Friday, 3 August 2012

Adventures in social networking

Once again I will be leading the "study skills" module for new students this year and I have decided to try a new tack with student communication this time - beginning prior to Welcome Week-  with a Facebook page set up expressly to provide academic support.

In previous years I have avoided Facebook as a platform for teaching and learning, seeing it as the domain of the "social" network, but Facebook's role in the learning network, particularly in HE is becoming more and more commonplace.

Last year I asked the Year Two students to set up a Facebook group for the new intake but kept away from it (at least "officially" - it remained an open group so I could look in from time to time and address any issues that seemed to be prevalent). The theme of the assignment in my first year study skills module was social networking and HE, and some students felt pretty clear the two didn't and shouldn't mix! (For more on this theme see my earlier post on the Diigo project and on the students' feedback).

Over the last year though I have heard from colleagues about various experiments blending social networking and learning and I have decided to take the plunge. (See for example Sarah Cousins or Dr Maria Kontogianni)

First of all, I set up a new "academic" identity on Facebook to keep it separate from the "real" me. Secondly, after some discussion with one of the student mentors and advice from other educators who have a lot more experience in this area, (such as Alan Cann, below, via Google+) I decided on a Page as opposed to a Group on Facebook.

A Page provides a platform for communication without the students having to become my or each others' friends. (Once again though, the student mentors have also set up and will initially manage a Students only Facebook Group which will be closed to staff).

For those of you unfamiliar with Facebook - a Page is really more like a website or blog than a social space: it can be a platform for transmitting information but can also allow interaction - like comments or messages. The plan is to use this as an adjunct to the official VLE "Learning Room" to encourage students to raise questions and keep in touch with tutors in a place that is perhaps more familiar to them. Discussion Boards on the VLE never, for me, really seem to work in this semi-formal way and tend to restrict the flow of communication.

What I hope for as an outcome is that students will feel more comfortable with approaching teaching staff on the module for help with various issues as a result of this slightly less formal interaction; that they will find here resources and support in a more accessible form than the VLE can provide (although this will also be available on the VLE) and that those students who are less familiar with social networking and the internet (we have a lot of "mature" students on our course) will also develop skills in this area which will help them in other areas of study and in future employment. (see Digital Literacies).

On this last note, a key issue in the use of the platform is the familiarity of the staff team with Facebook in general and the operation of Pages in particular. I teach this module with the help two colleagues - both like myself "ladies of a certain age" but both totally new to Facebook. One colleague does run a blog and a Twitter account so she is well on the way to feeling confident in the medium but the other has needed a lot of support to get started.

It is going to be a learning adventure for all three of us in different ways!