We hear a lot about the importance of “social learning” -- the recognition that students’ collaboration on projects is something to praise, not a form of cheating to punish. But we tend to hear little about “social teaching,” and the idea that that collaborative process of knowledge sharing and building involves both learning and teaching.
Social teaching is part of the idea behind Sophia, a new online platform that offers free academic content to everyone. It's described as “a mashup of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube,” and lets users create and share short lessons on specific academic topics.
These “learning packets” can be created and uploaded to the site by anyone, using text, images, video, audio, and/or slides. The packets can be made public or can be shared privately with select users or groups. Once uploaded, the quality of the learning packet’s content is evaluated and rated by users within the Sophia community as well as by academic experts. Before being marked as "academically sound," the packets are reviewed by subject matter experts and must receive at least 3 positive reviews.
It works very much like Youtube's user-generated and user-ranked content. Just as YouTube has challenged our notions of who is a filmmaker, Sophia uses Web 2.0 tools to let “everyone step into the role of teacher,” Don Smithmier, Sophia’s founder and CEO.
“Everyone” in this case can be instructors, but it can also be the students. Sophia is open to anyone who wants to put together learning packets to help explain something, and even learn more about the subject matter along the way.
“We’re at a point in history where it’s actually possible for anyone to teach anyone else, regardless of geography or status,” says Smithmier. “Each of us has the potential to be contributors, to share our knowledge to make education better and more effective.”
Taking a page from Salman Khan's notebook -- or in this case, video -- with his library of instructional videos on the Khan Academy, Smithmier wants to encourage many more Sal Khans. After all, teaching and learning styles vary widely, and Sophia hopes to be able to address that by offering learning packets on the same subject that are presented and taught in a variety of ways.
In addition to the learning packets, users of the site can get homework help and join study groups. Teachers are able to create private, invitation-only groups. Sophia is free to the general public, although a licensed version will be made available for schools and colleges for their own use.
Since the company launched in public beta earlier this month, Sophia has attracted interest from 250 educational institutions and 116 different countries.