Use of Social Networking sites to create learning groups at uni

 

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I am ignoring this morning’s tea bag…

I have been managing Facebook pages/groups for around 6 years now. Some of that time as a student and more recently working for a University. I found the bulk of one of the articles linked at the end of this post to be really negative and it sparked my angry typing fingers!

Generally stating that social networking sites are something to be scared of is damaging because students should not be deterred from owning their learning and shaping their own experience at university. Some students already feel awkward about contributing in class and if they feel more comfortable posting questions online they should be able to do that (although it shouldn’t replace raising your hands). Social networking sites allow students to make learning more accessible and they encourage academic debate outside of the classroom. It’s hard, in competitive times like this to see solidarity in some courses from attending lectures and classes.  I know on mine it was female dominated and pretty much everyone wanted to get into teaching after uni so there was this sense of people wanting to succeed for themselves and not collaborate with others. Facebook groups help you gain a sense of solidarity and make you feel as though you’re not alone in feeling tormented by readings, assignments and exams.

Whether a beginner or an old hand with social media learning through use of social networking sites doesn’t just happen between the students engaging with the groups provided. These groups offer lessons  and communicate important messages to the people running them, even if their approach is extremely light tough (i.e. dipping in and out and not contributing that much). And that applies to whether the creator of the page or group is staff or student.

This blog entry is intended for students or higher education staff to give them a starting point if they are considering starting a group. It is not an exhaustive list and I am not an academic nor a social media expert, I have just been doing this long enough to have collected some key themes and messages that I wanted to share.

Background

As a student

I set up a Social Sciences help page on facebook while I was in my second or third year of studying Sociology. I didn’t think our course reps were that visible (though I am sure they did something as I knew who they were and they seemed to be quite switched on and engaged) and so wanted to provide something accessible to my course mates so we could motivate one another. I felt as though some of the class mates could be less receptive to discussing things or engaging in debate in person but soon discovered that some of them were perfectly happy to type away to people on facebook.

Working for the uni

Further to this I now run several pages on facebook and twitter for students and have helped introduce twitter in the classroom for one of our biggest 1st year modules. These sites have been met with varied feedback but all of it positive. Whenever I ask students about the best ways of contacting them they say we should use multiple channels (so beyond their uni email inbox). I have been plugging away at this with variable success and have just started my third academic year of doing so.

Issues I have encountered with students using Social Networking sites as learning spaces

Lack of a sense of digital literacy

I don’t know why I am surprised but there are still people who engage with groups which are clearly learning focused and manage to write something inappropriate. That’s linked with your personal profile! This has often made me think about how students could separate their personal and academic social media activity. Perhaps students should have more than one profile; 1 for personal and 1 for academic. But I think that would be over kill. It’s hard enough for people to keep track of their email inboxes and their multiple invites and notifications on facebook let alone throwing another account into the mix.

Lack of engagement

Ultimately you can’t force people to engage with these sites. I was lucky as a student we had a reasonable number join the group and there seemed to be regular academic debate going on which peaked around assignment times. But since working for the uni and setting up these groups there may have been 100s of students join but it is really hard to get likes, comments, follows, retweets. I also encourage them to post things on there that they have found interesting but I have only had a few take advantage of that. No one wants to look like the keen bean, no one wants to look too interested so there have never been any situation where comments have become divisive or nasty.

It sometimes feels as though the student body had collectively donned ‘poker faces’. And this is something that is echoed by some of my colleagues and I have witnessed it in lectures and seminars. I think this is where sites like Buzzfeed manage to be successful, people just have to click and will more than likely share. I have thought about making my blog posts more ‘buzzfeed’ in style but hey, that would surely look like I’m trying too hard?

Bothered?

I have noticed that in some cases it is only after a student has graduated they have started liking the things I put out there. I get limited analytics from the sites I use as I take advantage of all of the freebies I can. I know they are clicking, but are they reading?

The “so you think I’m stupid?” complex

Unfortunately sometimes there are some people who take things a bit too seriously on these learning groups. Because the tone of notifications pinging up on facebook is so hard to read  there are some people who read too much into things or perhaps get the wrong impression. Those who do engage can sometimes end up getting side tracked away from academic debate and into personal arguments. I have only seen this happen a couple of times, when I was a student and I think it comes with the territory of studying Sociology and Politics. In rare cases this can put other people off from engaging however this is hard to measure, you can’t tell if someone is choosing not to post or just doesn’t pay attention. I have ranted before about how young people sometimes don’t realise that they can back away from an online debate. Not realising that there is no such thing as having the last word online. 

When an external company join the group

I refer specifically to the ones who try and encourage students to pay for their questionable services (i.e. writing people’s assignments for them). This has also happened when companies try and offer CV writing services and charge for them as well. And as an administrator/facilitator in the group it’s really hard not to comment on these posts and say “HEY! NO! We don’t do that here!” I have to stop myself from commenting and simply block them from the page for the good of the students.

The notion of students as experts…

If you count employablity pages as a learning group (well they are learning about how to get a job after graduating so….) there is sometimes a problem when the more ‘entrepreneurial’ sorts try and offer their services to their class mates. There has been more than one attempt to try and charge their classmates for CV workshops or clinics. Sometimes it is not made clear that someone external will be delivering the advice and sometimes it can look as though inexperienced and unqualified students are going to be giving people advice about their CVs which can encourage ‘bad habit’. I can’t support that when I know central university offers it and they should be going there… for free. No one is more of an expert on your CV than you – so you should be the one to write it.  

I think there are rare cases of the ‘wrong’ student contributing to a group  but seriously who has time to set a group up with the intention of excluding or actively deterring students from using it or contributing?

Remedies?

So yeah, great I point some of these shortfalls out but it would be good to know how I have dealt with some of them? Well unfortunately some of them inevitably you have to accept. Working for the uni I find my instinct is sometimes to comment, guide, advise or correct but that’s not always necessary.

When it comes to lack of digital literacy  I think this could be addressed by Schools and Colleges or even in the first year of university, a simple ‘does and don’ts of social media’ would cover it. I worked with students recently who delivered a great session to college pupils about being smart online when it comes to learning and general use. It was done in such a way that it didn’t come across as patronising and the pupils were surprised that they found out about tools they hadn’t heard of before, so I think peer delivery of advice could help.

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I think another thing that would help would be greater integration of social media in the classroom (class size permitting). This could lead to a better awareness of what people put online with regards to their course and it could go some way to addressing people’s lack of digital literacy. If it used naturally and competently by people teaching them it could lead them to take more care online as well.

Advice to any student wanting to set up a group or page. I found that collaboration with a staff member helped. This doesn’t take up much of their time as long as you’re not being demanding and frantic with your emails. It can take the pressure off you and can make you feel as though you are not alone in wanting to provide this support for people. If you get a real keen bean of a lecturer who wants to work with you they may ask you for updates which will mean you have someone to touch base with. This could be even more vital if you are looking to stimulate some academic debate online or are wanting to post regularly to get people talking, however this is hard to juggle alongside study. If you don’t think you can approach a lecturer for help then perhaps team up with some classmates? There can be strength in numbers.

With regards to limited engagement. As a student I found that people only posted when they needed help. Now working at a university I find that students say there isn’t adequate support for them, for employability for example, I address that in the form of some online groups and there is limited engagement with the content. Unfortunately, all you can do is try and if people engage (like, comment, share) that’s great but if they don’t you could try asking them what they would find helpful on the page. I have embedded polls and tried to ask direct questions when posting and have had limited uptake with that. I find that no matter how many people join the page some of them still don’t know that it exists and I think that is due to social media fatigue. They are so saturated with facebook groups, pages, invites, events that sometimes it’s hard to filter out the useful stuff.

It may sound as though I have ended on a negative note but I haven’t really. Engagement varies each year but I think with some of these things it is best when students take ownership of things with support, back up or perhaps training from staff.

Some articles:

Beware IT crowd: Facebook hubs may influence grades << have avoided ranting about this one.

The academic journey of university students on Facebook: an analysis of informal academic-related activity over a semester

7 methods to ‘explode’ your social shares 

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Author: eemaa27

Blogging and reflecting to keep my writing skills in tune

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