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In search of the perfect social learning platform

June 22, 2009

Since my Moodle site is temporarily out of action sad, 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:

  1. It had to be free – or at least have a basic option that was free
  2. I wanted it to be hosted on the provider’s server (i.e. no need to download anything)
  3. 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…
  4. With as much of the functionality of Moodle as possible
  5. 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.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2009 10:46 am

    Hi there,

    We just added a more “professional” look-and-feel option for edu2.0, and will add three more skins in the next week or so.

    I’d love to know what assumptions that we made about our user’s needs that you found to be incorrect.

    Cheers,
    Graham (founder of http://www.edu20.org)

    • witthaus permalink
      June 26, 2009 8:27 am

      Hi Graham

      I think it was because the word ‘school’ came up so often on the site, and even when I searched content for ‘Business Plans’, most of the links took me to activities for school children. It might help if you had separate interfaces for schools and for adult learners interested in professional development. I’ll be interested to see your new ‘skins’ – please keep me posted 🙂

      Gabi

      • June 26, 2009 8:32 am

        Hi Gaby,

        Thanks for the feedback!
        Here’s a link to my blog entry that shows one of the new skins:

        http://grahamglass.blogs.com/main/2009/06/new-styles-for-edu-20.html

        The current web site “edu 2.0 for school” is definitely intended for high schools, homeschooling and colleges. We are going to release “edu 2.0 for business” in a month or so that is intended for business that want to deliver online training (usually to employees or customers). The default skin for that site will definitely be one of our “professional” looks.

        Hope this helps.
        Graham

  2. David Huston permalink
    July 15, 2009 10:25 pm

    We have been working with Haiku for the past few months and have decided to replace our four year-old Moodle installation with Haiku.

    Very surprised to hear you say that Haiku wasn’t a true LMS, but just a pretty content repository service. That is certainly not our experience at all.

    Haiku offers most of what Moodle does–and several features Moodle doesn’t–in a far more open, elegant, and easy-to-use framework than Moodle offers.

    It has the usuals:discussion forums, drop boxes, calendars, gradebooks, quizzing and testing, email.

    Plus, it allows for very easy embedding of web 2.0 streaming material. In fact, this was the feature that we liked the most and intend to use to the hilt.

    I suggest you go back and take another look. Haiku is the real deal.

    David Huston
    Laurel School

    • witthaus permalink
      July 17, 2009 12:06 am

      Hi David

      Thanks for your comment – I’ve just had a closer look at Haiku. It’s a bit more interactive than I first thought, although I still think the emphasis is more on content than interaction. For example, although there is a discussion forum, it doesn’t appear to allow one to create subject headings for posts or threads, and the forum view is quite rigid (you can’t resize it or select only unread posts, etc.), so I can imagine it becoming a bit unwieldy for long discussions with several threads. I also don’t see any facility for wikis or blogs. So, in its current version, Haiku wouldn’t meet my needs for a collaborative learning platform, although I can see how it would be useful for a more content-driven course.

      Gabi

  3. Brent permalink
    September 2, 2009 2:06 am

    Thank you for putting up these reviews; they are very helpful.

    I am very worried about the fluidity of these platforms (unreliability from month-to-month). This technology is developing very quickly and its seems as if each site is constantly tinkering with its design and features. This will make our job even more difficult since we have to constantly relearn and discover new tactics and methods for leading our courses.

    I sat in on a presentation earlier this spring by one teacher who had successfully used ECTO. I just went back to the sight to consider it for this semester and it had been dramatically rehauled (from May). I’m not sure if the host changed (looks like it has a new web address) but it definitely is still under active management (the copyright tag on the bottom of its pages is not an accurate indicator of when the site was last updated).

    • witthaus permalink
      September 2, 2009 8:22 pm

      Thanks for your comment Brent. I agree, we are living in very fluid times! But this is why I love the Web – through sharing information like this we can all make more informed decisions 🙂

      Gabi

      • Bangalore MBA permalink
        May 3, 2010 2:11 pm

        Hi Gabi,

        I really liked your reviews on different platforms.
        I want to build a Social Learning Platform where students can learn and at the same time showcase what they are currently doing on the platform.

        I might look at these features:
        Blogs, wikis, videos, video chats, project collaboration, sharing learning content, ratings and reviews,etc which are pretty much typical features of a social learning platform.

        Apart from these, I would want additional features like:
        A profile page which says a few things about what the student is doing on the network, search profile, conduct online projects (something like a google docs), distribute online certificates and based on activities assign points to individual profiles.

        Can you suggest me a platform which can help e build these features into my network, on demand?

        Thanks for your post once again..

        Bhargav

      • witthaus permalink
        August 26, 2010 4:08 pm

        Hi Bhargav

        Thanks for your comment, and apologies for the delay in replying. This is a great question. It may be that what you are looking for is an e-portfolio-based platform like Pebblepad?

        I’ll be interested to know whether you’ve come up with another solution in the meantime.

        Gabi

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