Thomas Schalow Building an Online Learning Community in Japan: The Challenge of Distributed Learning in a Social Network

Thomas Schalow Building an Online Learning Community in Japan: The Challenge of Distributed Learning in a Social Network
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    From:  Language and Cultural Diversity: Global Realities & Challenges . Thang Siew Ming et al., eds. Malaysia: University Putra Malaysia Press, pp. 89-105. CHAPTER 6 Building an Online Learning Community in Japan: The Challenge of Distributed Learning in a Social Network Thomas Schalow 1 Introduction When I made the decision in the spring of 2006 to develop a social networking site for my students, it seemed like an organic development from my past work with learning management (LM) and learning content management (LCM) software. After four years of working in the open-source Moodle e-learning environment, I had decided to move on to a more collaborative software platform, and to what Lave and Wenger (1991) describe as learning through peripheral participation. I felt the new direction would allow me to update my own skills and give my students the benefits of a more authentic learning environment. Over the years, I had become increasingly concerned that all of my efforts with Moodle amounted to little more than pouring old wine into new bottles. As Herrington, Oliver, Herrington and Sparrow (2000) noted in a conference paper presented to the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, traditional top-down education is  still alive and well on the Internet, thriving in LM and LCM environments. I was worried the content-driven, teacher-centered approach to education Cuban (1993) criticised was not  providing my students with the learning culture or skills they would need to take with them into the 21st century. So it was that I began my search for social networking software that would provide the collaborative learning environment, or professional learning communities (PLCs) (Roberts & Pruitt, 2009) much in favour now among educational theorists. After a great deal of research and experimentation, I finally decided to use a commercial software known as  phpfox, first introduced by Ray Benc in 2005, to build my learning community. The decision to build my social network (SN) on the phpfox platform was based on my assessment of the features offered by the software and its unencrypted php code, which allowed for a certain amount of customisation and modification. In the spring of 2006, Facebook was less than two years old and had only just opened to high school students, expanding from its srcinal base of university students. MySpace and Friendster were older siblings from the US. Mixi, the most popular social networking site in Japan, had just been discovered by my students. It seemed like the right time to put social networks to work in the service of education. Of course, I could have merely asked my students to open an account on MySpace, or asked them to invite me to join them on Mixi, as colleagues at neighboring universities here  in Japan would later attempt (Halvorsen, 2009; McCarty, 2009). However, I desired to retain some control over the network, both in order to protect my students from online  predators on open networks and to provide me with certain administrative privileges I could not have enjoyed on other networks. I desired to engage my students as a peer, but I also wanted to retain some control over the activities I felt the students needed to be engaged in. Out of the box, phpfox is rather spartan in appearance, and lacked some of the key features I wished to provide for my students. However, the software was reasonable in price, customisable and fairly easy to install and administer on my dedicated server. A variety of “themes” and “templates” are available to brighten the drab interface and there is an active developer-base creating the “mods”, or modifications, that would empower the LAMP software to do what I required of it. I have for some time been convinced of the validity of the “function in form” relationship common to architecture and industrial design for achieving effective web-based learning. I was therefore determined to adhere to the criteria described by Keller and Suzuki’s (2004) ARCS model in constructing the social network, and believed my modified phpfox  platform would attract Attention, was capable of being Relevant and of establishing Confidence, and thus had the potential for creating Satisfaction.  My students were initially impressed with the shiny look of the software, but after two years of trying to promote student interest in the network I began to realise it was not an easy task to grow a vibrant network. As Drotner (2008) has noted, Few young producers of digital culture become interested in blogging, texting, or gaming because they are fascinated by the technology itself. Most enter the universe of digital production because they want to communicate on a simultaneous and ongoing basis with others, because they want to be entertained, or because they want to find out about things (p. 169). Japan’s most successful social network, Mixi, had made it seem so easy, but the more I learned about the secret for Mixi’s success, the more I came to understand the limitations of a social network for promoting my srcinal pedagogical goals within the broader Japanese culture. 2. The Distributed (Parallel) Model of Learning  Communities of practice (CoPs) are created by groups of people who participate in joint activities in order to create and share knowledge. In an educational environment they are more commonly called “knowledge networks’ or “learning networks”. The concept was developed by cognitive anthropologists, and is most associated with people such as Rogoff (1990), Lave and Wenger (1991). CoPs are characterised by 1) a shared domain of interest and a desire to develop competency in that domain 2) community activities through which
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