Archive for November, 2010

New cognitive learning tools for professional practice using social and participatory media

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

This blog post is a draft of a chapter I am currently working on; would welcome thoughts on it. It explores how new open, social and participatory media can be used as cognitive learning tools to promote professional practice and critical reflection. It begins by referencing a recent review of web 2.0 tools and the ways in which they are being used to support new forms of dialogic engagement, social networking and collective aggregation of knowledge. It then focuses on the ways in which some of the existing web 2.0 tools are being used by practitioners, focussing in particular on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. It then introduces a new social networking tool, Cloudworks, which has been specifically developed to enable practitioners to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas. The structure and functionality of the site will be described, along with some examples of user behaviour that demonstrate how practitioners are using it to promote evidence-based approaches to practice. It will conclude by reflecting on the implications of such tools for learning and teaching and suggest ways in which open, participatory and social media might increasingly act as important social and cognitive tools for learners and teachers in the future.In a recent review of Web 2.0 tools and practice it was evident that new technologies are offering new ways for learners and teachers to engage in more open, social and participatory practices (Conole and Alevizou, 2010). These tools are fundamentally changing the way in which users are interacting, finding and using information, communicating and collaborating. The sheer scale and scope of the Internet enable networked effects to occur, facilitating collective intelligence on a scale not possible before. Users and tools co-evolve; so for example new tools become appropriated into a user’s personal digital environment; adapted and personalised as needed. These changes can be reflected by close scrutiny of a number of tools that are particularly popular; namely blogs, Twitter and facebook. Blogs have been taken up across disciplines as tools for sharing ideas and critical reflection. Blogs are used as both a means of dissemination and reflection. They offer new and immediate forms of communication and sit alongside more established means of communication, such as scholarly journals. Twitter, as a form of micro-blogging, has become important in recent years in a number of respects:  firstly, as a means of sharing ideas, secondly as a mechanism for communication and dissemination and thirdly, as a way of asking questions. Through the notion of a hash tag, Twitter has become important as a back channel at conferences, and as a means of having selective conversations about particular topics. Facebook has become incredibly important as a social networking tool. It straddles both personal and professional spheres, offering a space for sharing and discussing. Through the notion of connecting to friends and updating status links, users can interact and communicate with their own personal network. Facebook is used for both personal and professional activities. Special interest groups on particular topics have developed and updates tend to be a mix of both personal and professional reflections.

These tools arguably are changing the way in which learners and teachers are communicating and even thinking. They act as cognitive tools, extending learner and teacher’s distributed cognition (Salomon, 1993). As Jenkins et al. (2006) argue new digital literacies are needed to be part of what they term this new participatory culture and they list the following as the digital literacies that are needed.

·           Play - the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving

·           Performance - the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

·           Simulation - the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes

·           Appropriation - the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

·           Multitasking - the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details

·           Distributed Cognition - the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

·           Collective Intelligence - the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal

·           Judgment - the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

·           Transmedia Navigation - the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

·           Networking - the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

·           Negotiation - the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms

·           Visualization - the ability to interpret and create data representations for the purposes of expressing ideas, finding patterns, and identifying trends.

Today’s teachers therefore not only have to master these new digital literacies, but also need to have a good understanding of new technologies and how they might be used in a learning and teaching context. When asked what they need to harness these technologies, overriding they say two things: ‘give me examples of how others in my discipline have used particular technologies’ and ‘provide me with a means of communicating with others who have similar interests’. At first face, Web 2.0 tools seem to provide the obvious mechanism for facilitating this, but in reality teachers are not using Web 2.0 tools extensively. As a result we decide to address this by creating a new social networking tool, Cloudworks, which was specifically designed as a space to support the sharing and discussing of learning and teaching ideas. The site was built from scratch, harnessing the best of web 2.0 functionality, but specifically aimed to support teachers. A number of papers describe how the site has been designed and evaluated (Conole and Culver, 2009; Conole and Culver, 2010). In addition we have developed a community indicatory framework, which can be used to analyse new patterns of user behaviour on the site (Galley et al., forthcoming). We have adopted a design-based research approach to the development and evaluation of the site Gibbons and Brewer (2005).

Cloudworks is a powerful new form of social networking tool: particularly suited for sharing, debating and co-creating of ideas (Conole and Culver, 2010). The site combines a mix of Web 2.0 functionality and enables new forms of communication and collaboration and cross-boundary interactions between different communities of users. The core object in the site is a ‘Cloud’, which can be aggregated into community spaces called ‘Cloudscapes’. In the Cloudworks site a Cloud can be anything to do with learning and teaching (a description of a learning and teaching practice, an outline about a particular tool or resource, a discussion point). Clouds combine a number of features of other Web 2.0 technologies. Firstly, they are like collective blogs, i.e. additional material can be added to the Cloud, which appears as series of sequential entries under the first contribution. Secondly, they are like discussion forums, there is a column under the main Cloud where users can post comments. Thirdly, they are like social bookmarking sites, i.e. links and academic references can be added. Finally they have a range of other functionalities common on Web 2.0 sites, such as ‘tagging’, ‘favouriting’, RSS feeds, the concept of following, and activity streams. Collectively these features provide a range of routes through the site and enable users to collectively improve clouds in a number of ways. The homepage of the site, in addition to providing standard navigation routes (such as browsing of Clouds, Cloudscapes and people and searching), lists currently active Clouds and five featured Cloudscapes. All recent activities on the site (newly created clouds and cloudscapes, comments, additions, etc) are listing in a site Cloudstream. Although the first use of the tool has been to support educators, it could be used to support any communities wanting a space to share and discuss issues and ideas. The site was launched in July 2009. The site represents a truly international community with 116, 374 visits from 177 countries. One of the most power features of the site is that it facilitates boundary crossings between communities, enabling different stakeholders (policy makers, researchers, teachers, learners, etc.) to interact in unanticipated ways.

One of the key distinctive features of Cloudworks and its advantage over other social networking sites is the way it enables and facilitates not only connections within communities but between them. It enables crossing of boundaries between communities. There is something distinctive about the general layout and functionality of Clouds – which in essence are a kind of mix of collective blog, discussion forum, social bookmarking, addition of links and embeds. This mixed functionality seems to be promoting new and interesting forms of social interaction. It has a genuine global reach with different kinds of stakeholders. For example in the current site researchers are interacting with teachers, policy makers, learners, etc. A core principle of the site is that it is totally open; anyone can see anything in the site. This means it has genuine global reach and ensures that it harnesses the best of Web 2.0 practices and affordances. Serendipity has been built into the site in a variety of ways, this enables individuals to cross community boundaries and make unexpected connections. The site offers powerful mechanisms for supporting social networks in a range of ways and at different levels. At the time of writing there are 3461 registered users, 3621 Clouds and 401 Cloudscapes. The site works well alongside other Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, Twitter and facebook, It is being used in a variety of ways; to support workshops and conferences, as a virtual reading space, open research reviews and spaces to discuss particular learning and teaching issues. An open source version of the site is now also available (

The site already has a rich set of web 2.0 functionality; such as collective improvement of clouds via additional content, tagging, links and academic references, embedding of different types of content (such as blogs, video clips, voxpops etc), sequential discussion space, activity streams called Cloudstreams (for the whole site, individual cloudscapes, and individual users), functionality to ‘follow’ people – their activities on the site then appear in a personalised Cloudstream, voting and recommender tools, a personalised bookmarking feature ‘My Favourites’, and automatic embedding of Twitter streams on cloudscapes. There are multiple routes through and ways of connecting, so that individuals can personalise the use of the site to their own preferred ways of working. We now have a dynamic and self-sustaining community, with the emergence of individual champions and local colonisation of sections of the site. We have a lot of experience now as to how to foster and build this form of self-sustainability. One of the rich features of Cloudworks is the way in which there is a mixture of different types of activities occurring in the same space – events, reading groups, flash debates, online consultations, online research reviews.

This chapter has described a new social networking site, Cloudworks, which provides an example of a new form of cognitive tool designed to enable teachers to discuss and share learning and teaching ideas. The site combines different Web 2.0 technologies and enables teachers to share ideas, links and references and discuss learning and teaching topics. It will be interesting to see how the site continues to develop now that there is a sustained international community of users and in particular how new patterns of user behaviour emerge and how the site becomes part of users’ broader personal digital landscape.
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): 679 - 692.

Conole and Culver (2009), Cloudworks: social networking for learning design,  Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(5), pp. 763–782,

Conole, G, and Alevizou, P. (2010), A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education, HE Academy commissioned report,

Jenkins, H., with Clinton, K., Purushotma, R. Robinson, A. J., & Weigel, M. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Chicago, IL: MacArthur Foundation.

Galley, R., Conole, G. and Alevizou, P. (submitted), Community Indicators: A framework for building and evaluating community activity on Cloudworks, Interactive Learning Environments.

Gibbons, A.S. and Brewer, E.K. (2005), Elementary principles of design languages and design notation systems for instructional design, 111 – 129, in J.M. Spector, C. Ohrazda, A. Van Schaack and D.A. Wiley (Eds), Innovations in instructional technology, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ.

Salomon, G. (Ed.). (1993). Distributed cognitions - pyschological and educational considerations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.