Reflection on social networking as a teaching tool

This is a piece I wrote using the four questions of the focused conversation in response to Jose Antonio Bowen’s writings on social proximity and the virtual classroom. It focuses on the use of social networking (e-communications) as a way to build an interactive community of learners. Warning: extensive referencing to journal articles and research reports contained below. 🙂Image

Objective
Technology has changed not only the ability to access more information and knowledge than ever before and to do so instantaneously, but has also expanded the concept and makeup of communities and networks to an unparalleled breadth. The generation of students born in the 1990s or later is characterized as the most communicative to date and have redefined communication through virtual avenues (Mills, 2011). E-communication through platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Skype, RSS feeds, LMS, texting and blogs are part of every day life for these students. While many instructors rely heavily on e-mail or learning management systems to contact students virtually, their use of other technologies has lagged. This may be in part due to the lack of training on how to integrate technologies effectively. For example, a U.S. report from 2007 surveyed institutions with teacher training programs and found that although courses on technology were present in the majority of programs, faculty members were not well prepared to actually teach them. Both faculty lack of interest and lack of time remained major barriers to their own demonstrations and applications of using technology to show teacher candidates how to integrate technology in their classrooms (Kleiner et al., 2007). Students’ expertise and use of social networking to build, connect and interact with communities will continue to drive demand for similar experiences in their educational environments.

Reflective
As I read Bowen’s (2012) section on embracing e-communications, I was stunned by his assertion that a teacher who does not participate in social networking and demonstrate such proficiency to her or his students will be immediately dismissed as credible. My initial reaction was disbelief and disagreement. To have my ability to teach or be considered a believable, relevant instructor based on my use social media to engage with students seemed a radical perspective.

When I was a student, teachers who used overhead projectors were “old school” but it never made me doubt them as credible. An instructor’s credibility was only called into question by their mastery of content or their teaching skills. My own social use of technology is limited to Facebook, RSS feeds, blogs, a couple of email list serves and occasional texting. Based on my limited experience of teaching so far as a substitute instructor, I have yet to use any social networking for a class. From my work as a tutor, I am aware of LMS like Moodle, but never seriously considered the value of social networking as a teaching tool and how it could be integrated.

Interpretive
I believe my initial reaction to the topic stems from disruptive experiences with social networking in the learning environment. Students in class lose focus while texting and have to ask for instructions or material to be repeated. Discussions in class are momentarily derailed by someone’s cell phone ringing. As a tutor, I have worked with students who text or answer phone calls during a 10 minute long session. I know personally how often I have procrastinated starting or finishing an assignment by cycling through all my social media forums at regular intervals. According to two recent studies, the amount of time spent on social networking was shown to adversely affect undergraduate students’ grades (Karpinski et al., 2013; Paul et al., 2012). However, students were primarily using social networks for social reasons as opposed to academic/learning purposes and many of them mistakenly believed their ability to multi-task (simultaneous study and social networking) was much higher than in actuality.

My initial negative reaction challenged me to more carefully consider the positive ways that social networking could be used to strengthen teaching. I realized that I have had very little exposure to the idea or experience of effective social networking in education. As I reflected further on Bowen’s writings on social proximity and the virtual classroom, I appreciated the value of having a flexible and accessible avenue for connecting with students outside of class other than in-person office visits or email (Bowen, 2012). Particularly at a college, where many students work full-time and attend class part-time, “seeing” an instructor without physically going to campus would be very advantageous. Skype and/or whiteboard sessions would provide instantaneous feedback and interactive capabilities just like an in-person visit. I also agree that e-communications can be a less threatening way of approaching an instructor for certain students. Roblyer et al. suggest that instructors “who see teaching as establishing a relationship with students may view Facebook-like technologies as an efficient, even business-like way to accomplish that connection” (Roblyer et al., 2010, p. 135).

Equally important to the instructor-student relationship is connecting students with each other. Using social networking can enhance a student’s sense of community and motivation, increase engagement in course material, provide learning resources and provide a channel to transfer knowledge between peers (Baird & Fisher, 2006). For instance, a study of low-income high school students found that many of them used social networking to advance their education by accessing information such as college options and careers, finding emotional support, receiving peer feedback, and reinforcing a college-going identity (Greenhow & Burton, 2011). In a community college where many students are part-time and commuters, a strong sense of community and belonging can be difficult to attain. Using social networking to establish an interactive social and learning community can offer students that sense of belonging, a place for collaborative learning, and a space to engage with content in different ways and more frequently than just in the classroom.

Decisional
“Perhaps if more faculty really knew how to incorporate [online social networking] into their curricula, seamlessly and effectively, [social networking] could be viewed as a valuable pedagogical technology” (Paul, Baker, & Cochran, 2012, p. 2124). This quote perfectly summarizes the decisional aspect of this entry for me. I need to build both my awareness of what technology is available for social networking as well as my knowledge of how to use it effectively in teaching. Baird and Fisher outlined three key questions to ask that I (or any instructor) can use to decide whether a particular social media technology is suitable and how to use it: “How will the use of any particular social media element help the student achieve full cognitive development? How will the use of social media support neomillennial learning styles? How will the use of social networking technologies facilitate learning situated in a social context?” (Baird & Fisher, 2006, p. 9) I can improve my ability to integrate technology into the course through both informal and formal learning processes like professional development opportunities and participation in social learning networks. For myself, I would definitely envision using a learning management system (LMS) for online course components such as web videos and study questions. I would also either use a forum through the LMS or another platform to set up a space for students to connect with each other. I could use the concept of base groups but apply it in a virtual setting: set up a forum for each base group of students and provide guided questions to reflect on and answer each week. They could choose to do this in person in class using someone’s laptop or mobile device or participate asynchronously from home. I would also take advantage of more e-communication technologies like Skype and whiteboard to provide office hours for students after doing a survey of when most students would prefer to access “virtual office hours”.

I also recognize that, in order to answer the three questions outlined above, I need to have a thorough understanding of the students in my class or at my institution. Both the ECAR studies found some interesting differences in comparing students at four year universities to associate colleges. First, associate college students are generally less likely to use a number of varying technologies and tend to be less comfortable with many technologies (Dahlstrom et al., 2011). Second, students at an associate college are more likely to have computer access at home rather than owing a laptop (Dahlstrom, 2012). Instructors have a responsibility to adapt to their audience. I will continue to look at future ECAR studies as informative sources of current student technology trends and what direction to head in the near future. Hopefully I can also find similar studies done of Canadian institutions.

I will continue my research of this topic as my explorations for this reflective entry revealed very different educator perspectives on how useful social media can be and in what context. For instance, Bowen, Baird and Fisher, and Mills’ work seems to contradict the ECAR studies (Bowen, 2012; Baird & Fisher, 2006; Dahlstrom, 2012). The 2012 ECAR study reported that students from both types of institutions prefer to keep their social and academic lives separate: while they don’t mind connecting with other students through social networks like Facebook, they are far less willing and interested in doing so with instructors (Dahlstrom, 2012). They prefer to interact with their instructors via email, face-to-face, texting, instant messaging or online chatting. What students do want to see more of is increased use of open education resources, game-based learning, online course components through learning management systems, e-books, and audiovisual media (e.g. podcasts, web-based videos, etc.) (Dahlstrom, 2012). These trends may change with time or new trends may come to light, but the applications of technology in education will certainly continue to evolve and instructors must grow likewise.

References

Baird, D.E. & Fisher, M. (2006). Neomillenial user experience design strategies: Utilizing social networking media to support “always on” learning styles. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 34(1), 5-32.

Bowen, J.A. (2012). Teaching naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dahlstrom, E. (2012). ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2012 (research report). Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

Dahlstrom, E., de Boor, T., Grunwald, P., & Vockley, M. (2011). The ECAR national study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2011 (research report). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Centre for Applied Research. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1103/ERS1103W.pdf

Greenhow, C. & Burton, L. (2011). Help from my “friends”: Social capital in the social network sites of low-income students. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 45(2), 223-245.

Karpinski, A.C., Kirschner, P.A., Ozer, I., Mellott, J.A., & Ochwo, P. (2013). An exploration of social networking site use, multitasking, and academic performance among United States and European university students. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1182-1192.

Kleiner, B., Thomas, N., & Lewis, L. (2007). Educational technology in teacher education programs for initial licensure (NCES 2008–040). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Mills, N. (2011). Situated learning through social networking communities: The development of joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and a shared repertoire. CALICO Journal, 28(2), 345-368.

Paul, J.A., Baker, H.M., & Cochran, J.D. (2012) Effect of online social networking on student academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 2117-2127.

Roblyer, M.D., McDaniel, M., Webb, M., Herman, J. & Witty, J.V. Findings on Facebook in higher education: A comparison of college faculty and student uses and perceptions of social networking sites. Internet and Higher Education, 13, 134-140.

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