The project is now into the practical stage of seeding, animating and growing a group. However, choosing where the ‘virtual’ space/s will be is tied closely to what social networking sites are available and on what basis, incorporating another question of which tools are available, followed by who to invite, how to go about it, and ultimately these choices must consider the purpose… why is the group being set up?

Participatory action research (PAR) by its nature calls for an egalitarian approach to the ways such choices are made. This helps to answer both the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions: PAR typically involves collaborating to explore solutions to shared problems, challenges or questions. It works by reflecting on actions/initiatives to then revise/refine further actions… in a journey in, around, through, to and hopefully, beyond the shared goal. In our case this is developing our professional capacity to design and offer effective learning support in tertiary education that is relevant for the twenty-first century.

Sarantakos (2005, p.333) describes PAR as “the application of fact finding to practical problem-solving in a social situation with a view to improving the quality of action within it, involving the collaboration and cooperation of researchers, practitioners and laymen”.  Walter (2006) also sees this methodology, associated with the qualitative approach, as providing an opportunity to critique conventional theoretical and methodological social research which aligns with this project’s search for theoretical frameworks emerging as relevant to web 2.0-based learning.

Grainne Conole, Juliet Culver (2010) and colleagues launched a professional social networking site called cloudworks in 2008. It opens and facilitates a space for informal social learning, an opportunity to connect and converse about shared interests on a global basis. It has helped to inspire this project which begins on a micro-level and anticipates movement to participation in macro-level networks such as the cloudworks communities, academia.edu and LinkedIn.

Preliminary discussions among our small academic language and learning support team have led to the establishment of a private group, connecting2supportlearning, using the free, but basic,  Wiggio application (the ‘where’). It can be conceived as a scaffolded experience for the team in that it allays concerns about the public profile a Facebook account represents for people who are as yet  unfamiliar with the privacy options now available. This original small group membership will now extend invitations to join this group to workplace colleagues involved in related learner support such as library services and the VET sector (the ‘who’). There are a number of free social networking sites (SNSs) available but I have loosely evaluated these on behalf of the team and selected wiggio as a starting point. The wiggio space presents a limited array of tools (the ‘which’). However, learning by playing, homo ludens, as advocated by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas (2011), in a safe ‘space’ such as this group, still offers opportunities to consider essential features of SNSs and the benefits and challenges they present for supporting learning (some of the ‘what’).

A partial snapshot of our group wiggio space.

Apart from playing with the tools available, group members can connect and converse about key questions this research project seeks to answer. These include developing shared understandings and vocabulary around web 2.0 based learning options, including notions of digital literacies, sharing and reflecting on experiences with different social media initiatives and relating to emerging theoretical frameworks to inform our practice. Our own team is exploring Facebook, currently just a profile and a page, with a view to designing a group. A small number of students have been invited to ‘friend’ us and/or ‘like’ us, with intentions of extending this to our full mailing list recipients. We have ‘liked’ some related pages and have posted events (our free workshops) and some status updates. The team is considering how our ‘wall’ might be moderated in terms of current automatic feeds from ‘friends’ or ‘fans’, as well as further content we’d like to contribute (more of the ‘what’).

Recent and upcoming posts will revolve around this research project, Connections, conversations and co-design: exploring the benefits and challenges social software presents to support learning for the twenty-first century.  This blog will function, to some extent, as a research diary over the next few months.

Janice

References

Brown, J. S., & Thomas, D. (2010). Learning in/for a world of constant flux: Homo sapiens, homo faber & homo ludens revisited. In L. Weber & J. Duderstadt (Eds.), University research for innovation (Ch. 22, pp. 321-336). London: Economica Ltd. Retrieved from  www.johnseelybrown.com/ Learning%20for%20a%20World%20of%20Constant%20Change.pdf

Conole, G. and Culver, J. (2010). The design of Cloudworks: Applying social networking practice to foster the exchange of learning and teaching ideas and designs. Computers and Education, 54(3), pp. 679–692. Retrieved August 18, 2011,  from http://oro.open.ac.uk/18384/

Conole, G., McAndrew, P., & Buckingham Shum, S. (2009). A new approach to supporting the design and use of OER: Harnessing the power of web 2.0. Retrieved September 21, 2010, from http://www.e4innovation.com/share/conole_mcandrew_shum_chapter_edner_book_v3.doc

Sarantakos, S. (2005). Social research. (3rd ed.). NY: Palgrave Macmillan

Walter, M. (Ed.)  (2006). Social research methods: An Australian perspective. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.

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I’m sure variations on this question have appeared elsewhere, in spaces where educators and learning/instructional/educational designers are sharing experiences and exploring the potential of MUVEs (multi-user virtual environments) for teaching and learning. The myriad conversations are lively, creative, connected, critical, reflective, practical and illustrate the intense interest virtual worlds such as Second Life engender.

The number of Australian universities (and other sectors such as TAFE) with a presence in Second Life is on the rise. Queensland University of Technology is one of the more recent entrants, inspired by established examples such as University of Southern Queensland’s Terra Incognita, an inspiring sim from visionary PhD innovator Lindy McKeown <aka Decka Mah>. I’ve been fortunate enough to be working as a learning designer with QUT in Teaching and Learning Support Services (TALSS) at a time when support for exploring the teaching and learning possibilities and activities outside and inside the organisation was beginning. My avatar, Rilla Shan, was only a couple of months old at that stage and had been developing basic mobility and communication skills whilst discovering what the environment had to offer in education… and socially.

I’d heard about Second Life a couple of years before from… yes, a librarian! I’d been involved in a TAFE Learnscope project with her previously and had continued to exchange ideas and information on emerging technologies and learning. However, I didn’t follow up on it as the tone was one of doubt in terms of value in a real world context and there were other interesting paths being explored for digital storytelling through the basic Windows MovieMaker application, Audacity for sound editing, podcasting, wikis, blogs and other ‘web 2.0’ tools for publishing.

It is involvement in the field of education that has brought me into Second Life. Innovative people and open attitudes abound I’m pleased to find; here I am encountering a strange ‘land’ with its own protocols, standards, communities, skill-sets, tools, learning, administrative and support challenges. I had played some PC games such as Myst, my children were engaged in some multi-player games, yet Second Life didn’t feature.

It would be interesting to know how others have come to enter Second Life. Responses welcome!