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2.1 Types of tools 


The range of social media tools currently available is extensive, to the point of becoming bewildering, and it changes rapidly. Any attempt to categorise the tools will inevitably be challenged due to the rapidly changing market and the considerable degree of overlap in functionality between tools. However, we offer this as a rough guide to some of the main types of tools that have application in the higher education context. It should be noted that the lines between these categories are blurred, with many tools having aspects of more than one of these categories – indeed to some extent it depends on how the user chooses to apply them.

Social networking tools


Used for connecting and conversing with other individuals (and organisations); sharing news, status updates, images and other media. Users build up a personal network and decide how much information to share with other users.


Reflective tools

Used for sharing personal views on topics of interest. This might take the form of fairly extensive pieces of writing and analysis on blogs - bloggers become known for their expertise/interest in a particular area and gain a following. There are also applications which support much briefer exchanges, often known as microblogging. A popular example is Twitter in which users have a maximum of 140 characters per message to share information, opinions and links to further information. The use of a type of metadata known as hashtags permits searching on topics of interest e.g. #WorldCup, #ucisa, #news.

 

Content creation and sharing tools

Used for sharing and collaborating on the creation of content (which may be in a variety of formats).  Instagram, which is used to share photos as well as short video clips, is one example.

 

Gaming tools and virtual worlds


In this category we are including multi-user games where players interact with others in real time. In many cases the creative process involved in designing and developing aspects of the virtual environment are as significant as the game-playing element.

 

Communication tools


This is possibly one of the most contentious categories due to its overlap with many of the others, but there is a significant group of tools whose main purpose is communication whether this be online conferencing or more basic forms of instant messaging (as well as chat rooms offering asynchronous conversation). It is worth singling out these tools due to the fact that many younger people tend to use these forms of communication in preference to email. One example is WhatsApp, a messaging service that is popular because, unlike text messaging, it has minimal cost. Another is the instant messaging service Snapchat - this sends a picture message and the sender has the option to decide how long the recipient can see it for (from 1-10 seconds) before it disappears.

 

Consumer tools


Websites that offer price comparisons and the ability to rate products and services have long been a feature of the consumer environment. We are now seeing developments in higher education that go beyond the familiar league tables and official comparison sites (such as Which? University and Unistats), to more participative sites where students can exchange opinions on institutions’ courses and teachers. The UniPod site, run by Oxford Brookes University, combines the two approaches, mixing its own selection of resources about going to university with an Ask a Student facility. Overall this group of tools is an example of developments where the risks are probably more evident than the benefits and, as an example, the site Pick-A-Prof.com rebranded to MyEdu following criticism that it helped students make decisions based on a track record of lenient grading.


 
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