The significant changes in the means people collaborate and share information have opened the way to form various study groups at different places and from different disciplines. A distributed learning environment not only involves teachers and students within the university, but extends to students at different universities as well. Nowadays, many technologies are used in e-learning, from blogs to collaborative software, virtual classrooms, forum exchanges, social media and mobile technologies. One of the most important characteristics of web 2.0 technologies is that they emphasize sharing, participation, and collaboration. A well-designed learning environment helps to improve learning by making information and instructional content available and accessible anytime and from anywhere.
Social learning is defined as a new paradigm of finding, consuming, creating and contributing information via collaborative commons. In this environment, community creates and maintains multiple forms of content and members of this community are able to find and consume content via an informal path. Collaborative learning environments have been proven to offer significantly higher quality of content as compared to formal learning environments. Additionally, social learning creates a higher degree of engagement among participants and members can benefit mutually from the links, cross-talk, and feedback. A lot of research has been done on the role of Web 2.0 services in supporting social interaction between students, teachers, and researchers.
In light of the benefits associated with the rapid advance in information technology and the growing popularity of social-networking sites, many websites are moving to adopt learning communities for easily sharing knowledge. Social learning websites are expanding and becoming more specialized; they support creating private and public work spaces. Furthermore, those websites promote active conversation between students, employees, teams, project clients, and partners. 'Livemocha' is an online language community that is specialized for language learners, connecting with native speakers for instructive help. 'Bloomfire' is an additional example which specializes in building an effective knowledge base for businesses through a collaborative environment; this website easily supports sharing knowledge and the discussions that surround business topics. 'Google Docs' is a service by Google that allows people to share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with others. 'Zoho' supports creating collaborative portals for effective knowledge management. Users can create a searchable, centralized information repository for easy organizational access. Some websites offer communities to build their own social networking website (i.e. 'socialgo'). They provide a set of features including profiles, messaging, groups, events, chat, forums, blogging and file upload. To enhance online collaboration between students, there is need for online community that can connect students from different universities and research centers.
This article highlights the importance of developing a Social Learning Portal between universities as an application of social learning between academic institutions. This specialized community can be administrated by information technology centers at universities. This community includes university students and teachers, and accounts are granted to students with valid university IDs. Information about students' universities and departments are public in this online community. The social learning portal can be divided into several communities; one community for each department, including all participating universities. Each community can be further divided into sub-communities according to specialization, for example, the major community is Computer Science, sub-communities include Computer Networks, Web Development, and Object Oriented Programming. In addition, joint communities can be formed between different departments, which can help different university students share experiences and collaborate. For example, a research project may include students specialized in Computer Science and Bioinformatics. Students who belong to this community can share the proper, related learning content and resources easily with other students.
This social learning portal enhances scientific research; it provides an online working structure for collaborative projects. Embedded in a user-friendly interface, the portal will offer research and publication guidelines for students. In addition, Social Learning Portal supports research group formation (under the supervision of involved departments) that combines students from different universities and various academic backgrounds. Instructors can add new groups according to their research interests, they can assign research participants to the group, and activities can be viewed by students from all universities; when students join the group they can see the group's posts on their wall, and they can participate by writing comments. Furthermore, students can contact instructors from other universities. Universities can assign weekly hours for instructors to be online and discuss some problems posted by students (office hours).
To develop a successful social learning website, factors must be considered during the design and development and some questions must be raised:
1. What is the role of universities for successful implementation of social learning?
2. The attitudes of teachers and students towards using social learning platforms, and the effectiveness of existing platforms.
3. What are the possibilities and barriers of implementing new and effective features/technologies for social learning in universities?
By introducing a specialized social learning community, the quality of the education process at the universities will be enhanced, scientific research will be emphasized, and social networks will be a more effective and reliable tool.