Top tips for using a Social Network in teaching

Chris Headleand –  Senior Lecturer/ Programme Leader – School of Computer Science – College of Science – Staff Profile 

Social networks are very widely defined, and the term means different things to different people. So, I’m going to start with a definition, this article will relate specifically to “Selective-Audience Microblogs”. A micro-blog is a platform where users can share small amounts of content, including text, images and videos. A Selective-Audience Micro-blog (SAM) is a specific variety that allows you to limit the people who can read, create, and interact with the content. The most popular current example of this is Facebook. However, I don’t want to argue that this article only relates to Facebook. While it would be easy enough to use a specific platform to explain what I’m talking about it’s a really limiting way to discuss the domain. Social networks (like all technology) go in and out of fashion, and old platforms get replaced by the new. These tips will hopefully be useful to anyone exploring this specific variety of social network.

Years ago I got some funding to experiment into using Facebook as a learning tool/hybrid VLE. At the time this kind of engagement was quite novel, because of this I was regularly asked to speak about our experiences to colleagues across the country. I was quite often asked to give specific advice on how other educators could learn from our experience (and mistakes) so I compiled the advice in this article. Although there has been a lot of additional work done in this area I believe that the insights are still relevant.

At the time the experiment was really simple.. the idea was to “take the learning to the students”. People often don’t realise but virtual learning environments can be a barrier to education. Especially for people who lack basic technical skills. One year I noticed that only one of my students was regularly logging into Moodle to download materials, the rest of the students were intimidated by the system. So the one student would log in, download the materials, and send them round Facebook for the rest to use.

At Lincoln we do a great job of introducing students to their VLE, and this really helps with engagement, and digital confidence. Its something I would recommend every educator that uses a virtual learning environment does as it helps break down a potential barrier to learning. However, when I worked in FE some students simply found the VLE intimidating. Their technical literacy held them back, and any mistake or setback knocked their confidence further.

Based on that I started working with Facebook with my own class of 14. We setup a group and I shared additional materials through there. It was easy to keep track of and there were a number of additional benefits.

Firstly, Facebook is a conversational platform (it’s what its built for) and the students felt very happy to ask, respond to, and answer questions through the threads I was creating. It is how they have learnt to use the technology, and applying to education was not an intimidating jump for them to make. They also quickly took ownership of the group, and used it to support each other as peers. The contribution was also fairly evenly distributed across the group, everyone was engaged and contributing to the learning community. I had never seen this quality of engagement in a VLE. This isn’t due to the implementation of the VLE, or the tools available but its engagement profile…Specifically, users log into the VLE when they want something, It’s rare that someone will log in just to browse and pass the time. However, the students were always logged into Facebook, often on their mobile, and would respond quickly to discussions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of VLEs don’t move towards a conversational model to capitalise on this engagement…. at least, this is my prediction for the future.

Secondly, Because the learners were engaging in an ongoing discussion, they would get more support from their peers, creating their own learning feedback loops. This discussion had an impact on performance in the module… and also (bizarrely) a positive impact on attendance…. I believe this is because the students felt like they had more ownership of their learning. The discussions they had empowered them as learners, and because of this they felt better motivated to engage with the rest of the module. We know this happens in face-to-face discussions, but it was interesting to see that happen through social media. I also think that the platform helped strengthen their peer based support structure (beyond their academic needs) making them a closer group.

However, the experiment wasn’t without its risks. Students would often lack their usual professionalism,m and would occasionally be abrupt or rude while engaging online. This was often due to writing style, sarcasm doesn’t translate well through text, and being concise can sound curt. However, we also found that the students felt that the rules were different through the platform. Specifically, as educators the students saw us as visitors in their digital homes. We tried to turn this risk into a strength, and gave the students some additional training on how to be safe, and professional through online platforms. This resulted in a significant improvement in general behaviour, and I also like to believe that this was a positive transferable skill that they learnt.

Another risk, and a significant worry was cyber bullying. One senior figure at the college wanted me to stop the experiment because they felt that it places the students at too much risk. They believed that digital environments were inherently toxic due to their own poor experiences. I’m not going to argue that this isn’t a risk, but it’s never something we ever encountered. In fact, one student mentioned the fact that they felt safer knowing that their lecturer was involved in conversations. Remember that even if you don’t use social media in teaching, your students will still use it for their learning. So in reality, you aren’t introducing any additional risks, but you may be providing some additional protections.

You also need to be careful not to misuse the platform, specifically it should never be used as a primary delivery tool. Put simply… you CAN’T force students to sign-up to a social network. These additional tools should only be used in addition to in-house platforms. You also need to make sure that students who choose not to use it are not disadvantaged (and this is a tricky thing to manage). Another risk comes from the various privacy agreements and legal issues that you need to navigate. I’m not going to advise on this, but make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for… especially with regards to GDPR. If in any doubt, get professional advice!

Another risk comes from the way you use your account. Make sure you know what you are allowed to do with your account on the platform. For example, while you can have multiple accounts on some networks (such as Twitter) on Facebook you are only allowed to have one account per user. Although you can technically create them, it goes against their terms, and second accounts often get deleted. You also shouldn’t use fake names etc. This is an issue if you also use your account privately, you need to be very careful about what you share, and how you set your security settings. As a general rule of good practice, it is probably a bad idea to add students as friends… it creates a different dynamic and can open you up to unnecessary risks.

We extended our study and actually ran the first full FE course delivered through Facebook, including the assessment. This was a huge success, and it enabled some people to access education who may not have been able to have been able to otherwise. We ran a second of these courses and opened it up internationally. We had students signed-up all the way from Haiti to Aberystwyth. I have also used Facebook in HE to support a number of modules while teaching at a previous institution. It was useful, and I did quite a bit of experiments exploring the student engagement impact.

Top Tips

So, with that context in mind, I have some top tips for anyone looking to use a Selective Audience Micro-blog (SAM) in an educational setting:

  • Know the law:

Be mindful of what you are doing and get advice.

  • Only use as a supplementary tool:

Be mindful that you can’t demand that a student signs up to a tool outside of your institutional provision. If you are planning to use a SAM make sure that you have another method of delivering the learning materials that’s accessible to all students.

  • Let the students take ownership:

Try to encourage peer support in the way that you setup and manage the platform. You can’t be available for your students every hour of the day, but they can potentially support each other. These additional feedback loops can add huge value to their learning experience.

  • Only engage in discussions within office hours:

Make sure you set clear expectations about how you are going to engage with the students through the platform. Just because you can be contacted 24/7 doesn’t mean that you should be. Setting realistic boundaries, and being consistent  helps to ensure that your students aren’t disappointed they day that you take a little longer to reply than usual.

  • Teach learners to be safe and secure through the platform:

There are many excellent guides available on how to stay safe online, make sure your students are informed about how to protect themselves. It is also helpful to set some behavioural ground rules, let your students know how you expect them to behave online.

  • Provide some training on how to make the most out of the platform:

Some students will be intimated by the technology and may reject it because they don’t understand how to use it.

  • Moderate:

Delete messages which are rude, and ask the posters to reflect on what they said. However, don’t delete posts that are fair but critical (even/especially if they are aimed in your direction) censorship will result in people disengaging. If someone posts critical feedback reflect on it and respond positively.

  • Be safe, know your security settings and test them!

My final point is less of a tip, and more of a general request.  If you do experiment by using SAM’s as part of your teaching and learning strategy make sure you take the time to share your experiences with the community.

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