Building an Intelligent Social Learning Environment

01 Jun 12:29 AM

Sector : Education Country : UAE

 By Dr Ahmed Abdulla Mohamed A.E. Al Dhanhani

The study of the impact of human interaction on learning, education and theapplication of knowledge is not new. A lot of research has been conducted into the areas of social learning, both from a psychological and an educational perspective.


The advancement in communication technology, the Internet and Web 2.0, has resulted in the emergence of a vast number of new applications, as well as, the enhancement of many older technologies by giving them a new dynamic environment to grow and expand in. One such application that has gained great momentum and success is social networking, or more accurately, online social networking. Individuals scattered around the world have formed online communities, grouped by their shared interests, and are actively engaged in exchanging views, active discussions and indeed, creating, and consuming knowledge at the same time.

Facebook users have exceeded one billion worldwide and the site currently boasts about 50 million pages and in March 2013, as Twitter turns seven, it will boast over 200 million active users sending 400 million tweets per day, and according to YouTube there are more than 1 billion unique users visiting and over 4 billion hours of videos watched each month. These impressive statistics have naturally lead to the question of what role online social networking can play in education, and indeed, in the learning life cycle as a whole. Perhaps the most relevant research field here is social constructivism, which is concerned with how individuals in groups build and construct knowledge in social settings.

When looking at an educational environment and, more specifically, a university campus, a reference must be made to the findings and recommendations of Professor Richard Light of Harvard University published in 2001 in his book “Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds.” The work that was started by Professor Light in 1986, and lasted 15 years, is a significant empirical study that covers a wide range of areas surrounding campus life. It includes over 400 interviews and covers about 90 college campuses. One of the primary revelations drawn from the study was that: “Students learn more when they study together in small groups outside of class than they do by studying alone; undermining the notion that such collaboration leads to ‘cheating’.

His recommendations included:

“Professors can do a great deal to improve learning by arranging students into outside-of-class study groups, and by dividing students into teams that tackle a particular side of a problem. Teams can then present their sides in class, generating discussion, debate, and learning.”

Online social networking adds a number of new dimensions to social learning, it simplifies and speeds up the creation of communities, it enables knowledge sharing and discussion with less effort and removes geographical barriers, therefore enriching the content of the collaboration and giving access to new perspectives and ideas. In fact, online social networking empowers an individual to partake in a number of different activities such as collaboration, participation and active discussion all of which enhance learning. After all, one of the best ways to learn a topic is to explain it to another person. It is easier in such an environment to review and track the various steps that took place in a discussion, and to reach a conclusion. It also allows individuals to review the history of such interactions, hence clearly showing how a view was formed and how an opinion was constructed and therefore enriching the learning process.

Ebtic Learning and Social Environment Center

That is why the Etisalat BT Innovation Center (EBTIC) decided to create the EBTIC Learning and Social Environment (ELSE) project. This project is part of a larger initiative driven by EBTIC known as the Intelligent Campus (iCampus), which encompasses several areas of intelligence leveraged to deliver the campus of the future, such as iGreen, iManagement, iLearning, iSocial, iHealth, and iGovernance. As part of iCampus, the ELSE project aims to tackle some of the above mentioned challenges in order to create an education based social environment that is built around the user and his/her needs by assisting them in identifying the right collaborators and content at the right time.

I was asked to develop ELSE on behalf of EBTIC. The development of ELSE started with long term planning, the development of a software architecture and a collection of ideas that came from EBTIC. Since those early days, I’ve been working hard at developing and testing the system.

ELSE seeks to leverage social networking to facilitate learning by connecting students and faculty in an informal learning environment outside of the classroom. The hope is that this will foster collaboration between likeminded students and faculty. ELSE will provide users with familiar social networking features, enabling students and faculty to post statuses, which can be commented on by people in their network, create groups and share media. In addition to this, there will be specialised social/learning domains, such as student only, and faculty only domains. These domains will allow the different communities a degree of independence and privacy. The site will also have a “Recommender” section, which will suggest content that might be of interest to the user, or collaborators, based on the user’s personal profile.

One of EBTIC’s main objectives with this project is to develop local talent, and this is supported by Khalifa University’s approach to education and learning. Khalifa University has been visionary in looking at state of the art methods and technologies that would enhance education and more importantly learning in and out of the classroom. To this end, they have allowed me to run several field studies with Khalifa University students. The initial field study consisted of about 100 students who are currently studying at Khalifa University, their instructors and a number of tutors.

In the course of this field study there has been a lot of outside the classroom engagement between the students and their instructors using ELSE. The students have used the system to ask and answer questions, and to seek guidance from their instructors and tutors. We aim to expand the field study to include all of the students and instructors of Khalifa University soon.

The opportunity here is to leverage advancements in online social networking and intelligent systems to create a proactive, adaptive and accurate interest-based social network learning platform where learning is achieved and enhanced through both push and pull methods anytime anywhere. This will enhance the learning experience and the construction of knowledge through collaboration. The accuracy of the system is an area that I will continue to research and improve, and hopefully in the future we will have a fully functioning social networking site aimed at students for the purpose of improving education, and not just socializing.

Ahmed Al Dhanhani
Ahmed Al Dhanhani is a software engineering graduate from UAE University.
Currently, he is pursuing his MSc in Computer Engineering by Research at Khalifa University in collaboration with EBTIC. The focus of his work is to build an educational social networking site called “ELSE” that encourages students to collaborate and learn.


Leave a reply