Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Online Learning

A Social Network Can Be a Learning Network” is the title of my essay appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s special issue on online learning. Go read the essay, then come back here for a bit about how the essay came to be.

A few years ago I was listening to a podcast featuring a talk given by Gardner Campbell in which he described a course blog of his in which students wrote not just for him, but for their peers in the course, students who had taken the course in previous semesters, and interested readers around the world. Gardner helped me see that when learning becomes public, it can become more meaningful for students.

Last summer, reading Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus helped me understand why. Shirky cited research by Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum showing that social motivations, including desires to belong to communities and to share with communities to which we belong, are powerful intrinsic motivations. Writing a paper for one’s instructor doesn’t tap into these social motivations, but writing a blog post for one’s peers does.

More recently, Randy Bass gave a keynote talk at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference. I wasn’t there, but during the talk someone tweeted a link to a project proposal that Randy co-authored with Heidi Elmendorf. That proposal included a definition of what Randy and Heidi call social pedagogies, learning experiences in which students engage in the construction of knowledge by representing their knowledge for authentic audiences. That was just the language (and associated theoretical framework) I needed to talk about these ideas with other teachers.

I’ve found myself using the notion of social pedagogies again and again in recent months. Back in September, my teaching center hosted a talk by our founding director Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do. In his talk, Ken helped me draw a line from the idea of social pedagogies back to fundamental results of cognitive science research. Ken argued that deep learning is hard work and thus requires well-motivated students. Social pedagogies can provide sufficiently strong motivations since representing knowledge for authentic audiences can satisfy students’ desires for connection and sharing.

One can implement social pedagogies without technology, of course, but teaching online (whether in a fully online course or a hybrid environment) provides some useful tools for connecting students with authentic audiences. And so, when given the chance to contribute to the Chronicle‘s special issue on online learning, I felt that the social pedagogies framework was an appropriate one. In my essay, I use that framework to discuss three educational technologies I’ve seen used very effectively: social bookmarking, backchannel, and collaborative documents. I hope the essay provides some inspiration for instructors to try something new in their teaching, as well as a few principles for making informed, intentional implementation choices.

Finally, just to make clear what I’ve tried to do in this blog post, I would like to point out how valuable online learning has been to the development of these ideas. From Gardner’s podcast to my blog posts about Cognitive Surplus to that tweet linking to Randy and Heidi’s project proposal, my own learning about social pedagogies has been made possible by my learning network. Thanks to all those who have contributed!

Image: “Trellis,” ~*Lauren*~’s, Flickr (CC)

Update: I’m speaking on a panel this afternoon hosted by Vanderbilt University, the University of Iowa, and Monmouth College called “Writing in Space.” I’ll be talking about social pedagogies. Here’s the Prezi that goes along with my remarks:

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