Informal Learning & The Social Web II

In this second of a two part article on emerging e-learning technologies Keith Quinn and Neil Ballantyne explore the role of new web-based services in supporting informal and work-based learning.

Previously we offered readers an overview of the new generation of web services that have been collectively identified under the banner of Web 2.0, the social web, or the two-way web. In many respects what pundits are now calling Web 2.0 is just the realisation of a key aspiration of the pioneers of the original web as a read-write medium rather than a read only medium.

Of course the Web has always been a read-write medium it’s just that in the past it’s been far easier for most users to read by browsing, than to write by mastering html code or a specialist html application. The revolution associated with Web 2.0 arises from the effortless way in which any individual can now not only consume web content, but also use resources like blogs, wikis, and podcasts to create content.

In this article we want to reflect on how these newly emerging technologies might be harnessed for learning, especially work-based learning. But first of all a short diversion into the challenges Web 2.0 technologies are presenting for organisations whether they seek to harness the technologies for work-based learning or not.

Personal Publishing And Employee Blogs

Wikis, blogs, and podcasts can all be used as forms of personal publishing or personal broadcasting. Increasing ease of use, lower (or zero) set-up costs, and higher bandwidth go a long way to explaining the explosion in popularity of this new publishing medium. And yet it’s this same open access, transparency, and ease of use that contributes to the problematic nature of the social web, or at least that part of the social web on the open Internet.

Writing about the educational value of blogs an Educause briefing paper comments that “Because blogs are often produced and maintained by individuals, they can include biased or inaccurate information. Users visiting a blog might see it as factual or authoritative when, in fact, it is the online equivalent of a soap box: a place to speak and to be heard.” (The Educause Learning Initiative, 2005).

Although there are many examples of individual bloggers whose work aspires to present a balanced, or at least a well-reasoned, perspective; there are other personal blogs where this effort is less evident. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t an individual be able to write about whatever they think and feel? Well, leaving aside the issues arising from “Hate Speech” on the web (McCullagh, 2002), employers are increasingly faced with working out the best way to respond to employee blogs where the blogger is blogging about work-related issues (often in an anonymous capacity).

Personnel Today described the case of an employee of Waterstone’s book stores who’s critical comments about his employer in his blog were considered by the company so damaging as to warrant dismissal on the grounds of gross misconduct (Personnel Today, 2006). The article goes on to discuss the pros and cons of such action on the part of employers and to suggest an employee blogger code of conduct based on IBM’s code. However, in a subsequent article within the same publication, a National Officer of the Retail Book Association – who represented the Waterstone’s employee at an appeal against the decision – pointed out that the decision to dismiss the employee blogger had subsequently been rescinded and an amicable case settlement reached. Key to the appeal was the view that “The statements it contained were thus considered to be no more than the musings one would find in a private diary – a diary that did not truly enter into the public domain until after the dismissal.” (Lee, 2006) {mospagebreak}

Since work is, for many of us, a core part of our identity, it’s not surprising that employees choose to blog about work related issues. The web includes blogs maintained by individual police officers  (; nurses (; occupational therapists (; and yes, even social workers, ( The Metropolitan Police became so concerned about “a series of weblogs or blogs where authors – claiming to be police officers – have offered their views on a number of issues in a highly personalised, often controversial manner” that they recently introduced guidelines to prevent individuals “expressing views and opinions that are damaging to the organisation or bring the organisation into disrepute”. Although the guidelines did not prohibit blogging they were enough for one well known police blogger ( to close his blog creating a stir about censorship and control in the blogosphere (as the blogging world is sometimes described).

Since the exponential growth of personal blogs shows no sign of slowing it seems likely that relationships between employers and employee bloggers (and perhaps service user bloggers) will continue to be a source of tension and controversy.

Social Software Behind The Firewall – On Campus

Social software like blogs, wikis and podcasts is now so popular amongst young people that they have caught the attention of educators and learning technologists (for a recent review see Bryant, 2006; and Alexander, 2006). However some attempts to adapt social software for educational purposes seem to miss the essential user-led nature of personal publishing. For example, in the US the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences are planning to make use of ‘blogs’ as a way of opening up communication between students and their academic advisors. But there are some significant differences between the University of Pennsylvania student blog and usual blogging practices. In particular, the blog isn’t public but only available to the student and adviser; and students are expected to complete answers to questions prescribed by the academic advisers throughout their course of study. Some commentators on the scheme have questioned whether this can be considered blogging at all, and are critical of the lack of student control.

Closer to home the University of Brighton is planning to add an implementation of elgg to their existing WebCT virtual learning environment. Elgg ( is a piece of open source software originally designed as highly learner-centered e-portfolio system. Elgg is significantly different from other e-portfolio software in that its architecture is designed to reflect a philosophy of learner managed learning where the learner has complete control over who sees which part of her blog or folders, and self-selects the groups or communities they wish to join. Elgg also makes extensive use of Web 2.0 technologies like tagging, RSS and podcasting to allow users to create content, form communities and collaborate with others. Far from being a device for answering the question of an educator or an adviser, the blog within elgg is more like a reflective diary where the user can decide which parts to share and with whom.

At Bradford University a senior lecturer in microbiology has abolished traditional lectures in favour of podcasts, hoping this will free up time for more small group teaching and could better accommodate the needs of distance learners, part-time students, and learners balancing studies with family commitments. Students will be able to access the podcasts via their MP3 player and will be able to  ask questions about lectures via text message, answered in the lecturer’s blog (BBC, 2006).

Social Software Behind The Firewall – In The Workplace

In an environment where the pace of work is ever increasing and less time is available away from the task, new means are needed to allow staff to access and share expertise. It’s perhaps not surprising to read that technology companies like Microsoft or Yahoo are using blogs and wikis on their intranets to support support staff training and development. However, when the Financial Times (FT) reports that Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), the investment bank, “…is also a believer in the brave new world of wikis and blogs” you know that something is happening. J.P. Rangaswami, Chief Information Officer at DrKW, states that “We recognised early on that these tools would allow us to collaborate more effectively than existing technologies…More than 450 DrKW employees have internal blogs and the bank has built an internal wiki with more than 2,000 pages which is used by a quarter of its workforce. After just six months, the traffic on the wiki exceeds that on the entire DrKW intranet.”

At a recent Learning Technologies conference held in London in January 2006, Gareth Jones (Head of Strategy and Operations, BBC Training & Development) eloquently described the difficulties experienced by the BBC in developing its least experienced staff. Senior, experienced staff have less time available to pass on their knowledge and expertise via traditional means (e.g. leading training etc.) so the Corporation established wikis and blogs on their internal network where experienced staff in various disciplines are encouraged to record their knowledge, which can then be edited & updated (via their web browser) as technology or practices change.

There is huge potential for the application of this approach to the social services environment in the development of communities of practice, either internal to organisations or, more productively, across the sector. It’s not difficult to imagine the use of wikis to enable the collaborative development and updating of key social care information resources. The use of e-portfolio systems to support post-registration training and learning requirements and to store and share resources for self-directed learning would also be worth exploring. Using podcasts to update staff on new legislative or procedural requirements or to make expert views available to the whole organisation would also have value.

Of course, behind the organisational firewall, it’s likely that these tools will be used with a greater degree of circumspection: issues around authentication and access, version control, and editing rights are likely to be more critical. The key thing here is taking the affordances of these newly emerging technologies and bending them to achieve business processes. However, it’s likely that some organisations will be prepared to take more risks than others.

It’s well established that one of the problems with any new technology is its disruptive effect on existing practices. This effect isn’t just about the way one technology replaces an older technology, but also about the effect of new technologies on social practices and organisational structures.

Herein lies a source of difficulty with social software in the workplace: it is potentially highly disruptive of existing practices especially in a hierarchical, command and control, low-trust environment. For example a technology that enables lateral communication and networking can raise the profile and demonstrate the value of employees who are well-connected and influential in the network; but this might be at the expense of more traditional managers who rely on position power to maintain their authority. {mospagebreak}

As David Tebbut has argued, the use of Web 2.0 technologies may have a proven ability to help practitioners communicate, collaborate and build communities of practice “However, inside business such an approach brings risks and often a high degree of scepticism on the part of management.” (Tebbut, 2006). The organisatonal issues Tebbut identifies include control, trust, organisational entropy, and self-interest. Of course there are always issues about the introduction of new technologies into the workplace, and it’s quite legitmate for managers to be concerned about resources, productivity and performance. But sometimes apparent managerial concerns can mask deeper issues about trust, power, and control.

And here we are at the heart of the issue. Who stands to gain and who to lose when a new technology is introduced? Early adopters of social software and Web 2.0 technologies are likely to be organisations with leaders that value learning, that are comfortable with crossing boundaries, that are mature enough to take reasonable risks, and that promote employee autonomy as well as accountability. Now, doesn’t that sound like a 21st century social care organisation?
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References & resources

Alexander, B. (2006) Web 2.0: A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning? Educause Review. March-April (pp. 33-44).

BBC (2006) Podcast lectures for uni students. BBC News. 26th May.

Bryant, T. (2006) Social Software in Academia. Educause Quarterly. No 2. (pp 61-64).

CompuMentor (2006) Everything You Need to Know About Web 2.0 Learn about blogs, RSS feeds, podcasting, and other Web 2.0 technologies.

Inside HigherEd (2006) An Academic Blog for Students. Inside HigherEd. June 9th.

Lee, P. (2006) Waterstone’s ‘blogging’ dismissal rescinded, Personnel Today. April 2006.

McCullagh, D. (2002) US won’t support Net “Hate Speech” ban. CNET November 15th.

Nairn, G. (2006) Social networking becomes work. Financial Times. April 11 2006.

Personnel Today (2006) Blogging: waste of time or corporate tool? Personnel Today. 21 March 2006.

Powers, E. (2006) An Academic Blog for Students. Inside HigherEd. June 9.

Tebbut, D. (2006) Genie in a Bottle. Information World Review. 10 May 2006.

The Educause Learning Initiative (2005) 7 Things You Should Know About Blogs. Educause.

Valance, C, (2006) New Met blogging rules spark anger. BBC News. 13th March 2006.