The survival of higher education (3): The Social Web

This is a continuation from yesterday's blog post on changing times and the survival of higher education. Below are four reasons why the Social Web and associated media are changing higher education. Although this is not the entire story, I believe we will need to adopt these and other new technology mediated approaches widely if we wish to secure the future of higher education. This is because...

...the Social Web connects people together 

At Plymouth University, we very quickly began to explore the ways Social Web tools could support our students. Around 2007 we started using blogs to support several of our student teacher groups that were geographically dispersed across the South of England. These were mostly mature and part-time students who held substantive posts in training agencies, colleges and universities, and in community adult education centres, the military, National Health Service, the police force and the prison service. Some were itinerant because of the nature of their jobs. Military students for example may be serving overseas, or in submarines. Some did not have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their peer group and sometimes suffered from prolonged lack of tutor contact. For the majority, their busy lifestyles did not allow them to enjoy more than brief contact with their fellow students on more than a once weekly basis because travel into a teaching centre can be time consuming, expensive and tiring. Here social media were used to connect people, enabling them to collaborate together in project work, small group learning and online discussions. The MentorBlog project for example, employed the use of two-person blogs to connect students with their professional mentors, who may never have had the opportunity to meet face to face (Wheeler and Lambert-Heggs, 2008). Using two-person blogs, students were encouraged to regularly write their reflections on professional practice directly to their blog. Their mentor was able to read the student’s posting and then comment directly to the blog with their own observations, guidance and support (Wheeler and Lambert-Heggs, 2010).

The Social Web promotes collaboration 

Collaborative forms of learning are becoming increasingly popular methods of adult education, because they involve all students in the process of learning. Social software is based heavily on participation, and this is apparent in a number of features including social tagging, voting, versioning, hyperlinking and searching, as well as discussion and commenting. The power of this kind of social media is that it includes all in the process of creating group based collections of knowledge, and artefacts that are of specific interest to the learning community.  

One of the most popular activities on our wiki based learning programmes was called ‘goldmining’. In this activity, each of the students took individual responsibility to seek out, evaluate and then post useful websites and online learning resources that were deemed indispensable to the group. These were posted up onto the
group wiki, and a short summary attached by the ‘gold miner’ to explain what it contained and why it would be useful. Students were encouraged to explore each others’ gold dust resources and attach their own comments on how useful they found them. Attached discussion groups supported more in depth and
informal discussion about the activity. It is doubtful whether such a useful and comprehensive collection of online resources complete with evaluative commentary, could have been assembled any other way, or in such an organised manner.

The Social Web challenges current provision

There is a sense from many younger students that the institutional managed learning environments are not popular tools, because they fail in comparison to the more colourful, flexible and accessible social networking tools that are available for free on the internet. Further, students enjoy personalising their online spaces, a task that is not particularly easy or positively discouraged within institutional systems. This is particularly evident on a cursory inspection of any social web space, whether it be Facebook, Snapchat or any other popular free space. Students ‘pimp’ their pages, adding colour and textures, favourite images, links to their favourite websites, including mashups to video sharing sites such as YouTube and photo sites such as Flickr. This was often impossible or forbidden on university and college sites, where a corporate branding and image uniformity was enforced and surveillance imposed.

If they wished to change this kind of restrictive provision and depose the ‘tyranny of the institutional VLE’, universities would need to undergo a radical shift in policy. VLEs (virtual learning environments) are used to provide a ‘walled garden’ around expensive and copyrighted resources, as well as the imposition of control over access, tracking and assessment of student learning. The problem now for many education institutions is to try to strike a balance between maintaining the element of control, whilst enabling students to personalise their own learning environments and tailor them to their own preferences and learning styles. Wikis and blogs to a certain extent can achieve this objective, but there can be constraints and disadvantages to this approach, not least a resistance from students themselves who may not wish for these tools to be imposed upon them.

The Social Web creates new and enhanced learning experiences 

In the last few years my colleagues and I have created several new learning activities that can be used by students in shared online spaces. We have designed the activities so that they offer students experiences or access to resources that would be impossible or difficult to offer through conventional means. Activities are not mandatory, but can supplement and enhance traditional, classroom based provision. One project known as the WikiLit project is offered as a means for students to gather together evidence of core skills in and around literacy and numeracy learning (Wheeler et al, 2008).  Students generally disliked doing the activities on the wiki, although several actually liked the concept of the wiki and could see how it could be used with their own students. The biggest problem they identified was a lack of time, and most agreed that the wiki activities actually made more work for them. Students were resentful that they had to access materials online, and several issues were raised including lack of familiarity, lack of access and lack of understanding about what was required of them. A major conclusion from the WikiLit study is that although the wiki is a useful tool to bring distributed students together for collaborative learning, the subject matter and the manner in which it was delivered occluded the positive aspects for this group of students. Future provision should be less rigidly subject specific and more open for students to bring their own content to the space. Moreover, students and staff should be given better induction and training in the use of the tool, so that the potential is better exploited.

Continues tomorrow...

References
Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. and Wheeler, D. (2008). The Good, the Bad and the Wiki: Evaluating Student Generated Content as a Collaborative Learning Tool. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(6), 987-995.
Wheeler, S. and Lambert-Heggs, W. (2008). MentorBlog: Connecting Students and their Mentors using Social Software. In S. Wheeler (Ed.) Digital Learning: Repurposing Education. Proceedings of the Third Plymouth e-Learning Conference, University of Plymouth, 4 April 2008.
Wheeler, S. and Lambert-Heggs, W. (2010). Connecting Distance Learners and Their Mentors Using Blogs: The MentorBlog Project. Quarterly Review of Distance Education 10 (4), 3-17.

Photo by Felix Burton on Wikimedia Commons

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The survival of higher education (3): The Social Web by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments

David Hopkins said…
"There is a sense from many younger students that the institutional managed learning environments are not popular tools, because they fail in comparison to the more colourful, flexible and accessible social networking tools that are available for free on the internet. Further, students enjoy personalising their online spaces, a task that is not particularly easy or positively discouraged within institutional systems. This is particularly evident on a cursory inspection of any social web space, whether it be Facebook, Snapchat or any other popular free space. Students ‘pimp’ their pages, adding colour and textures, favourite images, links to their favourite websites, including mashups to video sharing sites such as YouTube and photo sites such as Flickr. This was often impossible or forbidden on university and college sites, where a corporate branding and image uniformity was enforced and surveillance imposed."

How do we, the 'institution', deal with this? Many Institutions have an expensive and 'recommended' learning management system (LMS) or virtual learning environment (VLE) which, obviously, they want to see used in order to tick a box to say it's being used and it's been worth the effort and money spent on implementing it.

If these systems are not up to scratch, that they don't or can't mirror the systems and tools students are used to using in their everyday 'social' activities then is the time of the single-instance LMS / VLE come? Are we better off using off using multiple tools (with multiple sign in accounts) for our needs (Apps, DropBox, WordPress, FaceBook, Twitter, etc.) or does the single sign-on system still have it's place?

All the best, David

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