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Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI)

Dr. Terry Anderson, Canada Research Chair in Distance Education

Social Software Goes To School
Mary is meeting her study group in the café. Mark and Isobel are already here. Jim is talking to his prof and will arrive soon. It would be a normal university scene except for one thing: these are distance education students who live 3,000 kms and two time zones apart and have never met face-to-face. They’re getting together in a virtual world online.
 
Harnessing the power of social software — from audio, computer and video conferences to ”immersion worlds” such as Second Life — to enhance the learning experience for distance students has Dr. Terry Anderson going down new avenues. The Athabasca University Professor and Canada Research Chair in Distance Education and his colleagues at AU’s Technology Enhanced Research Knowledge Institute (TEKRI) are taking what is usually thought of only in an “entertainment” context and developing applications for more formal, educational use.
 
“It’s been my life quest to improve teaching and learning opportunities for people at Athabasca University and globally,” Anderson explains. “With the emergence of social software, we hope to create ways for people to socially engage in cooperative and collaborative learning. We hope to enable more distance students to meet and support each other; to replicate the social component of the campus experience. We also hope to find an ‘economy of scale’ that will expand the reach of post-secondary education and give more people access.”
 
His work is expected to be a boon for students worldwide and particularly to help address the tremendous demand for post-secondary education in developing nations. In these places, the traditional campus-based university model may not be accessible or may not even exist at all. Distance education can break down those “locational” barriers and the imaginative use of social software can help provide the crucial learning experience essential for economic progress.
What Anderson develops should also give business a boost, since most companies today expect their employees to be able to collaborate effectively, share knowledge and use new media to gather information. By using social software, organizations can build the all-important social capital that boosts productivity and helps with employee retention.
 
Over the past few years, Anderson has built an open-source environment with tight controls. It is safe for distance learners and enables them to do many of the things they would do on campus, including finding study buddies, posting hints, discussing projects and working on group assignments. His prototype website — me2u.athabascau.ca — has been in testing for the past two years and is now being opened up to a wider student audience.
 
The real promise of social software in the post-secondary arena, he says, is how it enables and encourages people to meet and support each other. “We hope to create a more stimulating environment for students, inviting them to create content that others can share,” Anderson says. “As with all social media, these tools work best when people get involved. We aim to build knowledge artifacts, as opposed to consuming what others have said.
 
“The world is still following the original university model from the 13th century. There is a thirst from educators worldwide to figure out ways to operate more effectively and to add social interaction into their current delivery models. The work we’re doing at TEKRI is transforming higher education. It’s exciting and it’s inspiring.”
 
For more information please go to web site of Dr. Terry Anderson.