Using Social Networking Sites as a Platform for E-Learning

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1 Using Social Networking Sites as a Platform for E-Learning Mohammed Al-Zoube and Samir Abou El-Seoud Princess Sumaya University for Technology Key words: Social networks, Web-based learning, OpenSocial, MySpace Abstract: This paper presents a web-based elearning system that takes advantages of social networking sites and social software to provide learners with a comprehensive and feature rich environment for building and utilizing applications, and potential for collaborating with the right co-learners. To demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach, we have developed two applications that use MySpace as development platform, and composed of several services available on a cloud computing infrastructure. The first application allows users to query and access learning materials (docs and videos), while the second one generates quizzes. The system has a service oriented architecture that simplifies the management and increase the effective utilization of the underlying web resources. 1 Introduction Social networking sites have become a vital platform to connect people not only to digital knowledge repositories but also to other people. Currently it is estimated that over 300 million people use social software, and that number is still growing [1]. Social software is an element of Web 2.0 technologies that enables the formation of networks between people in order to share and create new forms of social knowledge. These networks offer a way for people around the world to communicate and collaborate with each other. These people usually share a common interest, or simply seek to meet new people. There are also social networks that are formed around content such as YouTube [2] and Flickr [3] where videos and images are the objects of interests. Furthermore, social sites such as Facebook [4] and MySpace [5] have become extremely popular with Internet users, in part because of the simplified interfaces they provide to desired capabilities. Simple yet powerful interfaces are extremely valuable as they make the power of IT accessible to almost everyone, with little or no training required. In addition to social networking, currently several social software provide a platform that enables users to build social applications. In May 2007, Facebook was the first to release an application development platform which provides an API that allows third party applications to be integrated into Facebook. Users are easily able to access and share a large variety of applications. Users like choice of applications as it enables them to personalize their experience, without requiring application providers to do extra work. As an indication of the perceived value of the application development platform, many other social networking sites have followed suit. Friendster [6], MySpace and hi5 [7] have recently launched their application development platforms. Applications developed using the OpenSocial API [8], which is expected to have a widespread deployment on all of the sites that support the API. This is in contrast to the proprietary platform being used by Facebook. ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 193 1(7)

2 The other elements of Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, instant messaging, and virtual office applications, provide Internet users with easier mechanisms to produce Web content and to interact with each other. These technologies enhance interactive communication and collaboration among participants who either possess related learning resources, or can help to discover and obtain the resources, or are willing to exchange and share the resources with others. Social interaction within an online framework can help university students share experiences and collaborate in relevant topics. As such, social networks can act as a pedagogical agent, for example, with problem-based learning. It would likely also appeal to the new generation of students, who are very well familiar with Web 2.0 technologies. Web 2.0 technologies, especially social networking software, provide the flexibility that is needed particularly in informal and collaborative learning settings, where people with different prior knowledge, learning interests and learning activities learn collaboratively with or from others. As a result, the critical challenges of Web 2.0 for interactive elearning is how to identify the right co-learners, find the right content, provide the right services, and through the right user interfaces to facilitate the interactive communication and collaboration in elearning domains. Identifying the right co-learners to effectively resolve a problem or collaborate with others has obvious advantages. However, this is a challenging task as it may involve people with varying levels of expertise working together collectively to resolve problems. As an effort to solve this problem, this paper presents a web-based elearning application which is hosted in MySpace Development Platform (MDP) [9], and developed with the aid of Web 2.0 and cloud computing technologies. These technologies are aimed at scalable hosting of services in the Internet cloud. To enable this application control user s data and perform complex data manipulation such as dynamic learning objects sequencing, a dedicated backend web server is utilized. The rest of this paper organized as follows: Section 2 gives an overview of OpenSocial and cloud computing concepts. Section 3 presents the proposed webbased elearning system. Finally, Section 4 ends this paper with conclusion and future work. 2 OpenSocial and Cloud Computing OpenSocial is a development platform that was implemented by Google and released in the end of It defines a common API for social applications across multiple websites. This platform makes exchanging data between the social network websites much easier. Developers will be able to build and provide services across multiple websites by using one API. This technique saves a lot of development time and costs and it makes the distribution of provided services much easier and effective. Every social network website that wants to make use of the services available through OpenSocial will have to implement the API provided by OpenSocial on their website. By doing this, third party services will be made available on their websites. Applications implementing the OpenSocial APIs will be interoperable with any social network system that supports them, and can easily connect user social networks. This would be very user friendly for those with multiple social networks in different web applications. In OpenSocial users are also able to contact people from other networks. Examples of networks that have implemented the use of OpenSocial are MySpace, Friendster and LinkedIn [10]. Users will not be required to choose which social network to join based on the technical abilities a network offers. They choose the ones their friends or contacts are on. For example, a user who is a member of MySpace can communicate with users of that network as normal. ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 194 2(7)

3 In addition to this, the user can also communicate with users from all the other networks that work with OpenSocial. This helps the user save a lot of time by only needing to use one interface that uses OpenSocial to connect to the other networks. Building elearning applications using OpenSocial API and social software as platform would be very effective as it provides an environment for learners to communicate and collaborate between each other. It would be much easier to find co-learners and join groups with same interests. Furthermore, elearning applications can grow especially fast on social networks, so before launching such application, one should think about how to scale up quickly if the application takes off. Unfortunately, scaling is a complex problem that is hard to solve quickly and expensive to implement. Fortunately, there are several companies that provide cloud computing resources where you can store data or run processes on virtual machines. These computing solutions manage huge infrastructures so you can focus on your applications and let the "cloud" handle all the requests and data at scale. Cloud computing technologies are aimed at running applications as services over the Internet on a scalable infrastructure [11,12]. They enable institutions that do not have the technical expertise to support their own infrastructure to get access to computing on demand. Cloud computing makes it possible for almost anyone to deploy tools that can scale on demand to serve as many users as desired. To the end user, the cloud is invisible; the technology that supports the applications doesn t matter. For many institutions, cloud computing offers a costeffective solution to the problem of how to provide services, data storage, and computing power to a growing number of Internet users without investing capital in physical machines that need to be maintained and upgraded on-site. Educational institutions are beginning to take advantage of existing applications hosted on a cloud that enable end users to perform tasks that have usually required site licensing, installation, and maintenance of individual software packages. Many applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases and more can all be done inside a web browser, while the software and files are housed in the cloud. In addition to productivity applications, services like YouTube, Google Docs, GBase and Blogger, as well as a host of other browser-based applications, comprise a set of increasingly powerful cloud-based tools for almost any task a user might need to do especially in elearning applications. Furthermore, it is very easy to share content created with these tools, both in terms of collaborating on its creation and distributing the completed work. Applications like Google Docs and Spreadsheets, YouTube, and social software can provide students and teachers with free or low-cost alternatives to expensive, proprietary productivity tools. Browser-based applications are accessible with a variety of computer and even mobile platforms, making these tools available anywhere the Internet can be accessed. 3 E-Learning with MySpace In this section we present in more detail our proposed architecture for a socially enhanced web-based elearning application. Fig. 1 shows a diagram of the main components of the system. It is based on the use of a number of existing technologies, the combination of which provides the potential for a new enhancement in elearning technology. We propose the use of MySpace social networking development platform and OpenSocial API to build an application that would enable users to search, access and use applications, share documents and other important information with other learners in the social network. Besides creation of groups with common interests, MySpace provides a platform for application mashup and allows propagation of news, actions and information along the social ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 195 3(7)

4 network, and hence, make friends aware of each other addition and changes. MySpace also provides a blog for each user with standard fields, which has been proven to be an important and effective web-based educational tool [13]. Fig. 1. Components of the Web-Based elearning System Some OpenSocial applications can be written entirely with client-side JavaScript and HTML, however, we have added a back end web server for the following reasons: To be able to write code in the programming language with more processing power such as Java or.net. Control of how much application data can be stored. Combine data from users on multiple social networks. Enable interaction with the OpenSocial REST API. The back-end web server uses Google Docs and Spreadsheets, YouTube, and GBase as a virtual course management system (CMS). The CMS utilizes an XML file that keeps the structure and URLs of each course materials. With the aid of the.net client libraries and Atom feeds APIs, the server is able to manage and search the course contents which could be documents, presentations, or videos. Furthermore, course contents are continuously updated with any new web resource that is found to be suitable learning object for specific topic. These learning objects are described with a suitable set of IEEE learning object metadata (LOM) [14] and stored in GBase, where they can be utilized later to generate an adaptive course outline. An algorithm similar to than in [15] is implemented to arrange the learning objects according to their education role. ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 196 4(7)

5 Fig. 2. Outline and a YouTube lesson for Ajax We have implemented two OpenSocial applications on MySpace. The first allows user search for and access learning materials upon his request, and the second generates a multiple choice quizzes. The web server receives queries from the first OpenSocial application with the standard http Get request about a specific topic. The web server queries GBase for learning objects that matches that topic. Then, it arranges these learning objects and returns a sequence of hyperlinks that represent an outline for the topic of query. Fig. 2 shows an example of a query results for AJAX. These are hyperlinks to learning objects which could be a document or a video hosted by Google services. The user can share the results with his/her friends and notify them with any interesting learning object, by sending gifts to them or by using MySpace activity notification mechanism and OpenSocial Activity API. Additionally, the server can receive a request from the second application for a quiz with a specific topic and difficulty level. The server constructs a query to Google spreadsheet, where the quizzes are stored, and returns the quiz to the OpenSocial application. When the user answers the quiz, the server informs him if his answer is correct or not as shown in Fig. 3. ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 197 5(7)

6 Fig. 3. A quiz generated by the second application 4 Conclusions This paper presented an elearning system that make use of social networking sites and social software to provide learners with an integrated, comprehensive and feature rich environment for accessing applications, sharing documents, results and other objects, and connecting with other teachers and learners. In combination with a back-end server and cloud computing, we believe that this could provide learners with simple and intuitive access to applications and can leverage knowledge within academic institutions more easily using technologies that many are already familiar with. To illustrate the effectiveness of the proposed approach, we presented two OpenSocial applications to allow users search and access learning materials and quizzes. MySpace was used as the social networking software to host the two applications. Initial feedback from users who tested the system suggests this approach provides a much better user experience than the traditional learning management systems. In the future we plan to enable the web server to interact with the OpenSocial applications using the REST API to provide users with personalized materials and quizzes. References: [1] Atif Nazir, Saqib Raza, Chen-Nee Chuah, Unveiling Facebook: A Measurement Study of Social Network Based Applications, IMC 08, Vouliagmeni, Greece, pp October 20 22, (2008) [2] YouTube. [3] Flickr, [4] Facebook, [5] MySpace, ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 198 6(7)

7 [6] Friendster, [7] hi5 Website, [8] OpenSocial, [9] MDP, [10] LinkedIn, [11] T. V. Raman, Cloud Computing And Equal Access For All, W4A2008 Keynote, Beijing, China, pp April (2008) [12] Jeff Sedayao, Implementing and Operating an Internet Scale Distributed Application using Service Oriented Architecture Principles and Cloud Computing Infrastructure, iiwas2008, Linz, Austria, pp , November, (2008) [13] Mohamed Amine Chatti, Matthias Jarke, Social Software for Bottom-Up Knowledge Networking and Community Building, Knowledge Networks: The Social Software Perspective, Chapter 2, pp , imprint of IGI Global, (2009) [14] [LOM] IEEE , Learning Object v1 Metadata Final Draft. (2002) [15] Farrell, R., Liburd, S., Thomas, J. Dynamic Assembly of Learning Objects WWW2004, pp (2004) Author(s): Mohammed, Al-Zoube, Dr. Princess Sumaya University for Technology, Dept. of Computer Graphics and Animation Amman-Jordan Samir, Abou El-Seoud, Prof. Princess Sumaya University for Technology, Dept. of Computer Science Amman-Jordan ICL 2009 Proceedings - Page 199 7(7)

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