohort, rather than the posting of any single piece of information, that will contribute most to a vibrant learning space. A key educational benefit of using Web 2.0 tools (or even an asynchronous discussion board for that matter) in a course, is that they help to facilitate the 3 core interactions (student-student; student-teacher; student-content) and, as such, offer the instructor greater opportunities to develop a rich narrative within the learning environment as long as learners are able to participate in a meaningful manner. One way to think of this is to consider the difference between participation and engagement; whereas participation might be measured more in quantitative terms (i.e. number of posts), engagement is more qualitative (e.g. posts assessed according to an assessment framework). As Rheingold (2010) argues, the interconnected social media literacies of attention, participation, cooperation, network awareness, and critical consumption underpin more effective educational interactions, and ultimately learning outcomes. In other words, fostering student engagement requires much more than deploying any particular technology. Rather, it requires an increasing awareness of how networked publics [1] impact learning and teaching. To get a visual sense of how the myriad ways social media tools might interact, have a look at the Cool Infographics blog or

When developing online activities, it is important that they are designed so that no one student can definitively provide an answer to a single problem. Otherwise, it is likely that students will not engage fully with the material or they may experience frustration as there won’t appear to be any meaningful opportunities to participate in the conversation. It is also helpful to outline your expectations on what constitutes an appropriate post well in advance, especially if posting online is part of the assessment framework. For instance, letting learners know that posts such as "I agree", "Good point" and "Me too" will not be credited is just as important as informing them that extended essay-style posts that leave other students little room to participate are equally unhelpful. Doing so will leverage the Zone of Proximal Development(ZPD), defined as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers [2] and, therefore, provide the learners the opportunity to take advantage of the fellow students’ insights and instructor’s expertise.

Circle question.pngReflection

  • Are there any elements in your course that might inhibit student engagement?
  • How might you change your interaction pattern to foster greater engagement?
  • At what points in your course do students most benefit from the Zone of Proximal Development?


  1. boyd, d, (2008), Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life. Retrieved Dec 23 2010 from
  2. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Critical Discourse

As discussed in the video by Dr. Jessica Motherwell, the goal of developing a richer online social space is not only to facilitate better interaction amongst the cohort, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to foster an environment of critical inquiry, synthesis of information and concepts, and self-reflection. It also aids students in the process of experimenting with key concepts covered in the course materials. When a strong social space has been developed, students are more likely to develop a community of inquiry, and, hopefully, produce a higher degree of self-reflection and more perceptive insights into the concepts in question. It also provides learners greater opportunities to model the desired learning outcomes in addition to drawing upon the skills and knowledge of classmates.

A healthy social space also helps to enable the learner to adopt a more critical approach to fellow classmates without risking the perception of being aggressive or overbearing. Misunderstanding can easily arise when the bulk of communication occurs in a typed medium, the result of which is that learners sometimes are more reticent in offering constructive criticism or critical comments.

Circle question.pngReflection

  • Does your use of Social Media or Web 2.0 tools foster genuine critical discourse?
  • Is the social space within your course conducive to fostering critical discourse?
  • Do students require additional resources to be able to fully leverage their emerging community of inquiry?

Examples in Practice

Most courses employ an introductory 'Get to know each other' task, the purpose of which is to act as an icebreaker for the participants and to provide the instructor with an initial overview of the cohort's background and interests. In addition, a good icebreaker should also help facilitate the development of the social space. As such, it should not only provide the necessary background information but it must also engage the participants in order to promote greater interaction.

Mr Picassoheadis an example of a tool that can be used to foster introductions that provide both the required background information and a foundation for more meaningful social interaction. In a nutshell, learners are asked to visit the site and create a portrait (or avatar) of themselves, and then share the image either within the LMS or on a site such as Flickr. The other students are then asked to view the 'portraits' and discuss the various visual elements used, what they liked about using the site and how such tools might promote authentic learning, for example. Of course, the discussion prompts should be modified to suit your own course.

Rather than simply ask participants to provide information about themselves, asking learners to use a tool such as Mr Picassohead enables the instructor to engage the participants in a more meaningful and authentic manner and promote active learning. In effect, it provides learners with their first constructivist learning activity and takes advantage of a key technological affordance - namely, the ability to easily create, share and critically reflect upon a digital artifact. It also helps to lower any affective barriers that learners unfamiliar with online learning might have by introducing an element of exploration, creativity and fun into the course. Keep it simple, keep it fun and remember that the purpose of the activity is to promote interaction.

Other activities you might consider:

  • Develop and share an online music playlist using Last FM;
  • Record and post an audio or video introduction;
  • Create and share a profile of some of their favourite neighbourhood places using a tool such as Google Maps;
  • Map the connections between learners using a visual tool such as
  • Integrate social networking or public note taking with the use of e-readers.

Circle question.pngReflection

  • How often should the instructor post in a discussion forum?
  • What are the risks/advantages of using Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Googledocs?
  • When is is ok for a learner to 'lurk' in a discussion forum?
  • How can one cohort build upon the work of another?
  • What level of digital literacy is required to successfully complete the activity or task?

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