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Editor’s Note: Mark Hopkin’s vision of a teacher on one end of the log and a student at the other has been transformed into an electronic (virtual) log. This paper take it a step further and morphs to a student on each end of the log! 

Self-Organized Learning Environments and
University Students’ Use of
Social Software:
A Systems Theoretical Perspective

Christian Dalsgaard, Helle Mathiasen


The paper will argue that new possibilities of digital media, especially social software, have a potential regarding development of self-organized learning environments and facilitating self-governed activities. The point of departure is that IT only plays a role as an available technology, and is in itself simply an offer. Based on a sociological perspective, the paper will clarify the concept of self-organized learning environments, which emphasizes the self-governed work of students. This perspective implies that an institution frames the project work of students and invites them to develop self-organized learning environments. Using an empirical study, the paper will argue that social software tools as a communication environment have the potential to support students’ development of self-organized learning environments. We find that students’ creative use of social software is an essential point, when planning higher education. 

Keywords: social software, self-organized learning and communication environments, digital media, learning, IT, project work, self-governed activities, sociological systems theory


Use of social software in support of learning is a new and still relatively unexplored phenomenon. Social software is a broad term which describes tools that support social relationships between people using the Web (Alexander 2006; Freedman 2006; Owen et al. 2006). Social software tools include, but are not limited to, discussion forums, file sharing, chat, e-mail, weblogs, wikis, social bookmarking and RSS feeds. The term has not grown out of an educational discussion, and social software has not been developed specifically for learning. Anderson (2005a) introduces the concept of educational social software to initiate a discussion of social software in relation to learning.

The dominating focus for technology-supported learning has, for some years, been learning management systems (LMS) (such as Moodle, Blackboard, FirstClass) (Siemens 2006). Using LMS to support learning has primarily been the focus of open and distance education. In other words, LMS have primarily been used to deliver purely web-based courses within open universities (Paulsen 2004, Weller 2002, Salmon 2000; 2003). However, web-based technologies have also found their way to campus-based universities. In recent years we have witnessed an explosion in use of LMS at universities worldwide (Paulsen 2003; 2004). LMS provide tools for development and organisation of online courses. Apart from administrative tools, the central tools of LMS are discussion forums and file sharing. These tools provide students with the possibilities to discuss and collaborate at a distance. A focus of online learning has been how to activate students and how to teach them to use online discussion forums (Salmon 2000; 2003). However, according to a report from OECD (2005), the success of LMS on campus-based universities has primarily been in relation to administrative and not pedagogical purposes.

In the literature on technology-supported learning, there is a shift in focus towards web-based social software tools and away from LMS. The shift in focus is not only a question of specific tools, but a shift from integrated systems towards a mix of online tools, which enable participation on the Web and development of social networks which go beyond single institutions and courses (Anderson 2006; Author 2006). More specifically, the shift in focus is from discussion forums and file sharing to weblogs, web communities (Facebook, Myspace) social bookmarking (del.icio.us), wikis, RSS feeds, and more. In contrast to LMS, social software underlines a focus on tools that are not organised and integrated within a system. Although there is an overlap between tools of LMS and social software tools, the latter support individual and personal use of tools in social contexts, whereas LMS support development and management of courses. This means that social software supports individualized use (Downes 2004a). Especially weblogs have been emphasized in relation to student centred activities (Downes 2004; Baumgartner 2004; Cameron & Anderson 2006; Andreasen 2006). Weblogs have a potential to support individual and creative use.

The argument for use of social software within the fields of open and distance education as well as lifelong learning is that social software provides flexibility of use and provides tools which enable students to go beyond courses and institutional settings. In relation to open and distance education, Anderson (2005a) defines educational social software as:

“[...] networked tools that support and encourage individuals to learn together while retaining individual control over their time, space, presence, activity, identity and relationship.” (Anderson 2005a, p. 4)

Anderson (2005a) identifies a potential of social software to support flexibility, which is an important aspect of open and distance education and lifelong learning (Koper 2004a; 2005; Friesen & Anderson 2004). Students should be independent of time and space; for instance students should be able to enroll continuously and control their own pace of their courses (Paulsen 2004; Anderson 2005a; Anderson et al. 2005). This quality of social software, more specifically weblogs, is emphasised by Cameron & Anderson (2006):

“Perhaps the blog’s greatest relative advantage is for non formal and open education that takes learning beyond the traditional course.”
(Cameron & Anderson 2006)

This article follows the lines of these arguments for potentials of social software in relation to a learner centred approach. We wish to extent these discussions within a context of campus-based university courses, which provide a different setting for the use of technology. The focal characteristics of social software in our discussion are also flexibility and individualized use. Our approach, however, is different than the approaches within open and distance learning and lifelong learning. In our case, flexibility and individual use is not an institutional demand, bur rather a pedagogical principle, for which we will argue theoretically through the concept of self-organized learning environment.

The aim of the paper is to outline an approach to use of digital media in support of self-organized learning environments. More specifically, the question is: How and to what extent is it possible, within an institutional setting, to support self-organized learning environments by social software?

Social Software

Important social software tools include weblogs, RSS feeds, social book-marking and wikis. A weblog is a Web page which consists of a log of dated entries, listed in reverse chronological order. The owner of a weblog continuously writes new entries and catalogues them under different headlines. In itself, a weblog is not social, but is rather individual and often personal. Readers of a weblog can write comments on each of the entries. However, a weblog is primarily for individual presentations. Today, there are millions of weblogs about all sorts of topics. People are using weblogs to write about fashion, movies, news, cooking, computer games, and so on.
(see for instance http://www.technorati.com/). Being individual means that a weblog can represent an individual on the Web. This means that weblogs can form the basis of a person’s socialization on the Web. When a weblog is related to other weblogs, networks or communities are formed. People connect to other people by reading and commenting on each other’s weblogs.

Further, it is possible to create individual networks by subscribing to different weblogs using RSS feeds (Downes, 2004b). Using RSS feeds means that you get notified whenever there is a new entry on a weblog. Maintaining a weblog and subscribing to other weblogs creates the possibility of active participation on the Web. Subscribing to and being subscribed to by other people means that communities are created on the Web. People get access to resources and people that other people find interesting. The combined use of weblogs and RSS feeds supports and facilitates relations and communication between people.

This is further supported by social bookmarking tools. Creating social bookmarks means book-marking Web pages on the Web instead of in your browser. This, first of all, means that you have access to your bookmarks whenever you have access to the Web. Second, social bookmarks are social in the sense that they can be viewed by other people. When you share your bookmarks, you can see who else has bookmarked the same pages as you, what they write about them, and what else these people have bookmarked.

Finally, wikis are also considered social software. A wiki is a Web page which can be edited directly from the Web page by everyone who has access to the wiki. From the wiki everybody can edit pages on the wiki or create new pages using hyperlinks. The wiki keeps a history of changes which means that it is possible to view previous versions of the wiki and see what changes have been made. It is also possible to subscribe to wikis using RSS feeds. This means that you get notified whenever changes are made on the wiki or on a specific page on the wiki. In this way, a wiki can support collaborative development.

The potential scenario that the different social software tools make possible is increased exchange, communication and collaboration. People can share thoughts, ideas, meanings, references, and so on, which enable people to make their work visible to others. People can also share problems and questions, and thus initiate discussions. Downes (2004a) describes the possibilities of this scenario:

“The use of computers to assist learning also enables the formation of social contacts that would otherwise be impossible in learning. Students from widely dispersed groups are able to form online groups.”
(Downes, 2004a)

We will use this scenario to discuss students’ development of self-organized learning environments. However, first we present our theoretical approach and the findings of our empirical study, which forms the basis for this discussion.

A Social System and Psychic System

According to Luhmann (1986; 1988; 1994; 1995), systems are by definition closed, autopoietic (self-creating), self-referential and autonomous – and hence unique. In this sense the individual person, for instance, student as well as teacher, is unique. Each person, each system constructs, as it were, his/her own way of perceiving the world. According to the definition of systems, a system’s environment is specific to the system, which means that the environment is system-related. In this context, knowledge is seen as a result of learning processes in which communication is in focus. Communication constitutes the environment for conscious activities, for mental constructions. Communication promotes understanding, and understanding promotes construction of knowledge. This means that communication is the fuel that can ‘disturb’ consciousness and maintain learning processes. The theoretical framework therefore contains an important point: communication plays a central role within processes of learning and construction of knowledge. In other words, conscious activity and communication are mutually dependent. Systems maintain themselves through communication.(Luhmann, 1992).

All observation involves operations internal to the system; cf. the system characteristics. Thus, Luhmann calls his form of constructivism “operative constructivism” (Luhmann, 1988). Knowledge constructions require observation and selections. Luhmann writes that “Communicative success is the successful coupling of selections.” (Luhmann, 1995, p.159).

Communication, as one communication unit, is, for example, when a student pays attention to a lecture on video, reads a book or attends a lecture. One communication unit is actualized in this context when the student selects understanding continuously. This demands that the students focus their attention on the communication, the video, the book or the lecture.

Social systems as well as psychic systems are based on meaning, implying that they choose to actualize something and leave other things alone. Based on the system characteristics mentioned above, the result is that in principle the individual system’s unique selection decides what the system chooses to actualize. In other words, all observations and selections are systems related.

Because systems are closed, thoughts do not leave psychic systems as thoughts. In other words, the only things that systems can observe are the communicative utterances. This has implications for the (im)probability to maintain the communication particularly in communication forums where time and place are flexible. In other words, the probability to maintain the social system increases, when the communication takes place in an environment were the temporal is a “now” and the social dimension is a “face-to face” setting.

Last, communication requires consciousness – that is, a minimum of two psychic systems. This understanding has implications when it comes to conditions of communication and its maintenance. When we later introduce the empirical approach and the educational setting, the reader will notice that the conditions for communication are different concerning face-to-face-communication and communication in social software, for instance the conference system.

As a starting point, communication is most likely impossible, cf. that social system and psychic systems operate in different modes, that is communication and consciousness mode respectively, and is furthermore systems operationally closed and self-referential. Systems can make a structural coupling which for example means that systems can couple to the same theme in a communication. The concept of structural coupling, so to speak, does the improbable communication less improbable.

Research tells us that it is difficult to maintain communication in communication forums, for instance conference systems, where communication is web-based, asynchronous, written and computer-mediated (Dalsgaard, Christian., 2004a, 2004b).

The possibility to connect to the communication does not have the same conditions as when you are communicating in a conference system as compared to a face-to-face context. You have numerous points of contact when you participate in a face-to-face communication, like gestures, intonation and pausing. That is not to say that the communication is probable. We can say that the improbable communication has the potential to turn out more probable. This is not the case when you participate in conference communication. You have only the written text and maybe – if possible – with different kind of effects, capital letters, bold, drawn figures, sounds, and so on. An addressee has to make a communicative written contribution to maintain the social system in the specific computer conference. It is not enough for example to nod the head raise your eyebrows or raise your hands. If the addressee is reached, we still have an improbability, which concerns the communicative success. “Communicative success is the successful coupling of selections.”, writes Luhmann (1995, p.159).

This theoretical approach will form the basis, when we discuss the findings from the empirical study.

What is Learning and Learning Environments?

Learning is here focused on construction of an individual’s mental constructions and reconstructions. As regards communication and action these are the only possibilities that the teacher as well as the student has to take bearings of a person’s selection of understanding.

Figure 1: Learning and learning environment

Because learning depends on selections made by the psychic system, learning cannot be organized. Learning develops from the selections of the psychic system. The question is how to develop a learning environment which supports and facilitates students’ learning processes and knowledge constructions. We term such a learning environment a self-organized learning environment. A self-organized learning environment is an environment in which students are encouraged to make their own selections and govern their (own) learning activities. If the point of departure is that these activities can be fruitful for knowledge constructions, the challenge is to empower students to organize their own learning activities.

Empirical study

There were two project groups (group A and B) that chose to use a conference system to support their group project. The project work took place at Information and Media Studies, University of Aarhus, Denmark, in 2005. The students in the two project groups used an asynchronous discussion forum and file sharing. In other words, the communication in the conference system was neither initiated nor organized by the educational institution. Both group A and group B consisted of two students. In group A, the students were spread geographically, because one of the students lived three hours drive from the university. In group B, the students lived close to each other and the university. Neither the students’ individual work processes nor their face-to-face discussions were studied. Data was gathered by way of the students’ postings within the conference system and the documents shared. Two students were interviewed to learn about their experiences with the conference system, why they chose to use the system, what they used it for and how they felt that it affected their project work.  The project work ran for four months.

The educational setting

The aim of the project work was to create a mix of different kinds of conditions of learning. This was done in an attempt to support students’ individual selections. An overall framework for the project work was created by the teacher. First, students were required to make a problem description as the basis of their project work. Students were then required to submit an assignment and take a final exam. Finally, students were offered guidance from the teacher. The project work itself, however, was not organized or planned by the teacher. The conditions of the project work can be characterized as a self-organized learning environment in which students themselves governed the process. Students decided how to approach their project; for instance, when it came to searching for literature, selecting empirical methods and theoretical approaches, and choosing a product to design. It was up to the students to choose which kinds of communication forums they used during their project work. However, teachers encouraged students to participate in discussions with the teachers, in the role of a guide, concerning issues related to their project. Further, students could choose to participate in seminars which discussed themes related to project work. The intention was that students within the overall framework of the project work should develop their self-organized learning environment.

The conference system used was FirstClass whose primary functions are email, asynchronous discussion, file sharing and chat.


During the four months, group A produced 164 postings, whereas group B produced 224 postings within the conference system. The study showed that the students used the conference system for different purposes:

  • discussions

  • preparation for face-to-face meetings,

  • information exchange, and

  • collaborate on writing the project report.

Discussions were primarily short exchanges of questions and answers. The discussions were no longer than two or three exchanges, and often documents were attached to the postings. Below is an example of a discussion between two students.

  • [Student 1]: Should we write about, whether they are working on basis of a “core of values”? Some sort of “management philosophy”. For instance, have them talk about what, ”Danish style of management” is?

  • [Student 2]: I think that sounds ok. Can we do what X said and make references to their statements? You know, say “the last time we talked, you said, that ...”.

  • [Student 1]: We ask about the style of management right after they have talked concretely about what they are doing, because we should begin with that, shouldn’t we? After that they have a chance to talk about more “fluffy” concepts and relate practice to these concepts.(Translated from Danish)

The students in both groups prepared for their face-to-face meetings by exchanging texts often supplied with comments for discussion. These postings were primarily short comments which often contained attached documents for discussion on the face-to-face meetings. Below is an example of a typical posting prior to a face-to-face meeting./ 

  • Here are some thoughts on social constructivism! – hope it makes sense!

  • See you tomorrow.
    (Translated from Danish)

Neither of the groups communicated solely through the conference system, but also met face-to-face. However, the study showed a difference in the way that the two groups used the conference system. In the interview a student from group A said that they met face-to-face one or two times a week. They used the face-to-face meetings for longer discussions on what to write within the different sections of the project report. Then they divided the work between them and wrote individually on the sections. On a few occasions, group A also used the conference system for such discussions, because they did not have a chance to meet face-to-face. The pattern of activities was different in group B. One student from group B says in the interview, that they met face-to-face three to five times a week. This meant that their discussions primarily took place at the face-to-face meetings. Whereas group B used face-to-face meetings for a lot of their discussions, group A used the conference system to support some of these discussions[1]. Students in group B collaborated more closely on each document than group A, whereas group A divided the work between them, the students in group B wrote collaboratively on each document.

The students’ communication within the conference system followed roughly the same pattern. One student would send documents to the other student with comments and questions. The other student answered the questions, edited the document and provided further comments. This process continued, until the documents were finalized. In the conference system, the different versions of the documents show that the same documents were discussed and edited several times. This iterative process in which students send documents back and forth shows that communication and selections were supported by the students’ use of the conference system.

The study also showed that the students used the conference system to inform each other with ideas, notes, references, links to Web sites, and more. Finally, the conference system was used to collaborate on documents for the project report. The students primarily used the conference system to send back and forth documents with comments for revision and discussion. Below are two examples of comments which were accompanied by documents:

I have made a preliminary, very rough outline for chapter six. It would be great, if you could come up with an idea for how I should structure the transition from exposure to the three core areas.

Then I have a question about, whether I have to distinguish between folder and home page throughout [the chapter]. Some forms of appeal are better suited in certain situations rather than others, don’t you think?
(Translated from Danish)

Both groups, especially group B, made many revisions on their documents. A study of the revisions, comments and discussions related to the development of the documents showed that the content has gone through several iterations. As illustrated in figure 2, students made up to 41 revisions within a month. 


Number of days

Number of revisions in the conference

Document 1



Document 2



Document 3



Document 4



Document 5



Document 6



Document 7



Figure 2: Examples of numbers of revisions in different documents.


From the point of view of the sociological approach, the students’ collaboration has initiated communication and thereby supported learning and construction of knowledge. The amount of iterations (in 2) can be seen as selections made by the students.

We argue that the nature of the project work “forced” students to make their own selections. From the chosen sociological approach, the selection process is supported by communication. The many exchanges within the conference system made the students rethink and revise their selections. Thus, the conference system supported this process and can be seen as an enhancement of the face-to-face meetings of the students. According to the students, the written communication within the conference system formed a basis for the face-to-face discussions.

The analysis of the students’ communication showed that the students chose to use the conference system for different purposes. In other words, they developed different learning environments based on their ways of working on the project. Thus, the conference system supported the students’ self-organized learning environment. The students used the system in their own way without any guidance from the institution.

Although in general, the conference system supported self-governed work of the students, the self-organized learning environment of the students was also limited. The study showed that the students needed tools better suited for collaboration, and, more specifically, for joint work on writing the project report. Further, by design, communication within the groups was closed in the sense that it did not involve other people.

Social Software and Conditions of Learning – A Potential

We argue that other social software tools can help better support self-organized learning environments, and, thus, can supplement the use of asynchronous discussion forums and file sharing. Different social software tools can facilitate students’ development of and engagement in networks that are not organized by the educational system. Further, social software supports students’ use of resources not provided by the educational system with the intention of reaching specific goals of the educational system . Social software can provide students with opportunities for communication and social relations and empower them to develop self-organized learning environments.

In that respect, social software can be considered a supplement to the organized institutional setting (Author, 2006). Use of social software is not determined by the educational system, and the communication supported by social software does not take place within the institution. Anderson (2005b) suggests:

“Educational social software can be used effectively to create a type of overlay network to enhance the more formal institutional network consisting of student support, library, tuition, registration and other institutionalized services.” (Anderson 2005b)

The World Wide Web provides a massive amount of resources. The potential in relation to education is big, but the complexity provides a huge barrier. Search engines like Google do an impressive job, but it is still difficult for an individual to navigate the resources on the Web, and to value their relevance. If project work – which allows students to structure their own work process – is combined with use of social software, it is perhaps possible to empower students to navigate the Web by actively taking it into use as a major resource for their self-governed work.

Social software can provide tools for a personal and individual use of the Web which is based on social networks and communication. Social software enables a personalization and individualization of the Web (Author, 2006). Weblogs can be used to develop relationships with people. Access to weblogs also means access to resources like links to Web sites, papers, references, and so on. Using social software represents an alternative way to navigate the Web than using search engines. Engaging in networks through public discussion forums and weblogs will enable students to find resources through people in their network and will enable students to engage in discussions not controlled by the educational institution.

Weblogs can be used to form networks or communities which can initiate self-organized project related discussions. Social bookmarking can enrich this network by providing students with a network of references from other people. These tools support development of social networks and can therefore facilitate communication and discussions. A wiki – or similar tools – can support the process of collaboration. At the same time, a wiki can be used to present the project for other people. Such tools can support students in their self-governed work; for instance collaboration on writing an assignment.

Especially weblogs provide an example of the potential of social software. Weblogs differ from discussion forums and conferences in an important way. As opposed to discussion forums and conferences, weblogs are owned by the individual student. A study by Andreasen (2006) shows differences in using a discussion forum or weblogs within the same course. Andreasen (2006) concludes:

“The learning potential that can be said to exist in the use of weblogs in relation to a course conducted over the internet relates partly to the increase in the students’ opportunities for making their own voice heard, and partly to the active exchange with and reflection on other students’ weblogs.”
(Andreasen, 2006, p. 86)

Andreasen (2006, p. 86) argues that weblogs support development of “individual voices”. These individual voices are important to the development of students’ independent use of the Web. Students can form their own networks which are opposed to participating in discussion forums within an educational setting. The result is what could be termed ‘self-organized networks’ – networks developed by students themselves. A similar, but more formalized approach is suggested by Koper (2004b; 2004c; 2005) who uses the concept of ‘learning network’:

“Self-organised learning networks provide a base for the establishment of a form of education that goes beyond course and curriculum centric models, and envisions a learner-centred and learner controlled model of lifelong learning.” (Koper 2004c: 1)

The use of social software suggested above takes Koper’s approach a step further. Self-organized networks are completely organized by the students without any influence from the educational institution.


According to the systems theoretical approach, an educational institution cannot control a psychic system, because the system is closed, self-referential, and autonomous. In other words, all selections are system dependent. Following that perspective, a learning process can, however, be initiated and framed by formalized conditions, and, given the “right” conditions, can develop self-governed activities in students’ self-organized learning environment. The consequence is that learning processes are not controlled by the educational institution, and that learning and communication are not limited to the teaching and the use of resources provided by the educational institution.

The study of the two project groups suggests that a conference system offering asynchronous discussion forums and file sharing has the potential to support students’ self-organized learning environment. Our study showed that students have competences to choose the right media during self-governed activities. Given that students are allowed to work independently and are provided with a range of tools, they are excellent in choosing the right media in a given context. For instance, students used face-to-face meetings to discuss and negotiate complex matters, whereas they used online discussions forums to exchange reflections during their project work.

We have argued that other social software tools – including, weblogs, wikis, social bookmarking and RSS feeds – can further empower students to develop fruitful self-organized learning environments which support self-governed activities. In other words, social software tools can provide fruitful conditions for students’ self-organized learning environments.

Our empirical study points towards a need for further research which first of all aims at developing and studying campus-based courses which employ a wider range of social software tools. Further, although there is a potential in social software to support self-organized learning environments, there is also a challenge in facilitating students’ use of the tools and making them aware of the possibilities of the technology. The students in both groups were not expert users, but were nevertheless able to use the system. However, it was also obvious that the students were unaware of certain features that might have been useful for them. This touches upon an important issue concerning the challenge of teaching students how to use digital media, such as a conference system. What tools are relevant, and how can teachers present tools for students?


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About the Authors

Christian Dalsgaard is an Assistant Professor, PhD at the Institute of Information and Media Studies, University of Aarhus. His research is concerned with development of learning technology on the basis of a learning theoretical approach, and he works with design of open-ended learning resources in support of self-governed learning activities.

E-mail: cnd@imv.au.dk

Helle Mathiasen is an Associate Professor, PhD at the Institute of Information and Media Studies, University of Aarhus. She is Director of Centre for Research in IT & Learning. Her research lies within the field of Educational Technology and Educational Research.

E-mail: hema@imv.au.dk


[1] This different kind of use of the conference system can partly be explained by the fact that group A was not able to meet as often as group B, because of the geographical distance.

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