Using technology and social networks to educate today's students
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3:13 p.m., June 26, 2009----What are the implications of social networking to education? How can educators use social networks to engage the new generation of “public” students? The University of Delaware Summer Faculty Institute's keynote session, “Harnessing the Power of Social Networks in Teaching and Learning,” presented by Alec Couros of the University of Regina in Canada, provided some answers.

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To provide context to Couros' presentation, participants were not only present on campus, but an even larger number were present electronically through social networking tools.

Approximately 100 faculty and staff attended the presentation in the Trabant University Center, while 275 visitors tuned in live via UStream.tv to watch Couros deliver his presentation. Remote participants as well as those present in the room commented and asked questions during the presentation -- and after -- using Twitter.

The archive recording was made available the following morning, first via Twitter, which had 80 hits in the first 20 minutes of release -- a testament to the immediateness and reach of the Twitter network. In just four days, 466 hits were made to the archive on the UD Podcast page.

“Students are public by default, private when necessary,” Couros said. “The public nature of today's students forces us to rethink how knowledge is gained, used and disseminated.”

Couros, professor of educational technology and media and the coordinator of information and communications technology at the faculty of education at the University of Regina, is a scholar and advocate of openness in distributed learning environments.

“Knowledge is changing shape, and we need to evaluate our new relationship to knowledge. In educational technology there is a shift from individual growth to group growth. Private and closed is moving to public and open,” Couros said.

“What I've really been known for is the use of my open courses. I've really pushed the agenda on open teaching. So I teach undergraduate and graduate courses that are completely open,” he said.

For example, Couros taught a graduate-level course with a group of 20 registered students called Open, Connected, Social in January, 2008. However, the class was not open to only registered students -- anyone from any location could “sit in” on the class.

“Soon we started to bring in experts -- people around the world just voluntarily gave presentations. About 200 people took the course 'informally' along with the 20 registered students,” Couros said.

Not only does Couros advocate open courses and sharing, he publishes in open access journals and uses primarily open source software.

“We read a lot about how we can use social networks to influence what we do in the classroom. And now we've got the tools to do so -- Twitter, Facebook, Wikispaces -- are all freely available tools that we can use to augment things that we already do,” he said.

One inherent characteristic among these new tools is sharing. “New knowledge is created at an overwhelmingly fast pace,” Couros said.

“Social networks really become the filters of all this new knowledge. Without social networks we become lost because there is no one to filter them. One person cannot handle the influx of all this information,” Couros said.

“Social networks change just about everything. They redefine communities, privacy, learning, connections and identity. These networks are formed around shared interest and objects,” he said.

Couros believes that using teleconferencing technology in classrooms can change the way educators think about education. “If you have the assumption in your classroom that at any time you can connect to another classroom, that really changes the way we do education,” he said.

“Social network is the larger term. Personal learning networks are what you do. More and more, the individual becomes the center of his or her learning universe,” Couros said. “Students use the new social technologies to become part of this learning community.”

According to Couros, a hoarding mentality is the old way of thinking. Rather than taking away value, giving away information adds value to it. Sharing knowledge freely is a gift that “I pay forward to the network and get back 10 times what I've put in,” he said.

Couros believes that some of the benefits of open education include sustained communities, transformative experiences, technical skill enhancement and increased media literacy.

“I really believe the future of education will be more open, more shared and more social. Isn't that what we want, learning to continue and sustain beyond our presence?” he asked.

To view the podcast of the presentation, visit the UD Podcast Web site. To learn more about Couros' research, visit his Web site.

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