13 Nov 2014

Learning is embracing social networks, finds new Open University report examining global trends in education

Education can be dramatically enhanced by social networks, a report from The Open University claims today [13 November]. The so-called ‘network effect’ comes from many thousands of people learning from each other, but it needs careful management to reach its full potential.

The movement of education from the classroom and onto social networks is one of the key trends identified in the Innovating Pedagogy 2014 report. The report identifies 10 methods of teaching, learning and assessment that are gaining influence but which have not yet had a major impact on education. One of these, massive open social learning, brings the benefits of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to people taking online courses, by recommending, liking and following the best content created by other learners.

Millions of people are now studying massive open online courses (MOOCs) for free. Massive open social learning exploits the ‘network effect’ where the value of a network increases as more people use it. This new trend encourages online learners to connect to each other, join productive discussions, share ideas and create material that other learners can use.

Mike Sharples, Professor of Educational Technology at the OU and lead author of the Innovating Pedagogy report said: “Social networks have transformed entertainment from delivering books, radio and television programmes into holding a global conversation. The same is about to happen with education through social learning. By its nature, we don’t know how this conversation will evolve. For instance, on an online course with 10,000 learners, there are 50 million ways that pairs of them could connect directly.

“That is a huge opportunity, but also a challenge to manage the discussion and file sharing. Learning on that scale can’t only be controlled centrally. It has to come through social network techniques that put learners in contact with others who share their interests, reward the best contributions and allow learners to report issues.”

This new approach in education has been pioneered by FutureLearn, a company formed by The Open University to offer free courses worldwide. Each teaching element is associated with a free-flowing discussion, and social media methods such as ‘following’ and ‘liking’ help learners join in discussions and find the most useful contributions. For example, a recent FutureLearn course on Exploring English: Language and Culture, produced by the British Council, had over 122,000 learners who made over 357,000 comments on the materials. Another more specialist course, Improving Your Image: Dental Photography in Practice, from the University of Birmingham, saw thousands of people upload pictures of bad teeth, creating a database of images that could be accessed and used by dentists worldwide.

Other innovations covered by the report include dynamic assessment, where learners are offered personalised tests to support their learning, learning through storytelling, threshold concepts that are difficult to teach, and bricolage or creative tinkering with resources. Creative educational games such as Minecraft are bringing together bricolage and social learning, allowing millions of people to build shared cities and machines out of virtual interactive bricks.

The Innovating Pedagogy reports are published annually by The Open University to highlight new and future trends in education. A free copy of the report is available at

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