Thursday, October 13

Where Social Learning got its start: An interview with Dave Tosh

I'm sure many of you will have come across Elgg before. For those that haven't, Elgg is an open-source engine that allows you to create your own Social Network. Founded in 2004 by Dave Tosh and Ben Werdmuller, Elgg was often pitched as a Social Network for education - perhaps the first foray into the world of 'online' Social Learning, some time before the phrase entered popular parlance.
Dave Tosh has since moved to pastures new (as has Werdmuller) but I thought it would be interesting to touch base with Dave to talk about those early days before Social Learning became the phrase du jour...

Ben Betts: When you were in the process of creating Elgg, did the phrase 'social learning' crop up or was it yet to emerge as a theme in education?
Dave Tosh: I can't remember anyone talking about social learning back in 2004 when Elgg started. Blogging was just beginning to come on the radar, which did introduce some 'social' aspects but it was not referred to as social learning.
BB: Which segments of the marketplace were quickest to adopt Elgg when you launched?
DT: Education was the first group to experiment with Elgg, however, it was when things moved out of the Edu arena that groups became willing to pay for customisation which was the business model and ultimately dictated the future path.
BB: In persuading your early adopters was there much focus on the command and control mechanisms within Elgg? Were people scared of how users might abuse a social system?
DT: This was one of the major stumbling blocks when people tried Elgg. It was very deliberate that there were no roles and permissions. A student was on the same level as an educator as we tried to create a space where the individual (regardless of position) could control who to collaborate with and who got access to their content. This caused confusion and it was a constant battle to get people to try and forget (for the purpose of a trial) about the top-down, course centric, constraints imposed by the LMS platforms of the time in order to experiment with a platform that was bottom up, user controlled, and experience centric.
There were other concerns raised when we visited the US around kids using the privacy options to plan attacks on the school and the school then being accountable due to provided them with the online platform for this.
BB: In your opinion, is Social Learning a fad, a passing trend, or a sea change in the way we learn online?
DT: I don't know enough about 'social learning' to comment. For me personally, learning is not a solitary pursuit. I feel the informal aspect of the learning process plays a crucial role in moving from the retention of fact to a real/deep understanding. This is something Elgg tried to address: it was not about access to course notes or course work submission but instead capturing and fostering the reflection that many students and researchers do in the cafe or pub after lectures as this was often, at least for me, when the grounding of understanding happened; in those informal discussions.
BB: If you could have kept just one feature in Elgg for social networking, what would it have been?
DT: This is a tough question as different components were important to different people. Some liked the group blogging component, others the fine-grain access controls - it was dependant on context. I guess if I had to choose, I would have kept, and focused more on, the aggregation side of things to make it easier for people to use their own tools but still participate in the community.
BB: You open-sourced Elgg; was this a commercial or idealistic decision?
DT: Elgg started out as a simple proof-of-concept - there was no business/commercial thinking involved at that time - so the decision to go open source was based on encouraging others to help build out the concept.
BB: Finally, do you have any tips for how to engage and grow an online social learning community?
DT: I am not sure about a social learning community. Regarding online communities in general, I would never underestimate the importance of having an engaged community; the community is everything. This is one of the biggest lessons I learnt during my Elgg days.

About Dave:
Dave Tosh is passionate about technology, in particular the web, and its potential for creating new learning opportunities for us all.
Dave co-founded Elgg and is now to be found experimenting
on a couple of ideas around information accuracy.  You can read his blog at

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