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By Marvin LeNoue, Tom Hall, Myron A. Eighmy
Marvin LeNoue is an ABD doctoral candidate in Occupational and Adult Education
at North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. He is currently serving as an
instructor at the University of Oregon American English Institute, Eugene, OR.
His research interests include technology-enhanced education delivery and the
use of educational social software. (Email: mlenoue@uoregon.edu) Tom Hall has
an Ed. D. in Adult and Higher Education from the University of South Dakota. He
is currently serving as an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership
Program at North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND. His research interests
include adult education in the 21st Century, the impact of different
generational cohorts in today’s workplace, and community education in rural
America. (Email: thomas.e. hall@ndsu. edu) Myron A. Eighmy is a professor and
program coordinator for the Education Doctoral Program at North Dakota State
University. Research interests include alternative delivery modes, learning
communities, and graduate student self-efficacy. (Email: myron.eighmy@ndsu.edu)
Adult Education and the Social Media Revolution T he advent of Web 2.0 and the
spread of social software tools have created new and exciting opportunities for
designers of digitally-mediated education programs for adults. Whether working
in fully online, blended, or face-to-face learning contexts, instructors may
now access technologies that allow students and faculty to engage in
cooperative and collaborative learning despite being separated in space and
time. By supporting the use of interactive methods and multi-media materials,
social software offers educators more ways to engage learners than any
preceding educational technology. Social software also empowers curriculum
designers to more effectively accommodate many of the core principles of adult
learning than was possible with earlier e-learning technologies. This article
offers a basic introduction to some new possibilities in the design and
delivery of digitally-mediated education, and an overview of the compatibility
between the capabilities of social software and the principles of adult
education. Digitally Mediated Learning Self-directed learning is largely
unconstrained in terms of time and location and has traditionally been a
primary affordance of distance education (Holmberg, 1995). From its inception,
distance education has been marketed as a solution for adults whose
occupational, social, and/or family commitments limit their ability to pursue educational
goals (Holmberg). In the decades since the 1970s, demand for distance programs
has increased as the globalization of national economies creates a competitive
atmosphere that drives people to become life-long learners in order to be
successful in the workplace (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). For
many people, the term distance education now conjures up images of computers,
the Internet, and online learning. In fact, with advances in mobile technology,
the delineation between computers and various other electronic devices (e.g.
mobile phones, music players, personal digital assistants, digital tablets) is
blurring, and what was once termed e-learning or computer-mediated learning has
become more commonly referred to as digitally mediated learning (DML). This
term implies that a medium for learning is provided by digital technology of
some sort, and that interaction between participants and between participants
and learning materials is not direct but rather carried out through the
technology (Grudin, 2000). The use of networked devices, local networks, and
the Internet is a key facet of DML, and online networked technologies are the
delivery systems of choice for distance education offerings (Allen &
Seaman, 2006). The accessibility and convenience of online DML is positioning
the online environment as the primary context for adult/post-secondary
education and training in general (Allen & Seaman, 2007; Kim & Bonk,
2006; McLoughlin & Lee, 2007). A Sloan Foundation study of more than 2,500
colleges and universities found online enrollments growing substantially faster
than overall higher education enrollment, and the 17% growth rate in online
enrollments A 4 Adult Learning far exceeds the 1.2% growth rate in the overall
higher education population (Allen & Seaman, 2010). Allen and Seaman
classified an online course as one in which more than 80% of content is
delivered online and reported that over 4.6 million students were taking such
courses during the fall 2008 term. Whether working in fully online, blended, or
faceto-face learning contexts, instructors may now access technologies that
allow students and faculty to engage in cooperative and collaborative learning
despite being separated in space and time. There has also been a trend toward
the use of blended learning or approaches that combine online and face-toface
delivery modes. As part of efforts to enrich students’ learning experience,
maximize efficiencies in time and facilities use, and enhance program
marketability, many institutions are increasing their offerings of blended
courses (Mossavar-Rahmani & Larson-Daugherty, 2007). This method is
becoming increasingly common in K-12, higher education, corporate, healthcare,
and governmental training settings (Allen, Seaman, & Garrett, 2007; Bonk,
Kim, & Zeng, 2005; Watson, 2008). The overall result is a blurring of the
boundaries between traditional classifications of instructional approaches.
Palloff and Pratt (2007) comment on the changes that digitally-mediated
delivery has wrought on our definition of distance learning: Today we know that
distance learning takes several forms, including fully online courses, hybrid
or blended courses that contain some faceto-face contact time in combination
with online delivery, and technology-enhanced courses, which meet predominantly
face-to-face but incorporate elements of technology into the course, (p. 3) A
future is visible in which schooling is dominated by delivery models that
feature multiple instructional modes fluidly combined within the affordances of
technologyenhanced delivery and interaction (Bonk, 2009; Kim & Bonk, 2006).
The scalability of these delivery models allows for the design of courses that
can accommodate larger numbers of participants than has ever been possible in
the past (Siemens & Downes, 2008). As experience with the operation of
mega-universities demonstrates, these models combine human, technological, and
organizational I aspects in a powerful way (Daniel, 2003). Technologyenhanced
delivery revolutionizes education by offering greatly expanded access to
quality educational resources delivered at a much lower per-student cost
(Daniel, 2003; Jung, 2005). The Social Media Revolution Designers of online
education have tended toward an emphasis on constructivist models of education,
with a focus on skills considered to be essential in a knowledge-based economy,
including knowledge construction, problemsolving, collaborative learning,
critical thinking, and autonomous learning (Bates, 2008; Sanchez, 2003). There
is a need for delivery systems that can maximize learner independence and
freedom by supporting open-enrollment and self-paced learning while providing
the capabilities for communication and collaboration demanded by constructivist
pedagogies (Anderson, 2005). Learning management systems (LMS) that integrate
geographically dispersed learners in asynchronous educational interactions have
been widely available for several years. However, they tend to be institution-
and contentcentric, lacking in support for the affordances that lead to the
establishment of flattened communication networks and collaborative information
flows (Dalsgaard, 2006; Siemens, 2004), An LMS is well suited for managing
student enrollment, exams, assignments, course descriptions, lesson plans,
messages, syllabi, and basic course materials. However, these systems are
developed for the management and delivery of learning, not for supporting the
self-governed and problem-based activities of students. Therefore, an LMS does
not easily support a social constructivist approach to digitally-mediated
learning. It is necessary to move beyond learning management systems to engage
students in active use of the web itself as a resource in self-governed,
problem-based and collaborative activities (Dalsgaard, 2006). Web 2.0 technology
can facilitate this move. This technology consists of Internet applications
(small software tools that can deliver active and interactive content to a
browser window) that support interaction between mobile devices and the
Internet, and allow interactivity between the user, the web, and the tool
itself (O’Reilly, 2005). These applications have provided Internet users with
the ability to easily create, contribute, communicate, and collaborate in the
online environment without need for specialized programming knowledge.
Applications of this type have become known as social media or social software.
Comprised of a suite of tools that can support 5 A learner choice and
self-direction (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007), social software can be used to
create open-ended learning environments that provide multiple possibilities for
activities, and surround the student with different tools and resources which
support the problem-solving process (Dalsgaard, 2006; Land & Hannafin,
1996). Anderson (2008) referred to social software technology as a new genre of
distance education software emerging from the intersection between earlier
technologies that generally support delivery and engagement with content, and
new interactive technologies that support multimodal digitally-mediated human
communication. Social software can “create opportunities for radically new
conceptions of independence and collaboration in distance education”
(Anderson, 2008, p. 169). Social software takes many forms, encompassing but
not limited to (a) groupware, (b) internet forums, (c) online communities, (d)
RSS feeds, (e) wikis, (f) tag-based folksonomies, (g) podcasts, (h) e-mail, (i)
weblogs, (j) virtual worlds, (k) social network sites, (1) instant messaging,
texting, and microblogging; (m) peer-to-peer media-sharing technologies, and
(n) networked gaming (boyd, 2008; Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009;
McLoughlin & Lee, 2007). Well-known applications include Google Groups,
Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Second Life, Flickr, and Twitter. The use
of social software centers on contacts between people (Shirky, 2003). Social
software supports fluid interaction among people, and between people and data,
that may lead to the creation of usergenerated online content (boyd, 2007).
Among social media, social network sites (SNS) are particularly useful in
digitally-mediated education delivery. SNS are defined by boyd & Ellison
(2007) as web-based services that allow individuals to (a) construct a public
or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (b) articulate a list (network)
of other users with whom they share a connection, and (c) view and traverse
their list of connections and those made by others within the system. Although
SNS users may be able to meet strangers online and make connections that would
not have been made otherwise, this networking function is not the primary
feature of these sites. The unique aspect of an SNS is that it allows users to
articulate and make visible their social networks (boyd & Ellison, 2007).
In educational contexts, articulation and visibility may recede in importance,
giving way to other common SNS features including (a) a suite of associated
social media tools that support interaction, communication, and collaboration,
(b) provisions for the storage and display of audio and video media, and (c)
hosting for customizable personal profile pages that support the establishment
and maintenance of individual presence in the online learning environment. A
well-designed SNS offers course participants multi-modal and multi-media
communication and content delivery capabilities that facilitate and stimulate
broad and dense interaction patterns, collaborative information discovery and
processing, and multiple-style learning opportunities. Andragogy and the
Internet Age An array of technological media can be an ideal educational tool
when correctly deployed within effective instructional designs. However,
instructors working in technology-enhanced learning environments must
understand that it does not replace good teaching (Stammen & Schmidt,
2001). To maximize learning, instructors must be able to accommodate the needs
of a student population that is becoming more and more diverse due to factors
including increased access to learning, lifelong learning pursuits,
recertification needs, immigration, longer life spans, and better course
marketing (Bonk, 2009), Instructors also need to be equipped to meet the
demands of teaching in an age when “the Internet is, inexorably, becoming
the dominant infrastructure for knowledge – both as a container and as a global
platform for knowledge exchange between people” (Tapscott & Williams,
2010, para. 6). Trainers and educators today will encounter cohorts of learners
who have come of age in the presence of the Internet. They make up what
Tapscott (1999) termed as the net generation, and are “forcing a change in
the model of pedagogy, from a teacher-focused approach based on instruction to
a student-focused model based on collaboration” (Tapscott, 2009, p. 11).
Students today want to participate in the learning process; they look for
greater autonomy, connectivity and socio-experiential learning, have a need to
control their environments, and are used to instant connectivity and easy
access to the staggering amount of content and knowledge available at their
fingertips (Johnson, Levine, & Smith, 2009; McLoughlin & Lee, 2007;
Oblinger, 2008; Tapscott, 2009). A world increasingly characterized by high
digital connectivity and a need for life-long, demand-driven learning calls for
the development of andragogies (Knowles, 1980) specialized to DML environments.
In a context of limitless access to information, instructors must take on the
role of guides, context providers, and quality controllers while simultaneously
helping students make their own contributions to content and evaluations of the
learning experience (Prensky, 2009). Palloff and Pratt (2007) note that
“In effective online learning, the instructor acts as a facilitator,
encouraging students to take A 6 Adult Learning charge of their own learning
process” (p. 125). Quality online instruction will include learners as
active participants or co-producers rather than passive consumers of
instructional content, and frame learning as a participatory, social process
intended to support personal life goals and needs (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007;
Tapscott & Williams, 2010). Social Software and Adult Education The ideals
of quality online education as noted above can be seen to mesh well with the
basic principles of effective adult education. Drawing on the work of Knowles
(1980), Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2005), Tough (1979), Mezirow (1991 ), and
MacKeracher (2004), some of the primary principles of adult education can be
summarized: • Adults develop readiness to learn as they experience needs and
interests within their life situations. • Adult learners in general are
autonomous individuals capable of identifying their personal learning needs and
planning, carrying out, and assessing learning activities. • Adults have a need
to be self-directing in their learning processes. • In adult education, the
teacher should be positioned as a facilitator engaged in a process of mutual
inquiry rather than as a transmitter of knowledge. • Relationships and
collaborations with others make important contributions to the adult learning
process. • Adults learn throughout their lifetime and engage in many informal
learning projects outside of educational institutions and programs. •
Individual differences among people increase with age; therefore, adult
education must make optimal provision for differences in style, time, and pace
of learning. • Adults bring life experience and prior learning to bear on
current learning projects. “As individuals mature, their need and capacity
to be self-directing, to use their experience in learning, to identify their
own readiness to learn, and to organize their learning around life problems
increases steadily” (Knowles et al., 2005, p. 62). Adults learn most
effectively when new knowledge, understandings, skills, values, and attitudes are
presented in the context of application to real-life situations (Knowles et
al.). Thus, the problembased, constructivist, collaborative approaches to
learning that have become prevalent in online education delivery are suitable
to adult learning styles (Knowles et al.; Merriam et al., 2007; Palloff &
Pratt, 2003; Täte, 2004). Adults generally adapt well to active roles as
co-creators of the instructional process; they learn best when they (a) have a
role in selecting content and developing the learning experience, and (b) are
able to build immediate relevance between learning activities and the
necessities of their daily lives (Knowles, 1980; Täte, 2004). Open-ended
learning environments built on the affordances of the Web itself allow for
self-direction and individualized adaptation/creation of content and
instruction, while social software use is often centered on collaboration. For
an example, social bookmarking and tagging tools like Delicious allow learners
to develop and share personalized resource sets, while tools such as Google
Docs, Wikispaces, and VoiceThread are expressly designed to support
collaborative work by allowing multiple users to work together either
synchronously or asynchronously in the creation of text documents, slideshows,
spreadsheets, and audio/video productions. For adults, learning is an
interactive phenomenon, not an isolated internal process (Jarvis, 2006). Adult
learners generally value learning as a way to meet a need for associations and
friendships. They need regular feedback from peers and instructors, and readily
involve others in their learning projects (Billington, 1996; Lieb, 1991;
Merriam et al., 2007; Zemke & Zemke, 1984). Connection, interaction, and
dialogue can be considered crucial elements of the adult learning context.
These are also primary aspects of community membership, implying that adult
learners are predisposed to favor work and study as members of a community. It
is now clear that learners build and maintain communities of learning in online
environments by engaging in many of the processes and behaviors associated with
offline communities (Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins, & Shoemaker, 2004;
Kazmer, 2000). These processes and behaviors include (a) sharing common meeting
places and histories (e.g. course discussion boards or chat rooms), (b)
supporting common goals and commitment to the purposes of the community, (c)
establishing identity and membership markers and rituals, (d) taking positions
iñ hierarchies of expertise, and (e) socially constructing rules and behaviors
(Haythornthwaite et al., 2004). Ongoing interaction is the foundational theme
underlying all of these community-building behaviors. The media chosen by
instructors as the main means of contact for the class will play the dominant
role in establishing and shaping the interactions among all class members
(Haythornthwaite & Bregman, 2004). Successful course designs for adult
online learning will deploy tools and activities that facilitate and encourage
interaction (Billington, 1996; Hill, 2001). To this end, a class social network
site built on a platform such as Ning, 7 A ELGG, or Social Media Classroom, can
provide a virtual community space where participants can meet and take part in
various formal and informal interactions centered on shared learning
objectives. This type of social space can be a positive component of an online
course (Palloff & Pratt, 2003), and can encourage the development of the
object-centered social structures (Engstrom, 2005) that arise naturally around
the content, activities, and learning objectives that constitute the
commonalities shared by course participants. Along with providing personal
profile pages that afford the establishment of emotional and cognitive presence
in the online environment (Dalsgaard, 2008; Garrison & Anderson, 2003;
Rovai, Ponton, & Baker, 2008), an SNS will commonly include useful
communication tools such as chat rooms, discussion boards, support for
blogging, and private messaging capabilities, all of which empower extensive
interaction. A varied set of presentation tools can support dense interaction,
and allow participants to establish what Haythomthwaite and Bregman (2004)
referred to as visibility in the online learning environment. From the
available means of communication, participants must choose the mediums through
which they will present themselves to others in the community. More options
mean more opportunities for all participants. According to Haythomthwaite &
Bregman (2004), it is “important when supporting collaborative activity to
provide multiple means of communication so that individuals and subgroups
within the full set of participants can use means that suit their needs and
preferences” (p. 137). Adult learners have fully-developed personas, and
are facile and diverse in their use of self-expression to negotiate social
interactions (Knowles, 1980; Merriam et al., 2007). They will readily make use
of alternative modes of individual expression including choice in the design of
personal pages or spaces, the ability to produce and display digital
photographs and art forms, the capability to play and share music, and so
forth. Instructors must also go beyond text to make use of all available tools
and delivery modalities as appropriate to content and context. Meeting the
requirement for providing a diverse set of tools for expression, communication,
and content delivery will help ensure a successful experience for adult online
learners. Informal learning happens naturally in numerous and varied places in
the lives of adults as they engage in a wide variety of activities to satisfy
needs or provide solutions in everyday life (Merriam et al., 2007). Adults are
capable of independently choosing and constructing their own learning
experiences in whole or part, and often prefer to do so (Knowles et al., 2005;
Zemke & Zemke, 1984). They are self-motivated to engage in the learning
process to the extent that the learning will help them perform tasks or deal
with problems that they confront in their life situations (Knowles et al.,
2005). Therefore, instructional designs for digitally-mediated learning should
exploit the adult propensity for self-directed informal learning. This can be
accomplished by offering dynamic learning environments where students may go
beyond content presented by the instructor to explore, interact with, comment
on, modify, and apply the set content and additional content they discover or
create through the learning process (Reynard, 2007). Dynamic learning
environments can be constructed from suites of social software tools by
instructors working within the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) paradigm. In
general, PLEs are digitally-mediated front-ends, or what may be thought of as
dash-boards or homepages, that serve as organizers and access points through
which students interact with an online information cloud that offers nearly
infinite resources for knowledge-building and training of all sorts. Workable
PLEs can be built upon individual participant profile pages on a class social
network site, or around blogs/web pages such as those offered by Word Press or
Blogger. Another possibility is the use of the online portfolio concept, as
with Digication, online educational software that combines elements of
e-Portfolios and learning networks. An important characteristic of mature
learners is the wealth of life experience that they bring to the learning
process (Knowles, 1980; Knowles et al., 2005; Merriam et al., 2007). While this
experience is the richest resource for their learning, it is also a source of
mental habits, biases, and presuppositions that tend to make it difficult for
adults to open up to new ideas, fresh perceptions, and alternative ways of
thinking (Knowles et al.). Mature learners may be resistant to the use of new
technologies. They may also simply lack experience, skill, or access. Even
younger students, those generalized as the net generation, should not be
presumed to be fluent in the tools and techniques needed to take advantage of
social software-powered online learning (Vaidhyanathan, 2008). Although many desirable
social software tools are very easy to learn and use, instructors must be ready
with systems of support and plans for scaffolding that will help all course
participants get the maximum benefit from the learning opportunities being
presented. While this may initially seem to be a substantial downside to
deploying these new online tools, any negative effect is easily outweighed by
the secondary learning represented by gaining proficiency in the use of the
technology tools that are becoming prominent and permanent fixtures in modem
life. As an indication of their accessibility, consider the A 8 Adutt Learning
fact that social software tools have literally swept over the online world, in
the span of a few short years coming into worldwide use by hundreds of millions
of people of all ages. This is a phenomenon of deep import for the way people
live, learn, and work. The power of social software is concisely reflected in
boyd’s (2008) comment that it has “affected how people interact with one
another and, thus, it has the potential to alter how society is organized”
(p. 93). In net-infused societies, new communities are being created that are
native to the new social software technologies. Accessing these new communities
requires a new form of online education in which educators are challenged to
create and sustain learning opportunities that leverage the learning
affordances speciflc to the technologies upon which these communities are built
(Anderson, 2008). Conclusion Technology now offers the potential for
customization of the learning process to the needs of each student (Reynard,
2007) and for accommodation of any adult learning style. The course interface
in an internet-based class is a portal to a literally inñnite expanse of
material and opportunities, and a correctly designed course will leverage this
fact by including a variety of elements that mix formal, informal, and
information-based models of learning (Palloff & Pratt, 2007; Russell,
1999). Social software tools empower students and instructors to interact with,
and within, the online environment, and efflciently use and beneflt from the
wealth of resources available in that environment. The flexibility and
adaptability of social software applications are driving new paradigms in
digitally mediated education delivery and have the potential to support
organized approaches to life-long learning. Teaching in a digital world calls
for expansion of the vision of andragogy. In this new vision, learners actively
create their own learning process rather than passively consume content, and
realize learning as a participatory, life-long social process embarked upon in
support of individual goals and needs (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007). The use of
social software applications in digitally-mediated education delivery
encourages collaboration, while supporting self-direction and individuation. In
contrast to standard content management systems that are teacher/ institution
centric and emphasize content handling and two-way communication (Siemens,
2004), social software offers increased opportunities for interactivity and a
distributed web of communication paths. In this way, social software fosters
interaction, a sense of community, and group motivation. Connection and
dialogue are supported. offering the potential for transformation and lifelong
competence development (Marenzi, Demidova, Nejdl, Olmedilla, & Zerr, 2008).
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education. Proper use of Web 2.0 technologies and social media can contribute
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