Thought Leadership

Enabling Online Education through Social Networking

Lokesh Mehra , Regional Manager-Corporate Social Responsibility, Cisco, South Asia

Back in the day when I was a student, knowledge was seen as ‘remote’ because it was brought into the classroom by the teacher. Today, it is indeed interesting to see how technology has transformed the way education is imparted; the teacher is viewed only as a facilitator while students actively share their knowledge with each other, making the classroom ‘remote’ and not knowledge. By following this model, students have access to a more hands on process that enhances their involvement and passion towards learning.

This emerging model of education is one of the main reasons why peer to peer networking sites are steadily becoming fertile grounds for educational institutions. The very nature of Web 2.0 enables users to communicate, share ideas, and collaborate making it an excellent medium through which students can learn and be taught. Hence, recognizing the potential to using social networking communities in order facilitate social learning among students is essential.

In India although online tutors have not widely practiced social networking to educate, the prospects are vast. In 2008 we witnessed a 150% growth in demand for online tutorials in comparison to 2007. Already a $27 million market, brokerage firm CLSA Asia Pacific Markets predicts that this figure will rise to $280 million in the next four years. The opportunities are enormous - India has the largest youth population in the world and yet employability is a big issue. Additionally, the need to bridge the skills gap is not being met by school and college graduates. If we can boost basic education with the help of current online certifications it will be a step forward in making Indians more employable.

Portals such as Studyplaces.com and Tutorvista are a step in that direction given that they function as information exchanges for students. Other sites such as 100percentile.com provide online examinations and analysis while mathguru.com offers solved questions on the CBSE Mathematics curriculum. The Indian Association of Medical Informatics, an association that provides IT solutions also effectively illustrates the benefits of e-learning. Advanced virtual training enables procedures like vascular access to be performed and with the advent of laparoscopic and robotic surgery comes great potential for training future surgeons. Additionally, conferences and meetings become more constructive as they bring together various specialists more frequently, helping students keep up with cutting edge techniques

Businesses already utilize education 2.0 as a means to help students keep up with industry standards. The Cisco Learning Network is a social networking site that lets users seek knowledge, training, and support to enhance their careers through various certifications offered online. The portal also has a mentorship programme where peers anywhere in the world can mentor others that are preparing for certification exams via discussion forums, blogs, video interviews and wikis. The benefit is that students gain from an interactive culture and are able to develop a real understanding of the lecture material through focused conversations.

As businesses increasingly deploy these new tools to stay abreast, educational institutes need to take a cue and get onboard. In the past, education has focused on helping students build their knowledge base and cognitive skills. Today, the domain of inquiry changes so rapidly that we would do well to introduce a demand-pull rather than the traditional supply-push approach to learning. Demand-pull learning focuses on participation. It is passion-based learning, motivated by the student either wanting to become a member of a particular community or just wanting to learn about, make, or perform something. This style of ‘learning to learn’ is best suited to the demands of today’s work environment.

For India to benefit from these new approaches, internet penetration and educating users with the aim of bridging the digital divide will be key. However it is still early. The continued expansion of network technologies, bandwidth, and computer capacity, coupled with increasing user familiarity with the tools, social networking applications, and the acceptance of innovative teaching methods offer exciting new possibilities.

Once the knowledge gaps get filled, the focus will have to shift towards optimizing and utilizing social networking sites as a powerful tool A firm commitment to move pedagogical methods into the digital age is crucial and when that happens, we should see cross-pollination of ideas that will teach us new ways to collaborate with each other and help create a richer ecology for learning.

A peek into what the future of education can be like has been showcased in the Terra Incognita project of the University of Southern Queensland (Australia), which has built a classroom in Second Life, the online virtual world. The project attempts to exploit the benefits of study groups in a virtual environment - it supports lecture-style teaching and allows small groups of students to break away from the main group and work independently. Lecturers stay in constant touch with both groups by ‘visiting’ them or sending them messages and then summon them back when required.

Lokesh Mehra

Lokesh Mehra
Regional Manager-Corporate Social Responsibility
Cisco, South Asia

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