Friday, 30 November 2012

Freedom to Learn

In trying to develop further my thinking about the whole VLE vs Facebook student engagement debate, I have been revisiting learning theory. Donald Clark's Plan B blog has been a godsend in this respect as he has helpfully been providing a quick overview of some of the most respected ones (as well as offering a critique of the downright disreputable -see the one on Bandler/NLP for example!).

Using a social medium such as Facebook maybe fits best with a social constructivist view of learning  - especially in the student run group where students are learning from one another how to negotiate the course and their assessments. Of course there is nothing to stop it being used in a more traditional way - in the banking mode coined by Freire  - where the tutor simply makes deposits and expects students to absorb what has been posted for later "withdrawal" in assignments. Perhaps this has been the problem with a FB Page which is really designed for broadcast rather than interaction.

My experience of the Study Support Page has been diminishing returns - initial high interest in the page, gradual waning of activity (readership) as evidenced by the regular stats emailed to me by Facebook, but at the same time increased membership of the student only (closed) group and activity in the VLE Discussion Forums. For me this parallels the process of engaging fairly remotely with the pre-enrolment student body, supporting their safe arrival in Induction Week, and gradually transferring activity over to the VLE where the "real" work is now to be done.

Over on Don't Waste Your Time, David Hopkins asks what etiquette had been taught to my students, and how clear was it what they were mean to DO on the FB page. I think this is a legitimate question.

What I could have done is set up a CLOSED GROUP for the pre-induction activity and continued to use that as the main platform for discussions, in place of the VLE. I could also have taught students about privacy options to reassure those who are nervous of social networking and trained the staff team to be able to post and interact effectively. If this in turn were linked to research on the use of social media in health and social care organisations, this page could then have a clearer purpose, and possibly greater engagement. So with this in mind, a Social Work colleague and I are now thinking of setting up just such a closed group for final year Social Work students.

[A recent book  Social Work in a Digital Society (Transforming Social Work Practice) by Sue Watling and Jim Rogers attempts to put use of social media in Social Work education into context and usefully discusses privacy, cyber bullying and the like. I also liked this project  which sets out directly to address these issues.]

The problem is that most students still expect a lecture and timetable constraints, delivery models and the emphasis on research led teaching - all point to this expectation too.

This is evident in this little story I came across on Twitter last week:

On the face of it, the fact that students like lectures is music to the ears of lecturers.On the other hand, is this good news?
Students are old school – they want lectures. They want to listen to a professor who’s engaging, who’s intellectually stimulating and who delivers the content to them [my emphasis]
Contrast this with Illich - here's Donald Clark's useful summary:

It [schooling] is all based on an illusion, he claims, the illusion that most learning is the result of teaching. Most people acquire most of their knowledge outside of school. Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Most learning is, in fact, a by-product of some other activity defined as work or leisure.

This feels right to me - it certainly reflects a lot of my "mature" learning experiences. I learnt to be a counsellor mainly by practising the skill and having professional supervision. I learnt Spanish mainly by teaching myself in my spare time, reading lots of novels  and having lots and lots of conversations with Spanish people on holiday, on Twitter, whilst playing Angry Words, and on Skype.

I also learned how to use social media by doing it, in a supportive community of friends and through the generosity of those who were prepared to share their experience through blogs, tweets, YouTube videos, SlideShare and webinars. And I go on learning by sharing my journey and listening to the feedback and reading and asking stupid questions.

More from Illich caught my eye this morning, (I have now progressed to reading the original text which can be found here.)

He talks about the madness of wasting educational resources on those citizens who "have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning"

Whilst I would not entirely agree with this, it does remind me that the difficulty of the task of facilitating learning in undergraduate classes is in part to do with the habits of dependence induced by "schooling" and in part to do with lack of maturity. Perhaps I am inclined to immerse myself in informal educational experiences because I have simply reached an age where I am ready to do so? And maybe, the formalities of teaching in traditional school and University environments provided me with a thirst for knowledge and a life long habit of learning.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Student engagement - differences between the VLE and facebook

Pink Floyd: The Wall

A colleague and I are currently thinking about a conference paper on student engagement and the amazing success we have had in using the Discussion Boards on the VLE.

In sharp contrast to our "official" module Facebook Page, two recent exercises involving use of the Discussion Board have attracted a large number of posts.

In the first week, a discussion about reading logs had responses from 73 unique respondents. Very few though added any comments in response to other students.

The second discussion forum, on the subject of finding journal articles had 33 unique respondents with again only one or two responding to another student's post.

Over on my colleague's Module Learning Room, a mandatory discussion board activity set in lieu of a cancelled seminar provoked around 100 responses. (This was the same cohort of students as those completing my module). Student interaction was at much the same level as in my Learning Room - i.e.  just one or two examples of communication between students.

From this brief look at the current Level 1 Discussion Boards it seems that students seem to be regarding the "Discussion" Forum as in fact a place to post your homework. As such it is nonetheless very valuable for developing a collaborative (or at least shared) learning space. However passively, students are at least ABLE to learn from one another's' posts. And here, tutors can comment, encourage, correct, model and facilitate through their responses.

[One thought that strikes me is that it might be really useful to incorporate discussion board activities into tutorial groups - to maintain contact, reinforce some of the main learning and teaching activities as well as maintaining contact with students whose attendance is more patchy.]

Student to student contact seems very sparse using the official VLE platform, just as student to tutor contact seems rare on the public  Facebook Study Support Page. By contrast, students report that they do use the Facebook Student Only Group to comment, ask and answer questions and catch up socially with one another.

I don't have access to the student only group on Facebook for this year's level 1 cohort - a decision I reached after discussion with the student reps - but last year's student group has always been an open space and I am able to view their interactions. I am guessing that the interactions this year are pretty similar.

The class of 2011 has 91 members of which 50 have contributed at least once in the last 6 months.
An analysis of the main posts (that is, the original wall post and not the succeeding comments) shows that by far the biggest proportion of posts are concerned with asking straightforward fact based questions - where is x? how do I email y? what time is z? etc

The next biggest category is support based - what have I missed? how do I revise for this? what should I write? anybody got any good theories I can use (!); how do I reference this? Students respond generously to these types of request - outlining missed lectures, explaining how to find lecture notes on the VLE, sharing their own essay titles or useful texts, posting links etc. Interestingly there were a couple of instances here of  students from the year above offering advice.

Students also offer unsolicited information and advice - to watch a TV programme on a module related theme, reminders to check their timetables or results, offering text books for sale (final year students again), letting people know when lectures have been cancelled etc

Next comes emotional support and expressing emotion - this ranged from child care problems to lack of confidence in writing and fear of failure in exams. This was one of my favourites:

"can someone make me feel better by saying that they too have left it last minute like me!! :s *she says while watching Britains got talent* lol"

I found only two examples of students arranging social events using this page and only three occasions when personal criticism of a tutor was posted (on two occasions this related to not answering emails, whilst the third related to the quality and comprehensiveness of lecture notes). There was also a flurry of complaints about timetabling at the start of term which mainly focused on the late publication of timetables, inconvenient times of seminars and lectures and the lack of a "reading week".

In the main, the Facebook page, which is run by and for the students without tutor involvement, is centred on support for learning and skills development and in every case I saw, answers to problems that emerged from discussions were factually correct. In addition, the students offer one another impressive levels of support and encouragement. From the evidence of their own Facebook group, then, students are not unwilling to work and learn collaboratively.

I am left wondering therefore if there is an  unspoken etiquette at play here - a set of norms which, in attempting to use social networks for tutor:cohort interaction, we as educators are somehow transgressing?

One hypothesis about this etiquette might be that to talk to tutors on a public social network is desperately uncool for many and too much of a step into the unknown for others unused to or afraid of online socialising.

Another is that the VLE is seen as the place to give and receive WORK and that interaction with anyone other than the tutor is unnecessary - possibly even threatening. Because tutor's comments/replies to posts tend to be of the evaluative type, maybe students are nervous about offering anything which might be construed as a judgement on a peer's work. (Of course there are many excellent examples of peer assessment using Discussion Boards where this is happening - I just feel it is unlikely to emerge spontaneously in a relatively new group at least). 

Interaction on the Facebook Group site is NEVER evaluative of another's work. Indeed students are at pains to be particularly self deprecating when offering advice or support ("I'm rubbish at this, but hey, here are my thoughts for what they're worth").

I think for tutor:student and peer:peer evaluative interactions to happen, the students would need
a) a walled garden (VLE Discussion Board)
b) specific direction as to what they need to do
c) a link between this activity and assessment/grades to encourage participation
d) a clear pedagogical purpose to the activity 
I think in such instances we could get students to comply.

But if what we want is genuine peer to peer engagement and collaboration, I think maybe we had best leave them to it.The observations I have made in a year of Facebook Student group interactions suggests that they are quite capable of supporting one another's learning.

So, set up the Face Book group by all means so they can find one another and then Hey! Teacher - leave them kids alone.....

Friday, 12 October 2012

the VLE vs Facebook - what do students think?

As the first term progresses it is interesting to see how students are coping with the Virtual Learning Environment. We do a lot of handwringing here about whether or not our VLE is fit for purpose - often mainly focusing on how easy (or not) it is for academics to use.

So two weeks in to the course, what do our students think? (response rate: 62 students or 60% of those enrolled)

86% are staisfied/very satisfied with the ease with which they can find module and  assessment information
85% are saistfied/very satisfied with the way learning materials are organised
90% are satisfied/very satisfied with the module news and messages from tutors
87% are satisfied/very satisfied with the range of links to other web based resources or links to other resources within the University.

Some comments:

  • I think its a great way of using technology and effective communication - its a quick and easy way of finding the modules.
  • very easy to understand and really liked the layout
  • I particularly like how the sessions are set out in weeks and terms as it makes it easier for me to access the specific session I am after. [NB not all Learning Rooms are set out this way]
  • I like the fact that not only for this module but for every module it has the hand book, that is useful for me to keep looking at and getting my head around it
  • the layout of information was a bit confusing but I'm becoming more confident the more I use it.
Difficulties include: syncing the timetable to their mobile phone using ical (most manage it OK); accessing from home; difficulty downloading some documents and some issues about navigation, given that every module is laid out in a slightly different way.

As part of my investigation into the use of Facebook in my module, I have also been getting their feedback on that too. They have completed an online survey and also responded to a blog post about Facebook in a learning context, via a short essay.

93% of those responding had a Facebook account before coming to university and they use it predominantly for keeping in touch with friends and family (85% rated this as important or very important). However, 65% felt it was also important/very important  to join the Facebook group to interact with other students on their course and over 70% felt it was important/very important to access the Facebook Study Support page run by their tutors.

85% of students responding to the survey had visited the Study Support Facebook page and of these, they expressed 85-90% satisfaction with the links, posts and resources it contains. Suggestions for improvement included posts by course reps and more interaction with other students.

In the short essays, students predominantly come down AGAINST using Facebook for learning, replicating pretty much the dominant conclusion from last year's assignment on this theme. The main reasons cited are:

1) worries about privacy and cyber bullying (reason not to have FB at all)
2) worries about getting distracted from the real work of studying
3) lack of tools to support learning
4) the fact that not everyone has or wants a FB account

On the positive side there is this quote:

"Bringing education in to something that we use day to day, I believe, encourages education."
and another 

 "Since starting university, facebook has become a learning method for me as I was introduced to the Health and Social Care study support group. This I have found very helpful as everyone from the course can comment and help each other out from something as small as the room for our next lecture to advice on our latest essay." ( I think this student is referring here to the students-only group, rather than the tutor-led Page, which singulalry lacks any student comments or posts) 

So whilst not conclusive this again provides some evidence to add to the debate about using social networking in education. Early thoughts: social media definitely add to the experience of coming to University and maybe help with early engagement, but the VLE ain't dead yet......