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Social software and learning

Martin Owen, Lyndsay Grant, Steve Sayers and Keri Facer, Futurelab

The full version of this report is available to download in pdf format - see box below. On this page you'll find the report's executive summary, as well as some of the useful links listed at the end (skip down to links).

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Social software and learning (pdf, 994KB)

Executive summary

This paper is focused on exploring the inter-relationship between two key trends in the field of educational technologies.

In the educational arena, we are increasingly witnessing a change in the view of what education is for, with a growing emphasis on the need to support young people not only to acquire knowledge and information, but to develop the resources and skills necessary to engage with social and technical change, and to continue learning throughout the rest of their lives.

In the technological arena, we are witnessing the rapid proliferation of technologies which are less about 'narrowcasting' to individuals, than the creation of communities and resources in which individuals come together to learn, collaborate and build knowledge (social software).

It is the intersection of these two trends which, we believe, offers significant potential for the development of new approaches to education.

At the heart of agendas for change in education are a number of key themes which relate to questions of how knowledge, creativity and innovation are generated in the practices of the 'information society'.

Recent commentators have argued that our relationship with knowledge is changing, from one in which knowledge is organised in strictly classified 'disciplines' and 'subjects', to a more fluid and responsive practice which allows us to organise knowledge in ways that are significant to us at different times and in different places. At the same time, we see changes in the 'spaces' of knowledge, from its emergence within discrete institutional boundaries, to its generation in virtual and cross-institutional settings.

Moreover, the ways in which we engage with knowledge are increasingly characterised by 'multi-tasking', engaging with multiple and overlapping knowledge streams. There are also changes in our understanding of practices of creativity and innovation - from the idea of the isolated individual 'genius' to the concept of 'communities of practice', where reflection and feedback are important collaborative processes.

In this context, educational agendas are shifting to address ideas about how we can create personalised and collaborative knowledge spaces, where learners can access people and knowledge in ways that encourage creative and reflective learning practices that extend beyond the boundaries of the school, and beyond the limits of formal education.

It is in the light of these new educational agendas that we are interested in the emerging practices of social software. Social software can be broadly characterised as 'software that supports group interaction'. The most familiar types are likely to be internet discussion forums, social networking and dating sites. However, applications like massively multiplayer online games and internet messaging can also be seen as social software, as could group e-mails and tele-conferencing. Applications such as weblogs, wikis and social bookmarking have seen a recent increase in popularity and growing mainstream interest. At the same time, there are other technologies which enrich and enhance these practices, like syndication systems that bring information in a well organised way from one source to another.

New forms of collaboration tools are also emerging, where people can work together to build new documents or products. We are also seeing a shift in the 'modality' of communication away from text alone: podcasting or audio publishing via the net is a growing movement, and it will be a relatively short time before there is also good support for video publication on the net. Locative and geographically mediated activity via mobile phones is also a likely area for growth, seeing people collaborate around different spaces and places.

It is the combination of the technological affordances of social software, with new educational agendas and priorities, that offers the potential for radical and transformational shifts in educational practice.

Today, the use of social software in education is still in its infancy and many actions will be required across policy, practice and developer communities before it becomes widespread and effective. From a policy perspective, we need to encourage the evolution of the National Curriculum to one which takes account of new relationships with knowledge, and we need to develop assessment practices which respond to new approaches to learning and new competencies we expect learners to develop.

At the same time, from a technical perspective, we need to facilitate the development of open systems that allow different social software resources to communicate with each other, the creation of a centralised resource to allow teachers and children to access these tools, and the integration of a range of small social software tools into the desktop operating environments of learners. Equally, it should be realised that interoperability does not necessarily have to be realised through rigid standards, which may be counter-productive to innovation.

As with all programmes of educational change, however, we need to retain a sensitivity to the potential for such change to exacerbate existing social inequalities - as we see the emergence of social software as a potential tool for the creation of new learning communities, we need to ensure that there are not groups of children excluded from these communities by virtue of lack of access to digital technologies. We also need to ensure that such change does not ossify in a centrally managed programme, but instead retains a sensitivity to the specific and localised needs of different groups of learners and teachers.

In schools, we are already witnessing small-scale experiments with a variety of social software resources. For these to flourish we will need to see support in schools for risk-taking, and for dialogue between schools, teachers, parents and children about new approaches to learning that involve collaboration between young people (and others) across different times and spaces.

Useful links

Articles on Web 2.0

Tim O'Reilly's article 'What is Web 2.0':

The 2005 conference report:,1895,1868672,00.asp

Some tools to support weblogs/blogging

Some tools for clipping the web, and social bookmarking (more academic) (comes with an easy to use clipping tool)

Tools to help you create blogs

BlogThis ( works with Blogger, a Blog writing tool that allows clipping pieces of webpage, annotating them and then posting them to your blog.

Syndication (RSS) systems

A list of available RSS readers is at

Other media

Podcasting and the use of the iPod:

Flickr photographs:

Machinima: making movies from screen-saved files: and

Collaborative writing: the Writely collaborative word processor allows just word processing and publishing to a blog:

Broadcast Machine: posts videos to blogs and allows you to make internet TV channels:

Internet TV: DTV is a new, free and open source platform for internet television and video and lets users subscribe to channels, watch video, and build a video library:

VideoEgg: also allows posting video to blogs and websites and assists in taking some of the technical decisions:

Online radio: Synergy TV's Radiowaves for schools: and music:

Mobile phone technology

Crowd surfer:
Software which uses the Bluetooth connection on your mobile to locate friends within 80 feet of your location, and then exchange photos and information.

The software can display all Bluetooth devices within 25 metres. It also shows the signal strength of each device so you know their relative distance from you. The phone then matches the profile you create on your device with that of other phones around you, comparing your interests or requirements. It can then sound an alarm when you have a match.

Active Match:
Taking these ideas one stage further allows you to set up networks dependent on your location and your preset preferences. Active Match is the first application of its kind to combine location information with a matchmaking database. When a match is found, the phone beeps and displays the match (with the description and the thumbnail picture of the other person). The two matched users can now get in touch by phone or SMS.

'Push to Talk':,8764,46740,00.html
Press one button on the side of your phone and send an instant voice message to someone in your contacts list, or send this message to many people at once. It works like a 'walkie-talkie' but with no limit on distance. You can talk instantly with people anywhere in the world with mobile coverage. This technology is already widely used in the USA instead of text messages. This application is at its most powerful when combined with presence technology. Similarly instant text messaging is now available on phones and it is only a matter of time before instant video messaging will also be a feature.

The software combines social networking, mobile blogging, and geographic location. You set your location on a map, displayed on your phone, and then see the location of your friends. You can create and swap location-tagged photos and messages. This is currently experimental software and only available in the USA.

Tiny GPS:
Actually, not GPS at all, but software which uses cell location to trigger events on your mobile. These could include playing a sound file when you enter an area of town, automatically sending an SMS, turning the Bluetooth on or changing the image on the phone. In cities it can be accurate to 20 metres, in the country this can fall to 1 kilometre.

Mobile Commerce:
Mobile Commerce is the UK leader in providing location-based information services that are network- and device-independent and can be accessed over multiple platforms. Services can be ordered by the proximity to the location of a mobile handset with content tailored for this location. For example texting the word "cinema" to a short code would return your nearest cinema with a link to film times. Accessing these could allow you to read a film review or see a video trailer of the movie. Although this is a commercial service, quite soon it will be possible for affinity groups to populate their own location databases for people to share knowledge. The Wren family will be able to text "birdwatching" and local birdwatchers will have supplied information about avian study in the neighbourhood.

Active Codes, eg Hewlett-Packard 'Active Posters' or Neven Vision (, or Siemens Siecodes or Fujitsu steganograph. These are all marks on real objects in the environment (like barcodes) which can be decoded through the mobile phone camera. The code can then carry information like a website URL, a phone number or just some text that can trigger the phone into action. They have been used in treasure hunt games in Canada and in an architecture event in Amsterdam they have been used to barcode children's clothing in a day-care experiment.

Visual emotional responses:
The system can track the player's gaze and expressions to determine emotions or reactions. If the user has a bored or tired expression in a computer game, the game can provide more challenging activity; if the user is not watching the screen, the game can take action to retain his/her attention or ask if they would like to continue the game later. This is not yet social software, however as the phone becomes more sensitive to the affective state of the user then there may well be social applications.

Interactive streaming video - MxTeleco:
By dialling a short code on a 3G handset, you will be connected to a 'playout' server showing video content. You can then use your phone keypad to select different video streams or to split/change the incoming audio associated with the video. Each mobile phone connected to the service can have its own flash-based graphics overlay. Currently gambling activities are envisaged - an example is a live game of cards where you see your set of cards on the mobile phone together with video of the game. However it will be possible to develop collaborative educational activities using the same technology.

Location and geography

Mobile Bristol has a toolkit for creating location-based experiences, and its website describes some activities:

Google Earth links all kinds of data to maps - which create located social software:

MSN Virtual Earth offers an alternative service to Google Earth but at present is not as well developed as a community resource and does not really have much data outside the USA:

Finding other blogs or other people

There is a review of blog search systems on the web on Poynter Online: Inevitably, Google blog search is blisteringly quick: Google also allow you to syndicate your search with RSS, so you can keep watch on your chosen subjects: allows you to search 21.6 million blogs. This page in the social software blog lists 380 sources of finding other people:

Bringing it all together

Elgg lets you set up a personal presence online and then use it to interact with others. You can create your own weblog, journal, store of files like photos and Word documents, create communities, establish social networks, and manage your online content:

Knotes from theKnownet adds the functionality of group discussion, blogging, trackback and syndication to another free product - a content management system - Plone. Plone can be used as an intranet or extranet server, a document publishing system, and a groupware tool for collaboration between separately located entities. Together it allows a mixture of blogging together with discussion forums, adding annotations to other peoples work and resource management.