In search of the perfect social learning platform
Since my Moodle site is temporarily out of action , I made it my mission on Saturday to explore alternative learning management platforms. I needed a platform to enable me to produce a ‘sample’ social learning site as part of an assignment for my current USQ course on developing educational web sites. I wanted to find a platform that met the following criteria:
- It had to be free – or at least have a basic option that was free
- I wanted it to be hosted on the provider’s server (i.e. no need to download anything)
- It had to be easy to use (both for me and for my students/ group members) – ideally with the look and feel of FaceBook, and…
- With as much of the functionality of Moodle as possible
- And of course, it had to be robust and reliable. (Evaluated on the basis of my own experience, or independent reviews by other users who had gone before me.)
OK, a tall order, I know. I was basically after learning platform nirvana, but why not? This is the age of Web 2.0 after all, where anything is possible, right? Well, I’ll cut a long story short and summarise my findings:
- I started with Ninehub, since they offer free hosting of Moodle sites. I was able to create a course very quickly, but felt insecure because it didn’t look as though anyone from Ninehub had updated anything on the site since 2007 (although I found examples of some perfectly functional sites that had been created by members of the public on Ninehub quite recently). My unease increased when I realised that some of the links on the site’s home page led to error messages, and I began to wonder whether Ninehub’s Moodle platform had also been hacked, so I decided to look further…
- Then I tried Elgg. This very clean looking platform gets good press from a lot of higher education institutions, and has a great social learning community hosted by Jane Hart. The platform was a bit unwieldy for me though – probably because I didn’t have the expertise to customise it to my needs. For example, when I experimented with setting up a ‘group’ (i.e. a community site), I couldn’t create a series of pages under different tabs: all my content had to be accessible from the start screen. It is possible to create several levels of sub-pages, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the overall navigation visible from the start screen, and I wondered whether users might miss important content simply because they couldn’t see it. And so I moved on to…
- Ecto learning – they claim to be THE best platform for social learning, but like Ninehub, I couldn’t find evidence of anything happening on the site in the last two years. (Again, I might have missed something, but I think ‘currency’ or up-to-dateness is the kind of thing that web owners should signal in very obvious ways if they want to be seen as credible.) Moving on again…
- Edu20 – this platform seemed to have good features, but felt too ‘schoolish’ (in their layout, their language, and their assumptions about users’ needs), and so I decided to look a little further, and found…
- Haiku – a site with a very handsome looking interface that advertises itself as a LMS, but is actually just a content repository. (One of their lines is: ‘Content is everything.’) Pity, because they certainly had the edge in the ‘look and feel’ department.
- Then I stumbled upon Solution Grove, which offers platforms based on a combination of Moodle, Elgg and LAMS (the Learning Activity Management System, developed at Macquarie University in Australia). This sounded very exciting but required much more time to review than I had available, so I put it aside for a rainy day. (Now that I’m living in England, I have plenty of those 😉
Finally, beginning to feel desperate by this stage, I remembered my old favourite, Ning, where I am already a member of three groups (Maggie Verster’s colourful and lively Learn Web 2.0 with Maggie, Jay Cross’s interesting and diverse Corporate Trends and Innovation, as well as my old school network). After studying the architecture of these Ning-based sites (thanks Maggie and Jay!) and experimenting a bit, I discovered that Ning offered me enough functionality and customisability for me to develop a very workable social learning site quite quickly. One big plus was that I was able to entirely embed the content-based website that I had already developed (using Weebly) in a tab, which makes the whole course feel nicely self-contained, and means I don’t have to duplicate content. I also think the ease of use of Ning for end users (due to its FaceBook-like look and feel – see no. 3 above!) will reduce the learning curve for students/ group members who are new to learning online.
Post Script – a comment on my review process:
My methodology for doing these reviews was very goal-driven, and I tended to give up on a site fairly quickly if I couldn’t figure out how to achieve my goals. I would love to get feedback from others who are more familiar with these (or other) platforms.