Social Media: Enhancing teaching & building community?


by Gareth James

The 2016 Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme (PTAS) forum – Rethinking Learning and Teaching Together – took place this week, during which we enjoyed some inspiring keynotes, interesting presentations and stimulating discussion on developing our teaching practices and improving learning experiences at the University. You can read a live blog of the forum, written by Nicola Osborne (a.k.a. @suchprettyeyes), here.

The aim of our PTAS-funded project was to comparatively assess the effectiveness of Twitter and Facebook in engaging students in their course material, while also strengthening links between students and staff in the Politics and IR subject area. We compared the experiences of Facebook groups, as used by Luke March in the teaching of Russian Politics, and Twitter, as used by Sara Dorman and Gareth James in the teaching of African Politics. In the five undergraduate and postgraduate courses we covered, social media was used in addition to the provision of a Learn page for each.

Social Media is fast becoming a ‘normal’ part of student life, with some students anecdotally expressing a preference for Facebook over Learn forums. Universities and academics are also increasingly using social media to keep staff, colleagues and students informed on the latest research, news and events in their subject areas (Blair, 2013; Graham, 2014). The @EdinburghUni and @EdinburghPIR accounts on Twitter are prime examples of this. For lecturers and tutors, it is also easier to tweet a link – to course documents or other materials – than to set-up a hyperlink across multiple courses in Learn. Politics and IR also has a large student cohort and students have expressed a desire for more community and connectedness with ‘their’ subject area. Social media could therefore be important as a potential way of both building community and adding value to our academic offerings.

We particularly wanted to know whether and to what extent social media helps to mediate the relationship between students’ learning experiences and their desire for ‘more community’, and to what extent this complements or conflicts with the use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), like Learn. Does social media enable students to stay informed and participate in debates? Does it make them feel more included and valued? Does it complement VLEs or risk duplicating existing provision? Which medium is best for achieving our goals and are there any downsides to these approaches? To answer these questions, we collected data from 70 undergraduate and postgraduate students via a short questionnaire and three focus groups.


Our data showed that 80% of those who responded said they were aware of our use of social media in the teaching of these courses. When asked how often they used the resource, 70% said they used it at least once and some 40% said they used it on a regular basis i.e. daily or weekly. When asked about the usefulness of each, almost 60% of those using Facebook said it was useful, compared to only one-third of Twitter users. In fact, Twitter users were 10 times more likely to respond with ‘not useful’. These findings echo those of other studies that show Facebook is more popular among students than Twitter (Graham, 2014). That said, almost 46% of our respondents found the course social media useful to some degree, but this was further qualified by students in both their questionnaire responses and during our focus groups.

The focus groups taught us that students do appreciate the potential for sharing resources and staying informed, although sometimes they fail to see the relevance to the course itself. ‘Twitter was useful for flagging up articles or news stories that I might not have heard of, because it’s not easily accessible [African Politics]. It’s not always in the news that often’, said one undergraduate student. Another said, ‘In terms of directly relating to the course, it [Facebook] wasn’t the most helpful thing in the world – it was kind of more like the icing than the cake’. It is clear that social media has huge potential for exposing students to multiple sources of information and different conceptions of knowledge, but some scholars have expressed concerns about the quality of information and students’ lack of critical analytical skills in deciphering the good from the bad (Whitworth, 2009; Thornton, 2010, 2012; in Blair,2013).

We also learned that students mostly appear to recognise the potential for debate, but they complain that it tends not to happen; and when it does, they find it intimidating if it is open to ‘real’ academics and/or professionals. One student told us, ‘As an undergraduate, I don’t feel qualified to comment [in online debates] because you might make a mistake, or you might not understand everything that’s going on’. To our surprise, there were many students who felt this way, using words like ‘intimidated’, ‘unqualified’, ‘unsure’, and ‘inadequate’ to describe themselves and/or their feelings about engaging in discussion online. Middleton recognises this when he writes, ‘To be the first to post on a discussion board can be an incredibly intimidating experience’ (2010, p. 7; in Blair, 2013). We thought that students might enjoy being ‘included’ in ‘real world’ debates, but instead it seems that they are wary of commenting too much in ‘public’, instead preferring ‘closed’ forums and discussion among their own classmates. This suggest that we might need to do more to ‘build community’ in order for ‘community building’ tools to really work.

In terms of the comparative effectiveness of each platform for enhancing teaching and building community, Facebook was by far the more popular. Facebook was seen as best for building community, although some found the social-academic distinction confusing. Twitter was considered best for sharing information, but was described as too ‘noisy’, indicating a real danger of information overload (Thornton, 2010; in Blair, 2013). Learn was seen as the most ‘academic’ and ‘safe’, but is perceived as too ‘clunky’ to navigate and for effective course discussion. Indeed, one student commented that “If Learn worked like Facebook, I’d use it”. Clearly each platform has its advantages and disadvantages, and there is a continuing problem of lack of integration between Facebook, Twitter and Learn.

Our findings therefore tell a mixed story, but overall the data suggest less enthusiasm for social media use in teaching than was anticipated. While there is no need to rush into using more social media in teaching, we still think that there are clear benefits for areas like African Politics, that are fast changing and not well-covered in the mainstream media. For lecturers we restate the benefits of time and effort-saving across platforms, but our idea that students might enjoy being more included in wider debates was clearly not carried through. However, it would be interesting to see if and how this might differ in other courses on issues like #indyref or #euref, or just Scottish/British politics more generally. Colleagues in Politics and IR are also considering using social media in a course on the US presidential elections in 2016/17, and it would be interesting to see if students are more engaged in these issues which are covered more frequently in the mainstream media.


Blair, A. (2013). Democratising the Learning Process: The Use of Twitter in the Teaching of Politics and International Relations. Politics, Vol. 33(2), pp. 135-145.

Graham, M. (2014). Social Media as a Tool for Increased Student Participation and Engagement. Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, Vol. 2(3), pp. 16-24.

Pro-Leave proposals on immigration risk creating wide scale irregular migration

Politics, Knowledge & Migration

One of the more curious features of the EU referendum campaign is how the Leave campaign has positioned itself on immigration. The attempt to mobilise support for Brexit by tapping – and revving up – fears about immigration has been widely discussed. But more intriguing are the various attempts by pro-Leavers to sketch out a post-Brexit immigration policy. And the ideas here have been surprisingly progressive; but, as I shall suggest, likely to yield a range of inadvertent effects. Let’s deal with each in turn.

1. First the Leave campaign launched a proposal for a post-Brexit ‘Australian-style’ points system. This was touted as an alternative to the currently ‘uncontrolled’ EU immigration. The idea is that a future UK government could choose exactly which (high-skilled, presumably) immigrants to admit. It was an odd suggestion, given that we already do have a points system in the UK: Tier 1 of the current system allows…

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#thisflag and the power of nationalism in Zimbabwe

by Sara Rich DormanSara cropped 2

Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #thisflag movement has captured Zimbabwe’s social media as well as its airwaves. Voicing his dismay with the state of Zimbabwe he has reclaimed the language of nationalism for ordinary Zimbabweans. A few years ago, when vendors on the streets were selling Zimbabwean flags for car windows, I shocked a friend by asking to stop and buy one –only ZANU(PF) stalwarts openly brandished this supposedly national symbol.


Flag TwoIt’s not that attempts haven’t been made before to reclaim these ‘national’ images.   My favourite is the flag of Zimbabwe turned into a cross, carried by pastors in a national demonstration in 2005.Also in 2005, two little booklets of writing under the pseudonym ‘Magari Mndebvu’ circulated, one entitled ‘Beautiful Zimbabwe’ with a cover picture of the stone ‘Zimbabwe Bird’ national emblem and the other showing the flag and the balancing rocks with the title ‘Pamberi ne Zimbaber’ (Forward with Zimbabwe).

But these are exceptions. Most civic groups chose relatively ‘neutral’ symbols, Flag onesuch as the outline of the country or the balancing rocks in logos and posters. Challenging the capture of Zimbabwe’s national symbols by ZANU(PF) was not a popular choice. In analysing this failure on the part of academic and civic actors to articulate a convincing alternative account of Zimbabwean citizenship, Miles Tendi speaks of Zimbabwe’s intellectual space having been ‘ceded’ to the nationalist public intellectuals.

Why did this happen? In 2004, the eminent historian Terence Ranger coined the term ‘patriotic history’ to encompass the way in which the ZANU regime had marshalled the education system, the media, and other institutions to promote a narrowly ‘patriotic’ account of Zimbabwean history. But for Zimbabwe’s first two decades of politics, overt ‘nationalism’ was not much in evidence. The most common public discourses were of ‘development’ and ‘unity’. I’m not suggesting that people weren’t nationalists, nor that they weren’t patriots, but justifications for policies consistently hinged on ‘development’. In newspaper headlines, public speeches, and publications every group from teachers to churches to farmers was told to be ‘united’ in order to bring development.

Formally nationalist iconography was muted. Of course, provinces, cities and streets were renamed, Heroes Acres built, new holidays replaced Rhodesian ones, and statues were removed but proposals to bring in national service or national dress were never carried through.   The stamps issued on 18 April 1980 to commemorate Zimbabwe’s independence depicted minerals, animals and waterfalls. As far as I can see, the first stamps to commemorate Zimbabwe’s nationalists were issued in 1984, on the first Heroes’ Days.   Although education was a huge priority for the new government, curriculum reform – intended to include national unity, patriotism, civics and local history – was delayed and neglected. Only last year was it mooted that KGVI barracks might be renamed after Josiah Tongogara, commander of the ZANLA guerrilla army. What is striking about this is less the decision to honour Tongogara – a key rival of President Mugabe – and more that a high profile army barrack had continued to be named for a British Monarch more than 30 years after Zimbabwe became a republic and 12 years after it had withdrawn from the Commonwealth.

How do we explain this paradox? In my book, which is published later this year, I argue that not only was nationalism was sublimated to development, but also that society was demobilized. This was in part because of the demands of the Lancaster House agreement – the new government needed to balance competing demands from old allies and old enemies alike. But it was also because retaining a mobilized society risked opening up debates about nationalism – about the kind of country that people had fought for, about the sacrifices and injustices that had occurred during the war, and the divides that existed within as well as between nationalist movements.

This helps explain why peasants who scrambled on to land were frequently removed; why war veterans weren’t allowed to form their own representative organization, and why churches, unions, and civic groups were sternly marshalled into place. But this depoliticization also made it very difficult for alternatives to be articulated. The NCA broke some barriers by ‘talking about politics without being political’. But the real shift came after the government lost the Constitutional referendum in February 2000, and we saw the remobilization of the war veterans, the introduction of the ‘green bombers’, and militias like Chipangano.

Ironically, it’s that remobilization of pro-ZANU groups that has created the space for the remobilization and reclaiming of national symbols by Pastor Evan. Capturing the dismay and disaffection with political parties, #thisflag brings together the apolitical, the party stalwarts and the activists who backed both Itai Dzamara’s attempt to reclaim Africa Unity Square and Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)’s public protests. While there have been protests, marches, and days of prayer in the past, through social media #thisflag seems to have reached a wider and broader audience.

Zimbabwe’s re-mobilized political sphere is fragile and potentially unstable. It remains to be seen how, if at all, #thisflag will move beyond the internet. But, the sheer jubilation with which Zimbabweans have greeted the re-opening of this debate and reclaimed the mantle of their nation is astonishing.

This blogpost originally appeared on Democracy in Africa; we carefully acknowledge their permission to reblog it here. 

Is it really that difficult to find women to talk about the EU Referendum? — UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group

Gender Politics at Edinburgh

The significant absence of expert women’s voices from media debates and academic events related to the EU Referendum has been widely reported. PSA Women and Politics members Roberta Guerrina, Toni Haastrup, Katharine Wright share a list of women EU experts and argue there are in fact many women voices on these issues and they are not difficult to find. More work […]

via Is it really that difficult to find women to talk about the EU Referendum? — UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group

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Nil, Nada, Zilch: The Change in Women’s Representation in 2016

Gender Politics at Edinburgh

At the start of the Scottish Parliament election campaign, it seemed that the tide had finally turned for women’s representation. In the end, however, only 45 women MSPs (35%) have been elected to the fifth Scottish Parliament, the same number as in 2011. Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Cera Murtagh put these disappointing results in context, evaluating candidate and electoral trends, and argue that tough action is needed in the form of legislative gender quotas in order to ensure real change. 

Some months ago, we asked whether the tide had turned for women’s political representation in Scotland. The past two years had ushered in a step-change not only from the top down – evidenced in the ‘female face’ of political leadership in Scotland – but also from the bottom up, through the civic awakening that had accompanied the referendum and the surge in women’s grassroots activism through groups…

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Why Brexit won’t reduce immigration to the UK

Politics, Knowledge & Migration

Migration has become one of the most prominent issues in the debate on Britain’smembership of the European Union (EU), indeed some commentators
are suggesting it might determine the outcome of the upcoming Referendum. However, the arguments about how Brexit might influence immigration to the UK are complex, the
debate is often confused, and many of the claims deserve some scrutiny. In this brief, I review the various arguments being put forward in the debate, and consider how remaining or leaving the EU might affect immigration to the UK.

1  Will Brexit exempt the UK from EU provisions on free movement?

One of the main claims of the ‘leave’ campaign is that by leaving the EU, the UK would
be able towithdrawfromprovisions on the free movement ofworkers. However, there are reasons to question whether the UK would be able to withdraw from EU freemovement provisions while retaining full access to the…

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Trumpty Dumpty’s Wall from the other side


By Mark Aspinwall 

US Republican candidate Donald Trump’s announcement that he would build a wall on the border and force Mexico to pay for it sounded understandable alarm bells south of the border.

In February he estimated that the wall would cost $8 billion, a ‘tiny fraction of the money that we lose [sic] with Mexico on trade.’ He later implied that war could ensue if Mexico does not pay.

Nativist grumbling in primary season is not new. Patrick Buchanan ran in the 1990s on a platform which included anti-immigration.

It’s easy to dismiss Donald Trump as yet another futile dinosaur, but his success represents the desperate sense of vulnerability among those Americans who feel threatened by changes inside and outside their country.

But why is Mexico a threat exactly?

Mexico is now a partner of the US in ways which were unthinkable only 25 years ago. The two-way trade relationship is worth more than $500 billion per year, benefiting American exporters and consumers, and especially American border towns, which thrive on the commerce with locals on the Mexican side of the border.

And when 40% of the content of Mexico’s exports to the US was originally imported from the US, who wins and who loses in this trade relationship?

Walls close off legitimate opportunities and raise costs, and this wall would be as damaging to the US as to Mexico.

There are, by some estimates, more than 1 million Americans in Mexico. I am one of them. I work in an academic institution in Mexico City with educated professionals from Mexico and various foreign countries. Our experience shows that there are countless advantages of an open and cooperative relationship.

Perceptions of the US among Mexicans remain positive, notwithstanding the raucous stupidity coming from Mr. Trump. In 2014, 70% of Mexicans viewed Americans favourably, according to CIDE polling (Central Americans were viewed less favourably). The same percentage of the population (70%) was opposed to building walls in Mexico to protect against illegal migration from the south.

How long would that last if an American wall were built?

Many Mexicans are now returning home from the US, and the net flow of migrants is negative according to the Pew Research Center. Central Americans are taking their place, but even so, border apprehensions have plummeted by some 61% since 2005. Each border agent today takes about 20 migrants into custody per year, down from around 300 in the early 1990s.

Of course, Mexico has many problems of governance, security, and poverty. In certain hotspots, violent crime is high. Yet Mexico City’s murder rate (about 9 per 100,000) is below that of St Louis, Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, and 24 other American cities.

Moreover, violence in northern Mexico has not affected US border towns. In 2012, El Paso, Texas had a murder rate of 3 per 100,000, while over the border in Ciudad Juarez the rate was around 148. In the same year the rate in Chula Vista, California was 2.7 per 100,000, compared to nearby Tijuana, where it was 39 (in 2015).

Ironically, a wall risks impeding bona fide flows while doing nothing to ameliorate security risks. Drugs flow north, weapons and cash flow south. The 300-plus miles of fence that already exist and the intensive border checks have done nothing to stem those flows, but the movement of commerce remains too slow.

The US needs to draw smart lessons from the experience of our southern neighbor. Mexico is everything from safe, modern, educated and international, to unsafe, hidebound, parochial, and suspicious. Where it has become better, it is because it was open to the outside world.

America could learn something. It should face the pressures of globalization with neither walls nor wide-open borders, but with managed migration flows and smart border checks. It’s not playground-bully politics. It’s serious politics for a complex world.