A Critical Appraisal of the Educational Value of Social Media

Following the cck11 lecture on the need for caution when discussion technology’s impact on education, I read his more detailed discussion on the impact of social media in education during the EdMedia 2010 conference.  Below I list the main arguments with quotations of the relevant passages in the article.

Some of the critiques of Selwyn on the impact of social media on education extend to technology in education and ring familiar with earlier reading in the H800 course:
      The anecdotal nature of the debate with very little empirical research on the effect of social media in education.

“ There  are  clear  discrepancies  between  the  boundless  nature  of  the  educational promises of social  media,  and the obvious bounded nature of its use.” (Selwyn, 2010, p.8)

      The over-estimation and over-generalization of social media users.

“Indeed, from a truly worldwide perspective this debate could be read as being astonishingly insensitive to the paucity of technology access – let alone technology use – across developing nations” (Selwyn, 2010, p.4).

“Moreover, across all segments of the population – young and old – people’s engagement with even the most popular forms of social media remain stubbornly differentiated along lines of socio-economic status and social  class,  as  well  as  race,  gender,  geography and educational  background (Helsper and Eynon 2010, Jones and Fox 2009, Hargittai 2007, Hargittai and Walejko 2008 in Selwyn, 2010, p.4).”

I think that these arguments could still be rebutted by allowing some more time for ICT and social media to reach to their full potential.  However, Selwyn has more arguments in his sleeve and discusses the nature of social media.  Do they reinforce education by nature?  Is there a “killer app” in social media that is transforming education?  
      Many people do little more with social media than updating their status on Facebook or looking up information on Wikipedia.  In line with the 90+9+1 rule most users don’t create content, but are merely passive downloaders.  There is not wrong with that, even more, Ito’s “hanging out” and “messing around” are arguably important human activities, they contrast with the act of learning as engaging with and discovering new knowledge.

“Yet  while  undoubtedly  of  personal  significance  for  individuals  and  their  social networks, such activities and content remain “the ordinary stuff of life” rather than anything  more  powerful  in  terms  of  knowledge  creation,  learning  or  education.” (Selwyn, 2010, p.6)

      There is little evidence that active use of social media enhances education.  On the contrary, Selwyn claims that the nature of (many) social media is in conflict with the conditions for successful education.  Free-riding and lurking behavior, popular on social media, hamper effective learning, where active engagement with the material is required or at least desired. This “logic of collective action” is fine for social networks, but is detrimental to effective learning.

“If the benefit to be achieved cannot be localized to those responsible for achieving it, then it will be in the rational self-interest of the majority not to participate, and simply to let others put themselves out to press the case for change” (Considine 2005, p.199 in Selwyn, 2010, p.6).

Selwyn doesn’t follow the popular call for informal education and debunking formal education. He argues that some characteristics of formal education such as a set curriculum and forced attendance are bigger equalizers for education than social media.  Curricula offer access to knowledge that would otherwise be hardly accessible for many people, not necessarily because it’s not online or behind a paywall, but because “it’s difficult to know what you don’t know” (Young and Muller, 2009, p.7).
Social media are false equalizers.  Rather, they are based on membership, status and chain effects. In this way they strengthen inequality rather than reducing it. They might be useful for mature learners, but do little to help new learners.  Moreover, many people’s social media networks are a homogenous bunch of very similar people, scoring low on diversity and openness, two criteria identified by Downes to assess the effectiveness of networks. Finally, social networks where information and opinions are shared lose their power to create “wisdom of crowds”, as originally conceived by Surowiecki (2004), but are prone to skewed group thinking.
Finally Selwyn highlights the value-laden discourse that is used with regards to social media.  Social media (or technology in general) is used to promote a whole range of ideologies, from communism to extreme capitalism. Social media are seldom non-profit entreprises.  While they may charge no direct fee, they’ve every interest in creating an as extended and reliable as possible user database for profit purposes.
Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to keep it in mind when evaluating the educational value of social media.  Promoting technology (or social media) in education becomes then an instrument to promote a vision on education.

“Many of the most prominent and popular social web services are mainstream, commercially produced, for-profit services. Any discussion of the ‘future impact’ of social media in education must acknowledge that social media is not necessarily free of charge, but often driven by advertising revenue and underpinned by global media companies” (Selwyn, 2010, p.9)

“Put  in  these  terms,  then  the  clear  appeal  of  social  media  for  many  educational technologists  is  that  these  applications,  tools  and  services  correspond  with  wider beliefs  about  the  value  of  learning  that  is  interactive,  learner-centered,  social, authentic,  more  decentralized,  plural  and  collaborative and  so  on” (Selwyn, 2010, p.10).

I find Selwyn an eloquent writer who questions generally accepted assumptions.  Before starting the course, my view on technology-enhanced learning was strongly influenced by e-learning “gurus” like Prensky and Shirky. One valuable aspect of the H800 course is to offer a variety of viewpoints on technology-enhanced learning, including those that are overtly critical.

#H800 A Critical View of the Net Generation

Bennett (Bennett et al, 2008) takes a critical look at the claims made by proclaimers of the Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998), Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants (Prensky, 2001) and the Millennials (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005).  They conclude that there is very little evidence to support the grand claims they make, which can be summarized in two claims:
      This generation (born after 1980) is fundamentally different from elder generations, because they have been immersed in a technology-rich environment for all their lives.
      Current education isn’t coped to deal with this generation and should be restructured for this reason.

They use the term moral panic, a term introduced by Stanley Cohen (1972):

“In general, moral panics occur when a particular group in society, such as a youth subculture, is portrayed by the news media as embodying a threat to societal values and norms.” (Bennett et al, 2008, p.782)

They identify a lack of theoretical and empirical foundations to support the claims.  Instead arguments are based on anecdotal evidence or alleged common sense belief and thrust forward by technological determinism.  

The authors debunk the arguments for the existence of a Net Generation and the accompanying sense of urgency to reform education:
      There are considerable differences in ICT skills within the generation born after 1980;
      The discourse doesn’t account for individual learning preferences or styles within the generation;
      ICT skills are often superficial and not
      Skills attributed to the Net Generation such as multitasking are not new and may depend more on age (development of short-term memory) than on generation membership.
      No evidence that multitasking or educational games are widely beneficial for education.

In short claims on the Net Generation appear to be an over-generalization and don’t account for the individual differences within the generation.  The perceived existence of a series of strong bounded divides, an emergency situation and calls for urgent and fundamental change do all fit well into the concept of a “moral panic”.  The authors don’t dismiss the rising importance of technology and the potential it offers to enhance education, but see it more as a gradual rather than a disruptive process.

There is no evidence of widespread and universal disaffection, or of a distinctly different learning style the like of which has never been seen before. We may live in a highly technologised world, but it is conceivable that it has become so through evolution, rather than revolution. Young people may do things differently, but there are no grounds to consider them alien to us. Education may be under challenge to change, but it is not clear that it is being rejected. (Bennett et al, 2008, p.783)

I found the concept of moral panic helpful.  It offers an explanation why the Digital Native story is so attractive.  The moral panic around a Net Generation could be compared with the discourse around immigration.  Also here, there is a group of people is perceived as a threat to societal norms, there is a sense of urgency and emergency and there is arguably a lack of empirical and theoretical research to back up the bold claims made.  It provides a useful counterweight to claims that the education system is ‘broken’ and ‘not adapted to current needs.’ 

The article reminded me of a talk that Neil Selwyn gave during the cck11 course, in which he stressed the non-neutrality of technology in education.  E-learning gurus have their own agenda and may gloss over academic standards for making their claims.

I agree with the authors that technology can and should be used to enhance education, although not from a deterministic view, but based on empirical data and pedagogical research.  

#H800 A Vision of Students Today

Week 13 kicks off with a video from Michael Wesch, presenting a portrait of today’s learners.

The video focuses on the observation that classrooms have hardly changed since the 19th century.  Chalkboards are still used instead of Web 2.0 technologies.  Besides they reflect a model where the teacher possesses the information and students follow.
However, the video seems to confuse technology and pedagogy.  With pedagogy I mean searching for an optimal way to facilitate learning about a certain subject.  Technology can help to realize a desirable pedagogy.  The video suggests that chalkboards and classrooms are obsolete because they are old, not because of a lack of pedagogical potential. Similarly, the video seems to suggest that we should use internet, mobile phones and iPods because students use them in their daily lives, and not because they support better the pedagogies that we want to use.

ECAR is a study undertaken annually with American undergraduate students. The study focuses on possession and use of technology.  Data are collected through a web survey and focus groups.

Some highlights in the study:

1. The commodification of ICT.  Wifi, the CMS and mobile internet become as evident for students as electricity and PowerPoint in the classroom.  Students don’t tend to regard them as examples of technology in the classroom anymore (p.18).

Just as it is beginning to make little sense to say “digital cameras” when all cameras are digital, we may stop thinking in terms of “web-enabled” or “technology-enabled” classes and student work when so much of teaching and learning is in some way mediated by technology (p.18)

2. Rogers’ technology adoption cycle is still very useful, for example in explaining students’ adoption of technology tools- the bell curve – and their opinion about its potential for education.

3. Some technologies are widely used by students such as Social Networking Services (SNS), but that doesn’t mean they are also used for education, or that students would like to use them for education.

Fewer than 8% used them [SNS] to communicate with instructors about course-related topics and fewer than 3 in 10 students said they were using an SNS in a course at the time of the survey.  This pattern has not fundamentally changed since ECAR began asking about SNS use in 2008.  While it is a truism within course design and pedagogical circles that “all leaning is social” it seems that learning (or at least courses and student-faculty interaction) is not occurring in the online social spaces where most students congregate.(p.22)

4. The main reason for students to use ICT in education is that it is convenient.  About half of the students is convinced that it improves their learning and one third that is makes them more engaged in the courses.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with these figures.

About half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the use of IT in courses improves their learning … slightly more than a third of respondents agreed that they get more actively involved in courses that use IT. 

4. Students prefer to use a “moderate” amount of ICT in their courses.  

What may be the ultimate question regarding IT in a student’s experience is a question that ECAR began asking the first year of the student survey in 2004: how much IT do they prefer in their courses?  Using a 5-point scale from “no IT’ to “exclusive IT” we have found that responses over the last seven years have been remarkably consistent.  Majorities of students have told us every year that they prefer only a “moderate” amount of technology in their courses.

However, the meaning of “moderate” may have shifted with students over the years, rendering the answers to this question almost useless.   

In general I found very little “new” information in the ECAR study.  It seems to me that a lot of energy has been put to obtain quantitative data with very little lasting value.  However, the rapid evolving nature of ICT seems to make these research results obsolete before they are published.  Changing meanings of concepts (like moderate use of technology) and variations in the questionnaires make the longitudinal data difficult to interpret.  

Personally, I would prefer a more qualitative approach for this type of research.  The Kennedy (2006) paper seems to do just that, focusing on collecting good practices of how students use technology to support their learning and how teachers use technology to support their teaching.

In the discussion on students today, the same “camps” from the Net Generation debate keep coming back.  Their positions can be summarized as follows:

1. Net generation students are fundamentally different from other students, and HE needs to adapt to accommodate these students in their learning.

2. There is no net generation, but technology offers a wide range of possibilities to enhance education.

The Wesch video seemed to support the former, whereas the ECAR and Kennedy studies seem to support the latter.

Shannon D. Smith and Judith Borreson Caruso, with an introduction by Joshua Kim. The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2010 (Research Study, Vol. 6). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2010, available from http://www.educause.edu/ecar.

#H800 Face-to-Face Tutoring vs Online Tutoring (3)

A student-led tutorial yesterday on Elluminate about Richardson’s paper (Richardson, 2009) and his analysis of face-to-face vs online tutoring.  Some main discussion points of the discussion:

1. Most participants weren’t impressed with the statistical analysis presented in the paper.  Personally I did like that the authors at least tried to measure students’ preferences and showed that the differences were usually not significant.  I do agree that the scope of the analysis, one measurement time and two courses, was insufficient to draw wide conclusions.  More worryingly, students were not attributed to a group based on random sampling, but based on their preferences.  

2. Face-to-face tutoring and in particular online tutoring are not clear-cut terms and imply comparing various things (see figure in previous post).  If students would indicate that they prefer face-to-face to online tutoring they may indicate that:

  • they prefer synchronous rather than asynchronous communication
  • they prefer using traditional media to internet to communicate with the tutor
  • they prefer to communicate mostly with the tutor rather than communicating with fellow students
Instead of comparing only 2 forms of tutoring, I think it could be interesting to include a wider range of tutoring formulas, with for example a varying importance of asynchronous and synchronous communication.  It was pointed out as well that the choice of software may have an impact as well on students’ perceptions.  The OU formerly worked with FirstClass before switching to Elluminate.

Richardson, J. (2009) Face-to-Face Versus Online Tutoring Support in Humanities Courses in Distance Education , Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 2009; 8; 69 -85 http://ahh.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/8/1/69 (accessed 6th May 2009)

#H800 Blogs in an educational context

We were asked to reflect on the effect of a learning technology, in this case blogs, within the framework of this week’s discussion on students’ perceptions to learning and teachers’ perceptions to teaching.

1. What is the likely impact of blogs on students’ perceptions of the quality of their modules?
Ramsden (1991), Wilson (2000), Alexander (2001) have investigated factors that affect students’ perceptions on the quality of a course.  In the table below I listed criteria that they identified and how blogs could impact them.

I think that blogs can influence how students perceive the quality of a course.  It seems sensible to introduce blogs, make students familiar with them and let them try it out for a few weeks (as is done in H800).  Some may decide to quit using them because of privacy concerns, technical problems or just because they don’t perceive any benefit in using them.  

It would be interesting to investigate which % of students in a course like H800 still actively blog at the end of the course.  That would generate a good measurement of the effect of blogs on the perceived quality of blogs within the course (but not transferable to courses in other disciplines though).

As Kozma states, it’s not very advisable to compare different media.  It’s more interesting to investigate how media or tools can support desirable learning attributes (Kozma, 1994, p.157)

2. 2. What is the likely impact of blogs on teachers’ perceptions of their teaching context and their approaches to teaching?

Richardson (2005) discusses how there seems to be a difference between teachers’ conceptions of teaching (rather student-centered) and teachers’ approaches to teaching (more teacher-centered than expected).   Some reasons that are cited are (Richardson, 2005: 678)

It suggests that contextual factors tend to frustrate teachers’ intended approaches to teaching (e.g., Gibbs, 1992). Senior staff who hold traditional, teacher-focused conceptions of teaching may raise issues about standards and coverage of the curriculum (Estes, 1999), or else the students themselves may conspire to induce the teachers to adopt a more didactic approach (Newman, 2004).

I think that blogs can contribute to a more student-centered learning approach through their potential for enhancing authenticity, catering for students’ variable interests, allowing for personalization and creativity etc.  Moreover, they tend to give students a higher responsibility for their own learning and may stimulate informal learning.  Of course, it all depends on how blogs are integrated in classroom practice, e.g. a lot of rules with regards to content, posts, lay-out etc. will reduce their student-centered character.

This could be a danger in Cambodia.  When introducing blogs in the Cambodian context, either:

  1. the tool is “recuperated” by the system, including strict guidelines, control on content etc.
  2. the tool catalyzes a more student-centered form of learning and proves disruptive.

3. Blogs & Assumptions in the nature of teaching and learning

Blogs and their potential for education fit within a social constructivist approach to learning where blogs play a role in both internal processing of the material by the student (reflection) and in the external communication (peer review) about it.

Bruns and Humphreys (2005) suggest that the pedagogical models need to change from the traditional linear learning paradigms to a social constructivist pedagogical model which includes problem-solving in a collaborative environment that requires students to enact knowledge through a process of shared understanding. (in Minocha & Thomas, 2007: 190)

Blogs are also compatible with the view of learning as participation in a community of practice (Brown et al., 1989).  A blog may allow moving learning away from classroom practice, creating a more authentic learning environment.  A blog can also perfectly accommodate the apprenticeship model of learning (Lave, 1988 in Brown et al., 1989), gradually increasing the quality of blog posts and (hopefully) also the amount of followers.

#H800 Face-to-Face Tutoring vs Online Tutoring (2)

Do students perceive online tutor support  significantly different than face-to-face instruction?  Earlier this week I discussed the paper from Price (Price et al., 2007).  The authors found that students with online tutoring reported a lower quality of tutorial support than their counterparts who enjoyed face-to-face tutoring. However, the authors concluded that more training was needed for both tutors and students alike to compensate the specificity of online tutoring, notably its absence of “paralinguistic” clues.  The authors didn’t make the conclusion that online tutoring is inherently of a lower quality than face-to-face support.

Photo courtesy Mintimage

Richardson (2009) performs a similar analysis, but included 2 OU courses in the analysis, a beginners’ course and an advanced course both in humanities, assuming that the multidisciplinary nature of the course in Price’s study might have caused the effect.  
The results don’t show any significant difference in tutor support quality or overall quality between the courses, apparently contradicting the findings of Price’s paper.

However, both authors reach similar conclusions.  They are confident that online support has an equal value to face-to-face support, giving enough training for tutors and students.

A flaw in the research to my opinion is the lack of a randomized trial.  Students were free to register either for the online version or the face-to-face version.  Richardson (2009) points, not entirely convincingly, to other research claiming that characteristics of students in both groups are likely to be similar.  I would argue that there might be a group students which strongly prefers the face-to-face tuition, with strong anti-technological feelings.  This group may still judge online support inferior when not given the choice.

Finally, it seems to me that both authors have insufficient data to address the research question whether there is a difference between both tutoring modes, taking into account other variables such as a the nature and level of the course, institution, culture, students’ ICT skills, balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication and the tutors’ experience. This requires a wider approach involving more courses over a longer time and preferably a randomized trial approach (although morally difficult to realize). Without it, it will be difficult to answer the question convincingly.

#H800 The pastoral role of online tutors

A further discussion on Price’s (Price, 2007) findings that students in online courses (at least that specific course at the OU) not only expect academic support from their tutors, but also emotional support (motivation, leadership,  friendship).

OU courses are structured according to constructivist principles.  Constructivism implies the need to promote discovery, dialog, interaction, contextualisation and reflection, rather than delivery of content and information (Cooner, 2005).  This means that the role of the tutor is less focused on delivery of content, but on a range of other tasks, dubbed “e-moderating” tasks (Salmon, 2004).

E-moderating scheme (based on Salmon, 2004)

In my opinion the main role of the tutor is to help students making their way through the course.  For some people, occasional feedback on forum posts and assignments is sufficient, others may need more regular feedback or reassuring/ motivational messages.  Ideally a tutor can gradually leave tasks to the group, such as responding to questions, praising others’ postings, weaving and summarizing, taking a backseat position and filling the gaps where necessary.

I don’t think the absence of “paralinguistic” clues is a big barrier to effective communication online ,although it took me some time to adapt to the language and customs of online communication.  In particular, it’s important to express your thoughts clearly, including how you feel about them, where necessary.  Apart from that, I would argue that the lack of non-verbal communication can as much mean an advantage as a disadvantage, since this communication not always clarifies, but also obscures the meaning.