There’s been lots of talk about social objects over the past year. A social object is something (it can be real or virtual) that facilitate conversation, and thus social interaction (Hugh MacLeod gives a good overview of them). Hugh argues that social networks are built around social objects, not vice versa. This may not be true of ego-centric networks, but certainly is for task-centric ones such as Flickr. Hugh’s take on them is from a marketing perspective, but as someone who’s interested in applying web 2.0 to education, the question I’d want to answer is ‘what would a social object be in education?’
On campus that’s probably pretty obvious – it can be the lecture or workshop, a book or an article. Online I guess the answer is ‘content’. This may seem obvious, but it’s significant because poor old content is often shoved to one side in the unseemly scramble to praise dialogue, interaction, community and collaboration. If we take the social object line however, content isn’t a nice add-on, it’s the starting point for any successful social network (or read community if you prefer).
So this reinstates some of the significance of content, but content-producers shouldn’t feel smug because there are a host of implications to this. For a start, it suggests that content only matters to the extent that it acts as a social object. This means that your content has to be good social content – this is not necessarily the same as what we usually think of as good academic content. For instance, content that may be imperfect is often good for encouraging others to participate, or content that is contentious may be better at stimulating debate. The very hard lesson for academics here is that the educational value is not in the content itself but the social interaction it begets.
It also means that content has to exist within a framework of appropriate tools which have the right affordances for the type of social interaction, and within a network of users who use the social objects as nodes.
So, to summarise we need three things for a social object driven mode of education:
- Content that acts as a social object
- Tools that facilitate social interaction around these objects
- A community of learners who find the social objects engaging
Getting that mix right won’t be easy, but my guess is that if you do, it’ll take off.