Social networks for education

Social Networks exist on many levels and in a variety of orientations, from family or dating networks over business circles up to national or international interdisciplinary contact networks. People within these networks share ideas, contacts and opportunities for many different reasons. The idea behind social networking is to benefit from the variety of different sources, instead of uniting them for one single goal as is done, for example, in lobbyist organisations.

The Internet has empowered social networking enormously. So why not exploit their potential for delivering education and training resources on the Internet, asks Iginio Gagliardone, Project Manager at the UNESCO IICBA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He will investigate how two different but complementary resources, such as on-line social networks and creative common licenses, another important development stemming from the Open Source and Open Content movement, can be put to work for consolidating and disseminating educational resources on the Internet. The eLearing Africa editorial team has had the chance to pose a few questions to him in advance.

eLA: What do you consider the most important social software innovations of the last years?

Iginio Gagliardone: Online social networks and the simple applications that make them possible represent one of the most successful examples of social engineering. It can be argued that social software represents a translation of the principles inspiring Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) into another language. As FOSS is clustering intelligences and energies of millions of developers around concrete projects and applications, social software like “MeetUp” is giving to “ordinary” citizens the opportunity to experiment with the advantages of collaborative work in extremely diverse domains.

The most important innovations in this field are the ones created by the social networks themselves. Social software is not complex and innovative per se but is what allows innovation to proliferate among circles of people who share common knowledge and passions.

eLA: Where do you see their potential for improving educational resources in Africa?

Iginio Gagliardone: In Africa I see a great risk of wasting important resources and intelligences. Various organizations are often engaged in very similar projects without being aware of what the others are doing.

Iginio Gagliardone: That’s why we occasionally have to spend a lot of money to have all the potential key players sitting around the same table. Conferences sometimes do, in fact, update participants about who is doing what and in creating partnerships, but the follow ups are often a problem. How is it possible to keep these people in touch, how to avoid wastage of resources?

Having a common support, a technology-enhanced platform for continuing to work together can be a great help – something like Wikipedia, where people meet, edit, update. But in this case, not items of an encyclopedia but textbooks for school children or manuals for university students.

eLA: Do you have any concrete examples for the use or implementation of social software tools in the African context?

Iginio Gagliardone: Unfortunately I haven’t seen anything like this yet, but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t groups of people experimenting with these kinds of resources on the Continent. Nevertheless, it must be said that the idea of releasing papers, research and books under creative commons licenses and sharing them among a group of experts who can modify and improve them is relatively new everywhere in the world.

Some examples can be found in the most advanced and innovative academic circles. At Rice University in the US, for example, these tools have been efficiently used to develop a project named Connexions. I quote from their website: “Connexions will offer an online library of networked content that will allow instructors to pick and choose best-of-breed instructional materials. Experts around the world will develop and contribute modules of information specific to their own expertise. These modules — which may take the form of individual chapters, or even smaller sections of chapters — will act as a giant, constantly evolving library of information that can be tweaked to any given instructor’s satisfaction. By selecting specific modules and then using Connexion’s free, XML-based editing tools to modify the emphasis of a given course, instructors will be able to create custom textbooks”.

eLA: Which role do collaborative tools like blogs, wikis, etc. play in the African context – also with regard to society, media, etc.

Iginio Gagliardone: Blogs and wikis are still new to the African context and represent obscure words for many teachers and students.

In the case of media, the situation is different. These tools are often perceived as a way to express alternative views on society and everyday politics. The problem is that these views still circulate among a niche of people and are sometimes not exempted from inciting hatred.

Nevertheless the use of blogs for reporting demonstrates an important fact: that motivations come before technology. Before teaching to students how to use Word, Excel, or a blog, it’s important to teach to them what they can do with them and how these means will extend their opportunity to work for a better future.

eLA: Mr Gagliardone, you are a Project Officer with the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa. What are the main tasks of the UNESCO IICBA organization and what is your units function?

Iginio Gagliardone: UNESCO-IICBA’s main mission is to help teachers in Africa provide quality education to their students. The role of our unit in particular is to analyze what technology can do to support this process, when possible.

In some cases we adopt much more traditional methods. We currently have a project in Ethiopia with multigrade schools for providing education in remote rural areas in the country. We don’t think that computers connected together are always the answer.

About Iginio Gagliardione

Iginio Gagliardone is Project Officer at the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (competitively selected for the UN fellowship programme). He previously worked as a consultant for the Italian Ministry of Innovation and Technology in Rome, Italy in the implementation of e-government projects and as Coordinator of the European Section of the Global Governance and Communication Rights. The project was aimed at promoting communication rights and consequently reforming media governance. He has extensive experience in international project management. Iginio graduated from the University of Bologna and holds a diploma from the Italian Society for International Organisation.

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