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Enterprise Social Software and Higher Education



Enterprise Social Software (ESS) has demonstrated the ability to provide business value to the corporate world and institutions of higher learning alike. This is evident in such areas as reducing travel expenses, enhancing productivity through improved collaboration, streamlining processes among  administrative  staff, improving the classroom and research experience, and potentially fostering enhanced collaboration among allied universities and private research institutions. Frameworks such as Cisco WebEx Social provide the platform and associated  functionality upon which higher education can leverage.

Yet the natural question arises as to whether ESS platforms truly enhance learning and provide a positive impact on teaching. Does it improve student satisfaction, increase passing and retention? After all, that is the primary mission in higher education at the end of the day. In order to answer that question, you need to first answer the question as to what best practices lead to effective teaching and learning - principles that lead to student satisfaction and higher retention rates. One of the interesting findings in this space results from a study begun in 2001 by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). Its Institute for Research and Assessment (IRAHE) conducted a multi-phase project with hundreds of faculty and students to assess linkages made to both withdrawal and passing rates for students as a proxy for actual learning outcomes.

This discussion takes a brief look at what we can learn from this study (and others) in terms of how ESS systems can make a differentiated impact on higher education - and specifically how one ESS platform, Cisco WebEx Social, can be utilized to accelerate learning and satisfaction.

Overall Findings


  Although concentrated on online learning, the UMUC study reveals a number of findings from its survey and interviews with hundreds of 

  faculty members. These include the following twelve principles:

  1. Making learninggoals and paths to them clear to students (e.g., giving a recommended order ofuse to students of course content and resources, including modules. Clearlystating the learning objectives in the syllabus, and spelling out a timelinefor meeting the objectives are two strategies that help accomplish this.
  2. Using deliberate practice, including multiple opportunities and different modes of learning until material and skills are mastered.
  3. Providing prompt,constructive feedback.
  4. Providing an optimal balance of challenge and support that is tailored to the individualstudents' readiness and potential. Some strategies that accomplish this are assessing students' skill at the beginning of the course and eliciting analysis from students about what worked or didn't work for them.
  5. Eliciting active,critical reflection on the student's growing experience base. Encouraging students to question the validity of their own or others' reasoning and usingrole-playing are both strategies that help accomplish this.
  6. Linking inquiriesto genuine problems or issues of high interest to the learners.
  7. Developing learners' effectiveness as learners. This includes reinforcing course concepts through different types of resources and establishing relationships betweentopics and experience, and learning how to be most effective in the online environment.
  8. Creating an institutional environment that supports and encourages inquiry. A key strategyfor accomplishing this is emphasizing interaction between instructors and students as well as among students.

Best Practices Related to the Design of Courses

In addition, below are some correlations made by this study between students' expressed satisfaction and certain instructional strategies related to the design of courses- where high student satisfaction was met when:

  1. The instructor spelled out a timeline for completing successive steps toward meeting the objectives
  2. The instructorprepared and required repeated practice on each objective of the course
  3. Instructors were prepared to provide support related to individual student needs
  4. Student skills wereassessed at the beginning of the class
  5. Students were made aware of course resources, including the instructor's own expertise, learningmodules, etc.
  6. Grading criteria were clearly stated in the syllabus and clearly expressed, including through use of rubrics; reminders were provided on a regular basis; multiple forms ofassessment were used
  7. Opportunities were provided for collaboration with others, including alternative explanations ofexperience, sharing of experience and perceptions, discussion, well designed group activities, etc.
  8. Learning tasks were presented in terms of problem solving, not only as accumulated knowledge, and multiple approaches to problem solving were encouraged
  9. Students were encouraged to draw on their own experience as part of their learning and to incorporate their own goals into the work of the course
  10. The course was wellorganized and had a logical format
  11. The course lecturesand discussions were supplemented by activities such as role-playing andsimulations
  12. Students were encouraged to consider alternative interpretations of their own or others' experience

Correlations with Student Success and Retention

There were some strong correlations between withdrawal and passing rates and certain strategies. A lower withdrawal rate for students was associated with numbers 1, 7, 8, and 9. Higher passing rates were associated with 7, 8, 9, and 12.

Impact of Social Software


Therefore, how can ESS impact the effectiveness of higher education given these best practices? Certainly traditional  Learning Management Systems (LMS) can address some of these principles - such as numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10. However, there are other principles that are difficult to implement using traditional LMS systems. ESS systems can not only meet these same principles, but others (e.g., 3, 7, 8, 9, and 12) that require collaboration and feedback - especially in a real time and a discussion-oriented approach. Such systems go beyond providing the mechanical aspects of presenting content, performing grade management, and other LMS functionality.

Cisco WebEx Social Usage of Higher Education Best Practices

The table below summarizes how Cisco WebEx Social functionality implements these best practices:

                  Best Practices Principle


                                   Mapping of  Quad Functionality


Timeline for steps  to meet course objectives


Event  calendar portlet for a class calendar of class events (e.g., assignments due,  tests, academic term deadlines, etc)

Post for the  course syllabus - which contains the timeline. The post is shared with the  community and is visible to the student's activity stream and watch  list.


Repeated practice  on each objective of the course


Posts and  documents to publish course assignments, homework, and quizzes

Commenting by  faculty and fellow students to evaluate assignments


Provide support  related to individual student needs


Provide feedback  via commenting on assignments and discussions

Communicate  feedback in real-time via chat/IM, instant meetings, phone calls, and voice  mail


Student skills  assessed at beginning


Create an  assignment via post where students perform self-assessment

Student  introductions in discussion forum where the discussion topic is for each  student to reply


Students aware of  course resources


Provide links in  Link portlet to point to posts with course resources

Post to  document course resources - and linked on the home page

iFrames to  provide web site access on a page


Grading criteria  clearly stated with frequent reminders


Post to  document the grading criteria and assignment rubrics

News portlet  for class announcements and reminders

Microblog by  the faculty to announce reminders


Collaboration with  others …sharing experiences, discussion, well designed group activities...


Activity  streams for updates by followers

Watch list  for content following

Real-time  collaboration via chat/IM, instant meetings using Cisco WebEx, phone calls  using Cisco Call Manger, and voice mail

Discussion  forum for topics of interest

Commenting  built-in to all of the above

Blogs for a  one-to-many sharing of ideas

Wikis and  posts for collaborating on content development

Groups to  segment class when assigning group assignments


Learning tasks  presented in terms of problem solving, not only as accumulated knowledge, and  multiple approaches to problem solving   encouraged


Commenting  incorporated into posts and discussion forums - where class assignments  require thoughtful commenting as part of the grading rubric. Thus, the  expectation is set that students need to comment on one another's work.

Posts to  document individual learning tasks


Students  encouraged to draw on their own experience as part of their learning and to  incorporate their own goals into course


Commenting  incorporated into posts and discussion forums - where students are  required to draw on their own experience as part of a thoughtful comment.

Students post  their own goals for the course and share with their professor (and optionally  fellow students)


Course well  organized and a logical format


Posts to  document the course objectives, timeline, grading, and resources

Community  dedicated to each class and customized to meet needs of the class - while  utilizing a template to provide a base level of commonality across all  classroom communities


Course lectures  and discussions  supplemented by  activities such as role-playing and simulations


Quad instant  meetings using Cisco WebEx. These can be utilized to role play and execute  external simulations or other applications. Can be archived and replayed for  later use.


Students  encouraged to consider alternative interpretations of their own or others'  experience


Commenting  incorporated into posts and discussion forums - where students are  required to consider alternative interpretations of their experience.  Students are incentivized  by the  grading rubric to provide alternative interpretations in their comments.



In summary, the WebEx Social ESS framework provides a platform whereby higher education can not only meet the use cases of traditional LMS systems, but also the best practices that make a big difference in student satisfaction and retention. When the functionality of such an ESS tool is combined with thoughtful ways of maximizing their use, then learning will be maximized. Thus, the faculty member is challenged to consider how to use such functionality as commenting, discussion forums, and real-time communications (i.e., IM/chat, calls, instant meetings) when designing individual course  assignments and other learning activities.

Lastly, it is important to note that it is equally important to implement a sound adoption strategy to implement such ESS systems. The effectiveness of any ESS system such as Cisco WebEx Social requires a thoughtful strategy that promotes the necessary cultural change. The tool, while important, cannot by itself transform a siloed culture to one that embraces collaboration.  While this discussion does not address these adoption issues and how to establish and measure Critical Success Factors (CSF), they are nonetheless critical to achieve the desired learning objectives above.

Cisco Employee

Very interesting perspectives, Don.  Based on what I've seen the past couple years working with Quad, it seems like organizations have the best practices principles outlined- basically what they are looking to accomplish, but the gap is figuring out how that maps to the social software tool they are using (which is what you outlined above for higher ed).  And that what seperates enterprise social software from other applications.  Since there are many different ways to approach a requirement, it's not always readily evident what the best approach is.  Perhaps once we start to see more widespread usage of social software in an enterprise setting, this will become more obvious, but for now, we've got the lump of clay and trying mold it in the best way- so posts like this help people wrap their head around it.


This was a very interesting topic. Collaboration with higher institutions is a great idea and should be pursued. The coupling of new technologies and educational institutions in developing countries should also be a part of the focus of Cisco's Corporate Social Responsibility goals. There are several emerging markets that Cisco can play a major roll in by collaborating with public institutions as well. I was part of advising a team of people looking to expand the reach of this in the former Soviet Union and can say that wireless technologies are spreading throughout that part of the globe and having Cisco's name apart of these projects can only shed further light into what an outstanding company it is. Having the brand name of Cisco in remote villages can only bring in more business as well as allow more people to be connected that aren't already.


What is also interested to observe is the emergance of peer-reviewed research in academia around the effectiveness of social networking practices on learning. This is an emerging field of study, but already shows promise.

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