Social Media (Networking) Activity and Enhancing Learning (Part 3)

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Leveraging social media activity in the college environment

This essay sets forth three specific suggestions for leveraging social media activity in the college environment: (a) Moving assignment posting and peer critique to social media platforms, (b) working harder to enable rich online discussions on social media platforms, and (c) rewriting traditional curricula into social media. In this section, each of these proposals will be discussed in detail, with attention to both the academic literature that supports the proposals and practical recommendations for implementation.

Leveraging social media activity for assignment posting and critique

Whether or not we as educators reside in the new digital society our students already participate in an always “on” world where dissemination of information, content creation, and data flow never ceases. Past studies of online learners indicate that when students belong to these communities, they are more likely to interact with other students, assist other students with coursework, and work in teams on collaborative efforts (Haythornthwaite, 2002). However, in a two-year study of college student-teacher relationships on Facebook, Hewitt and Forte (2006) found that students generally viewed online interactions with faculty favorably; and while some students expressed anxiety about faculty on Facebook, “positive comments tended to focus on the alternative communication channels afforded by the site and on the potential for students to get to know their professors better” (p.2). In a study assessing grade performance of 122 undergraduate college students in e-learning environments, Davies and Graf (2005) found that students who made poor marks also demonstrated a tendency to interact less in forum discussions. And in an experiment to extend a learning environment at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Koutropoulos (2010) found that developing a community online of students, instructors and alumni in which people actively participate is no easy task. Therefore, gaining student participation requires that teachers fill multiple roles from mentor, facilitator, to motivator.

In the real-world classroom, learning is designed to take place synchronously. The instructor lectures and interacts with the students during a structured, face-to-face class period, which is supposed to be the period in which learning takes place. Students then leave the classroom and carry out assignments designed to deepen, reinforce, and refine classroom learning. The problem with this straightforward transfer model of knowledge is that synchronous learning has a number of limitations, many of which have been discussed by learning scholars (Rudestam & Schoenholtz-Read, 2009; Shank & Sitze, 2004). For example, a student may be sick or otherwise unprepared to best absorb the lessons from a synchronous lecture, and the synchronous nature of a lecture also makes it impossible for the student to review the material, in its native format, until mastering the lesson.

Thus, the benefits of moving assignments to social media activity learning environments are that: 1) students can view lesson plans at their own leisure, and repeat them as necessary, and 2) students can leverage the social media capabilities of e-classrooms to make comments on a particular lesson plan and to see what comments their peers are making. Such a use of social media activity need not replace traditional lecturing methods, and can in fact be a helpful adjunct to them. However, such a decision requires the instructor to be active and thoughtful. A lesson delivered as a lecture can be transcribed into a wiki or an e-classroom and illustrated with additional rich media (such as hyperlinks to other materials and other rich media such as videos). Instructors thus have to think carefully about how to best translate the real-world lecture into a social media format—not only in terms of design, but also in terms of interaction (Hiltz, & Goldman, 2005). For example, moving an assignment into a social media activity, such as a wiki, should come with interactivity as part of the lesson plan, such as a directive to students to work in small online teams to revise aspects of the lesson and/or make a meaningful contribution to a collaborative assignment.

Critique is a very important component of moving lessons online and is a major advantage provided by the social media format. In social media—whether in wikis or in e-classrooms—people who view content can also comment on it or even amend it. There is a much larger scope for students to, as it were, talk back to the material. In a lecture format, there is not much scope for student interruption. To the extent that some students may ask a handful of questions, the lecturer might not be able to complete a lesson plan for the day. But, in the world of social media, the scope for interaction benefits all and hurts none. Students can make as many comments as they please on social media materials, and a high quality of comments will serve to boost the learning of others. Oftentimes, students can learn as much from the critiques of other students (whether these critiques are couched as peer-to-peer or peer-to-teacher) as they can from official lesson plans (Hiltz & Goldman, 2005). This free flow exchange of ideas creates additional opportunities for learning and can foster a sense of community beyond the classroom (Bender, 2003).

There is a single theoretical prism that will be used to assess the learning advantage of all of the social media components considered in this essay. This prism consists of three concepts: 1) interactivity, 2) social cognition, and 3) cognitive load. Having discussed the general learning benefits of moving assignment posting and critique to social media, this concluding section will explain how posting and critique generate advantages in interactivity, social cognition, and cognitive load.

The learning theory of interactivity (Boaler & Staples, 2008; Sporer, Brunstein, & Kieschke, 2009) suggests that the rapidity and quality of student learning increase in step with the interactivity of pedagogy. Thus, as a general rule, students learn more from hands-on and dialogical means than they do from lectures. The advantage of moving assignments and critique to social media is that previously bland and one-dimensional forms of feedback can become rich forms of interaction (for example, when instructor feedback can incorporate hyperlinks and other forms of rich media presentation, or when students can more easily review, and make suggestions pertaining to, other students’ work).

In terms of social cognition, the existing body of psychological theory suggests that people learn by watching others (Baumeister & Bushman, 2007; Bernstein, Penner, & Clarke-Stewart, 2007). Online peer critique, for example through the social media of wikis, allows students to determine how their peers think and work. This window into the learning strategies of others can allow students to improve their own learning processes.

Finally, in terms of cognitive load, the benefit of moving assignments online is that a monolithic learning task that students are normally unable to tackle in their own environment—for example, a lecture—is now transformed into a learning product that can be consumed by students at any time, and in any place, thus allowing students to replay and re-approach lessons and ruminate on a lesson until it makes sense to them (Palloff & Pratt, 2007).

Enabling rich online discussions
Social media activities provide unlimited opportunities for students to share their ideas, receive feedback from their classmates and instructors, and comment on the content created by those in their classes. A number of college classrooms now have some form of social media activity functions, often thanks to Blackboard or other academic technology sites. These academic technology systems create out of the box capabilities for members of a class to be able to log on and post to the same online message boards. While the use of message board technology is increasing (Katz, 2003), academic studies have noticed that, in many cases, the quality of online discussions is low. Thus, just because social media technology has been deployed in a college classroom does not mean there is a guarantee that it will lead to the kind of rich interaction that builds learning. There are a number of points for educators to be aware of in this regard.

First, college educators should not think that an online message board will naturally lead to a rich discussion simply by virtue of its presence. Even online forums of recreational social media sites, such as Facebook, do not tend to support rich discussions. Many Facebook bulletin board messages are short and without substance. Bates (2005) cautions that student submissions online for academic purposes require careful moderation; otherwise, they may “deteriorate into a swapping of unsubstantiated opinions among students” (p. 140). At other times, heated discussions on Facebook—such as discussions about religion or politics—lead to an impasse because, in the absence of a moderator to keep the tone of the discourse constructive, users will tend to stop interacting with each other.

The role of instructors is paramount. They must be an active presence on the online class forum (Mozolini & Maddison, 2007) without overstepping their role as the moderator thereby reducing that quantity, and perhaps the quality, of student participation (Palloff & Pratt, 2001; Levitch & Milheim, 2003). Instructors cannot be content with merely using a forum to post announcements or copy and paste official materials (such as curricula) into this format. They have to develop the skills necessary to become what scholars have referred to as online facilitators. Online facilitating is not the same as leading a traditional classroom discussion, and it involves a significant commitment to learning the intricacies of the online medium. Facilitators must respond to student comments in as timely a manner as possible, pose provocative questions, encourage non-participating students to become involved, and otherwise serve as the heart and soul of the discussion (Salmon, 2004). While college educators would no doubt prefer that a forum enable a rich and self-regulating discussion among college students, this scenario is just as unlikely as students beginning a rich classroom discussion without a good instructor to guide them. Therefore, instructors cannot rest easy after implementing a discussion forum and must learn how to transfer aspects of real-world pedagogy into this medium as per the suggestions above.

From the instructor’s perspective, there are a number of special factors that have to be kept in mind when trying to promote rich online discussions. One factor is that students with deficits in written expression may hold themselves aloof from the discussion (Bender, 2003). Students for whom English is a second language, for example, may feel self-conscious about participating. Closely related to this concern is the possibility that an online discussion can be dominated by a handful of students who are not only adept at writing but also highly familiar with the online environment (Mozolini & Maddison, 2007). Therefore, if unguided and unmediated, the online discussion forum has the potential to devolve into an echo chamber in which the most vocal students dominate and other students lose interest.

One way around these limitations has been for college educators to make online participation a function of grading. The problem with this approach is that it may encourage students to participate simply for the sake of participating, without giving proper thought or care to the quality of their participation. This drawback can be avoided, and the benefits of using extrinsic motivation to prompt motivation can be retained, by telling students in advance that there will be a rubric for quality, not quantity, of online participation. However, once again, such a policy requires an educator to play an active role in crafting the rubric and giving serious thought to what constitutes quality online participation on the part of students. Energetic, thoughtful, and involved educators will have the best chance of using extrinsic motivation to prompt rich online participation while also serving as helpful online facilitators.

Once again, a handy way of understanding the learning benefits of rich online discussions is through the prism of interactivity, social cognitive modeling, and low cognitive load knowledge transfer. Learning is proven to be faster and more robust in interactive environments (Boaler & Staples, 2008). To the extent that the best online discussions are highly interactive, pulling together feedback from professors as well as students, they can stimulate learning even better than a real-world discussion. One advantage of online discussions in this regard is that they can involve the exchange of rich media; for example, in making a point in an online discussion, a participant can employ a link to a video or a text. In real-world discussions, of course, there is no readily accessible analogy for this level of multi-media interactivity. In terms of social cognition, one benefit of online discussions is that students can see firsthand how other students use the medium to make arguments, post responses, and present evidence; the medium is a window into peers’ strategies for communication and can serve as a model for emulation.

Finally, in terms of cognitive load, one advantage of online discussions is that concepts that are presented monolithically in class can be broken down into morsels. Online discussions are particularly useful for discussing very granular concepts such as a particular application of a theory. This bite-sized approach lowers the cognitive load involved in trying to master a complicated theory from the top down, and enables an easier, bottom-up kind of learning (Plass, Moreno, & Brunken, 2010).

Rewriting traditional curricula for social media activity

The question of how to rewrite traditional curricula for social media is perhaps the most important component of this essay. Leveraging the learning benefits of social media learning requires the ability to create compelling lesson plans and pedagogical approaches that transfer to the online environment. Without a successful transfer of this sort, it is likely that the benefits of the social media environment will remain untapped.

The first point to be made about rewriting curricula for social media is that of rich linking and media. For example, a lecture is transcribed by a college professor and pasted on a Facebook feed, a wiki, or in an e-classroom environment such as that of Blackboard. Such a lecture can be transcribed verbatim or with rich media and hyperlinks. A verbatim transcript will fail to take advantage of the possibilities of social media. This task is somewhat similar in nature to when instructors transferred their lectures from the overhead transparency to a PowerPoint presentation. In that instance, too many presenters simply chose to create digital transparencies without fully realizing the benefits of having a multimedia presentation tool at their disposal. But a transcription of current curricula optimized for social media, on the other hand, will contain hyperlinks to complimentary content and, where possible, rich media such as audio, video, graphics, animations, and charts. There are a number of ways in which such an approach can boost the learning potential of college students. First, the presence of videos and hyperlinks takes a one-dimensional lesson plan (text / voice) and turns it into a multidimensional lesson (text / voice / image / music / video). There is now a significant body of evidence that delivering a lesson in multiple media raises the chances that students will remember and synthesize the material. Lin and Dwyer (2010) found that animated visuals prompt more learning and knowledge retention than text or statistic diagrams; this finding has also been affirmed in different ways by other scholars (Kalyuga, 2008; Arguel & Jamet, 2009).

Again, there is no underestimating the kind of work that this task will require of the college instructor. Given that many teachers have worked from the same lesson plans for years (Kanpol, 1999), the transition to a social media environment will require instructors to not only update their materials but also work hard to locate hyperlinks, videos, and other forms of rich media that can be embedded into the online versions of lessons. Thus, for example, a teacher posting an excerpt of a lecture on Facebook would do well to locate an appropriate video clip or a link to another online source that can be used to add relevance and interactivity to the lesson.

Clearly, this kind of approach will require the college-level instructor to be familiar with the basic techniques of social media. Many colleges and universities now have classes designed to familiarize professors and instructors with social media technology and how to make the best use of it in the classroom. Some institutions also have dedicated technology organizations that will take care of back-end aspects of social media maintenance for the classroom. However, no technology consultant or department can shoulder the work of transferring pedagogy into a social media environment. The teacher is the only person capable of optimally transferring a lesson from its original context into a context that makes sense for an online environment where social media are likely to be used (Inoue & Bell, 2006).



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About the Author:

Dr. John Weidert is an independent educator, communicator, and practitioner of educational and organizational leadership, communication, and media studies.