Social networks were used within graduate eLearning French university courses over a three-year period (2007–2010) in order to explore and evaluate the relative advantages and challenges for the usage of such tools in higher education. All students involved were off-campus, and they were following curricula as part of a master’s degree in Knowledge Management, Learning and eLearning within the Linguistics Department at Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 University: http://www.univ-montp3.fr/metice/_masterprogaf/.
A collaborative learning environment and an online community of practice were established by the authors (who were also the tutors of the course), and students were invited to use them to discuss pedagogical issues relating to eLearning practice via a private eLearning Exchange Network (eLEN, Marsh & Panckhurst, 2007, Panckhurst & Marsh, 2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2010), using the social networking tool Ning (http://www.ning.com).
The aim of the three-year experiment was to place students at the core of the learning process and enable them to experience and reflect upon collaborative online learning while engaged in specific practical projects.
This article describes and analyses the latest case study (2009–2010) and compares it with the previous four case studies. In case study 5, which ran from October 2009 to March 2010, there was significant change in the learning design (identified in Panckhurst & Marsh, 2009). A social learning object focus (Weller, 2008) was adopted and the pedagogical design was centred on specific imposed projects rather than on individual-led discussions. The authors were keen to check whether this shift would compromise diversity, autonomy, openness and interaction, which are keywords associated with network usage (Downes, 2008). This article addresses these considerations and discusses how tutor/educator roles are currently shifting from control to subtle influence and/or initial shaping (Siemens, 2010). Student/learner roles have also changed perspective, as teacher-centric pedagogy is replaced by peer-group management, collaborative sharing, autonomy and student responsibility.