Social Layers in Online Learning

The Pros and Cons of Adding Social Layers to Online Learning

Editor’s Note: This article has first been published on edcetera – straight talk on edtech.

Probably the hardest thing to “mimic” in online education is the experience of meeting peers and professors on campus. Besides making friendships and having the opportunity to directly interact with other people, working together on problems and learning with the help of peers is an important part of the entire experience.

Learning alone has its advantages as well. Students can study at their own pace and from almost anywhere, thanks to mobile Internet or free WiFi in coffee shops. But still, students will most likely end up wishing there was someone else they could ask for help or to keep them motivated.

MIT OpenCourseWare, Piazza, and University of the People

Back in September 2010, MIT introduced a first partnership that aimed to add a social layer to asynchronous content, in this case the very popular MIT OpenCourseWare. They partnered with OpenStudy, a startup that created a platform which enables learners and teachers from around the globe to interact with each other, similar to a social network just around specific content.

The initial pilot received great feedback from the community, and groups around popular courses saw quick growth in memberships.

Almost two years later The Atlantic is reporting about a similar effort from Stanford and startup Piazza. This time, the social layer is on top of an iTunes U course “App Development for the iPhone and iPad”. The entire course — as well as access to the learning community that is powered by Piazza — is free of charge, like the earlier MIT partnership with OpenStudy.

Again, the idea is to turn the classic “sit and listen” experience which can be transferred rather easily on the Internet into a more life-like interactive experience. The partnership is another boost for the startup Piazza, which received quite some coverage and funding over the past couple of months.

And then, of course, we have of the University of the People, the world’s first tuition-free online university based on peer learning and OER. They just announced a $500k grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation and added some very prolific people in academia to its advisory board.

From Web to Real Life?

But can adding a social layer on top of educational content really replace in-person socializing? Back in December, I read an interesting article on FastCompany by Kevin Purdy which suggests that face-to-face interaction is mandatory for us to work efficiently.

In his article, Purdy points out that Isaac Kohane, a Harvard Medical School researcher who mapped the locations of authors in over 35,000 peer-reviewed papers, found that the best studies were done by authors who worked within 30 feet of one another.

Another indicator is that business travel, conference attendance, and downtown city office space rentals have mostly increased despite the regular assumption that online social networks would replace in-person experiences, which Purdy sees as part of the human evolution that made us “… very efficient at working with, arguing with, and talking over ideas and pursuits with people, face-to-face. Social networking tools and remote technology is nowhere near as efficient (yet).”

Sharing Content and Legal Issues

Last but not least there, are the legal implications of social layers/networks around content. Both MIT OpenCourseWare and iTunes U are created to be shared, quoted, copied, etc. Hence, neither students nor the platform itself risk to find themselves in a gray area. But if you take the same approach for copyrighted material, you might get in trouble.

Back in February, e-textbook platform Kno sued Cengage Learning for breach of contract after the publisher pulled its textbooks from the platform. The issue was a new feature called “Journal” that enables students to create a notebook by highlighting passages from the textbook. These notes can then be viewed and shared in a separate view, which the publisher said to have “infringed Cengage’s copyrights through the creation of a derivative work.”

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Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at