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.....


  1. Very interesting! I agree with your action points except c. Don't link this to assessment.

  2. Hi Anne Marie

    Thanks for leaving a comment.

    Linking Discussion Boards to assessment is not something I am proposing - though I know of instances where this happens - but simply a thought about what might encourage compliance.

    As I am interested in genuine engagement rather than compliance, I agree it is not a great idea to assess actual contributions. On the other hand having a discussion topic that supports an assessment task - ie as preparation - might also be useful and promote greater engagement.


    1. Each year I run a 'successful' discussion forum which fulfils your conditions a-d, so perhaps your hypothesis is correct. The forum is at level 6.

  3. Thanks for that Alan - good to have some evidence!

  4. You're welcome. Did you make progress with that conference paper?

  5. It's now become a poster presentation due for March - and my colleague has disappeared under piles of marking....but it will happen!