The idea for the SOCL Project originated with Principle Investigator Richard N. Landers and went like this:
One of the core principles of workplace training is that most training at work is informal. This is contrasted with formal, planned training (such as classroom instruction). One reason informal training may be especially effective at increasing workplace knowledge is because trainees have access to information on demand.
In business terms, this is just in time [JIT] training - the most cost-effective kind of training because trainees receive the information they need exactly when they need it.
In educational terms, this can be thought of as a sort of on-demand scaffolding (or perhaps learner control); the learner has a certain base of knowledge, identifies that it needs to be expanded, and then seeks a nearby coworker to build the knowledge they require.
In psychological terms, we can think of this in terms of the effect of long-term memory creation. Because the learner is motivated to activate memories related to what they want to learn about, it is easier for them to create new memories associated with those memories already activated.
Given all of this, it occurred to me that that like the workplace, formal instruction in a classroom is really only part of the puzzle. Informal instruction plays just as important a role, and yet most institutions do not create many ways to support these informal approaches. Sure, a student might casually ask their roommate or a classmate for help, but these connections are haphazard. Why not create a systematic method by which students could make these connections?
Enter online social media.
In Summer 2010, with a generous seed grant from Old Dominion University, Richard wrote and deployed a prototype online social networking system called socialPsych for students enrolled in Summer semester courses. This system was made available to 600 students, and it was a great success. Several features, including one involving gaming principles, were integrated to center socialPsych around the student experience. You can find more information on the special features of socialPsych and the data collected here.
One of the key findings from socialPsych was that scope was an important aspect in the system's success. Although 17 courses were involved, a number of students commented that they thought the system would only be truly valuable to them when all of their classmates were part of it as well. There is some research on online social networks that point to something called a critical mass - a point at which the community becomes big enough to become self-sustaining with relatively little outside influence. But how big is big enough? How do institutional characteristics influence the success of these kinds of system?
This became the basis for the SOCL Project - a large-scale test at a wide variety of institutions with a diverse set of learners, using the pilot data from socialPsych to guide the creation of an open-source, user-friendly online social networking platform for learners with a wide variety of features.