I recently attended the ASCILITE 2008 conference in Melbourne Australia. I attended a presentation discussing the notion of social networking for learning designers and a social networking application called Cloudworks. The idea was quite simple – apply the concept of social networking to facilitate the sharing of ideas around learning designs. Cloudworks is an initiative of the Institute of Education Technology at The Open University in the United Kingdom. It is being funded jointly by JISC and The Open University.
In this blog post, I’ll provide a quick summary about the service and my view about its strengths and weaknesses. For more detailed information about Cloudworks, visit the website.
Cloudworks Design Model
In a one-liner, I’d describe Cloudworks as a community blog, but customised to specifically support learning designers. Not exactly earth shattering statement – it’s almost stating the obvious once you take a look.
The underlying model of Cloudworks is as follows. There are five types of objects that are associated with the service as detailed by Conole, et. al. (2008). They are:
- Clouds: These range from little snippets of practice or simple ideas of teacher practice, through to more detailed design plans – which might be in the form of visual design representation such as a LAM Six design sequence or a CompendiumLD diagram, or a text-based, narrative case study or pedagogical pattern.
- Stormclouds: This is a new object we have added recently. Stormclouds are requests; articulating an educational problem that someone is seeking help on. For example a teacher might want to teach introductory statistics across a range of disciplines and request help on ideas for doing this. Alternatively a teacher might put in a stormcloud about how to promote learner-centred approaches to inquiry-based learning to encourage students to develop their scientific thinking skills.
- Resources: These include learning objects, open educational resources, design templates and case studies, but also different ideas and approaches to thinking about design, and links to sites providing information on different tools and how they can be used.
- Tools: These include Learning Design tools – that guide the user through the design process and pedagogy tools – which instantiate particular pedagogical approaches.
- People and communities: Each user has an associated profile and any social objects they put in are automatically assigned to them adding value to their profile and illustrating in a dynamic way the evolving expertise of the system.
An additional object that appears to be new to the service and not discussed by Conole in their recent ASCILITE paper is a Cloudscape. This idea is analogous to photosets in Flickr, a social networking service around sharing photographs. A photoset in Flickr provides a grouping mechanism for photos around a theme or event, and a photo can belong to more than one photoset. A cloudscape is like a photoset, and a cloud is like a photo. The same rules apply, a cloud can belong to more than one cloudscape.
The service supports tagging, but with a twist. The traditional folksonomy approach with tagging is very loose and unstructured. Users generate their own tags and assign them in their own context. Often this is relevant to others, but not always. Cloudworks has added some structure to this meta-data by providing three categories in which to add tags: pedagogy, tools and discipline. When adding your cloud (eg. idea/plans etc), you assign tags under each of those three categories.
There is no sociality without people. The service provides an index of all users registered with the system, sorted alphabetically by first name. You can also search for users using a generic search box found on all pages. There is a limited profile for each user that includes their employer and a list of cloudscapes and people they are following, and who is following them. The term following appears to be drawn from the same concept as used by Twitter. In Twitter, you can submit very short descriptions about your current thoughts or activities. To share these with your friends and peers, they follow you. This means that when they login to the service, they can see comments that you have made along with anyone else they are following. I can only assume that Cloudworks has adopted the same model for this concept as I have been unable to test it just now due to a login problem with my account.
Straight up, I can see this is a great idea, and I really hope it takes off. The development team seem to have really done their homework when designing this service as evidenced by their research paper Cloudworks: Social networking for learning design as published in the proceedings of ASCILITE 2008 in Melbourne. This paper discusses the rationale behind the design, and they make a very important point. They wrote: “Traditionally design has been an implicit process, how do we shift to a process of design that is more explicit and hence shareable?” This comment deserved a blog post all of its own, but just quickly, being able to share learning designs much like what happens with open source software will create a real sense of community for learning designers. This can only be a good thing.
The website is quite easy to use and navigate, and re-uses many of the same themes of other social networking services such as flickr and twitter discussed previously. For those who currently use social networking software, it is particularly easy to get into Cloudworks.
I can see that this service is something that could be promoted to teaching staff at my own institution (CQ University) to try and engage teachers in conversation around learning designs, and to share and collaborate with one another.
Allowing comments on clouds is excellent. This really facilitates the social aspect of the service and allows feedback and generation of further ideas around clouds.
Conole, et. al. (2008) in their paper identified two key verbs for their service: find, and share. While I think the share aspect is pretty straight forward and flexible, the find aspect may need a little more work. I have some ideas on how this can be improved, but of course like many perspectives, they are highly contextual and may not align with the larger group.
- I can see that one of the major functions that I would like to have with this service is to find solutions to a learning problem. The service has clouds which are solutions, and stormclouds which are problems. But there doesn’t seem to be any meta-data that links these two together. As we all know, learning is highly contextual. What works for one context may not work for another, even if the learning objectives are the same. I wonder whether the application of a model such as TPCK to the meta-data of clouds and stormclouds would make it easier for these two objects to find one another?
- The people page provides an alphabetical list of users on the service. Sadly, this is sorted by first name. From my perspective, many of these people will be researchers and likely will have published. It is often easier to remember an author’s surname, rather than first name based on the number of times we have written citations to their work in our own papers. So it would be a great idea to sort these on surname instead.
- Another helpful function would be to allow browsing of users by their institution/employer. You remembered speaking to someone from The Open University, but you cannot remember their name. You are sure you will remember it if you see it. So why not browse users by institution?
- Provide more scope for users to build their personal profile in the service. For example, allow users to nominate their areas of interest in learning design. This would allow others with similar interests to form links and follow one another.
While the share side of things is pretty good, there are a few things that might help improve the service.
- First and foremost, RSS feeds. To really be called a social networking service, you must have RSS so that the data can be mashed and re-used, otherwise it is really just another repository. I can see on the What we are working on page that RSS feeds for cloudscapes, people and tags is coming. Hopefully this will get a high priority.
- Another idea which may belong to the long-term category is the ability to integrate Cloudworks with blogging services such that you can write your own clouds on your own personal blog and have it ping Cloudworks. This way you can create your clouds using your own blogging tool, and use it to share your cloud with Cloudworks.
On the whole, I think this has the potential to be a great resource for learning designers and I really hope that it takes off. I’ll try to add some of my own creations to the service when I have a moment. I’d be interested to hear feedback from others on what I have done and how it could have been improved.
Conole, et. al., Cloudworks: Social networking for learning design, Proceedings of ASCILITE, 2008, Melbourne.