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.