25 Years of OU: 2008 – SocialLearn
Web 2.0 was big back in the day, and at this distance it’s sometimes difficult to remember how much it caused us to examine many aspects of education. The OU was interested in how platforms like Facebook could be used for learning, or more specifically, if one could create a Facebook for learning platform. We are tired now of all the “X for education” takes, but at the time this was interesting – social media was showing how people came together quickly around topics, how peer to peer learning was operating, and the way resources (eg YouTube clips) were being incorporated into informal learning. It wasn’t quite the hellscape of deliberate misinformation it is now, and whether these attributes could be used to develop a platform that was more deliberately targeted at supporting learning was worth investigating.
The OU set up a project, SocialLearn, to do just this, and after some consultants had been in to speak words of wisdom, I was put in charge of it. We developed a number of scenarios, and some nascent sofware. But I think (and I was responsible for much of this), it got bogged down in University procedures too much and at times it seemed that its function was to produce documents for various OU committees. In 2009 I stepped down as Director because my then wife was diagnosed with cancer (she recovered btw). It carried on for a while under the more competent leadership of my colleague Simon Buckingham Shum, but never became the platform we wanted. I think now that tools like Grazer look close to what we had in mind back then, as does open web collaboration such as hypothesis.
It could be chalked up as a failure, but I think the OU learnt some lessons from it (as did I). When FutureLearn was founded for example, it was established as a company outside of the OU to allow it more agility. In general I feel that it’s important for institutions like the OU to be engaged in such experimentation and continually examine its role and how it realises its mission, but these won’t always be successful. But yes, I can’t say I led the project to billion pound success. I guess I’m just not a Silicon Valley start-up kinda guy.
Covid 19 bit: What SocialLearn highlighted for us was the importance of communities, and recognising informal learning. As HEIs shift online the boundaries between different aspects of students lives become more blurred, for good and bad. The physical campus provides a clear distinction between formal learning that takes place inside it and other stuff which happens outside of it. This is not the case with online. Finding ways to utilise this to the benefit of learners can make online learning more meaningful – even if it’s just sharing resources they find online in real time. This blurring was part of the intention of SocialLearn, and it’s still an issue we grapple with. Some of it is difficult – context collapse for students presents real identity issues, but the possibility to make learning more contextualised and current is also there.