Social objects in education

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:

  1. Content that acts as a social object
  2. Tools that facilitate social interaction around these objects
  3. 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.


  • Josie Fraser

    Profiles ARE social objects. They’re not a real person – they’re a constructed representation around which interaction takes place – a specific kind of social object. They are artifacts which connect and make visible networks.

  • Martin

    I’ll take your word for it Josie, my only concern is that this definition of social objects becomes so all-encompassing that _everything_ is a social object. And then it ceases to be a useful term. In my twitter stream John Connell has also said it becomes a tautology – what’s a social object? Something that acts as a social object.
    Like the term affordances it’s possibly both useful and meaningless at the same time. I think working out which will be my challenge this month!

  • Andy Lane

    Good to see that you value content, which are both educational and social objects and could be learning objects aided by social interaction or social learning objects (hmm … that sound more debatable). I am not up on the social object literature but I have looked at the role of mediating objects in cases of environmental decision making and have applied that thinking to education in a paper I have written recently about content as a mediating object in education (I gave it at opened2007 in utah but is available from the knowledge network http://kn.open.ac.uk/document.cfm?documentid=10848). Following what I say there, all objects can in theory be social, just as all content can be used for an educational purpose, but what are the defining characteristics of a social object irrespective of its social setting or is it always a duality of object and social setting that makes them useful? Your three condition, suitably elaborated, do provide a good framework but purpose is needed as well as just engagement. Such purpose can be explicit or implicit,primary or d secondary, but learning has to be one of the purposes, not just entertainment or work.

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