Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 13 July 2008   Monday, July 21, 2008

ISSN 1748-3603

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How avatars learn together: an immersive experience
Social networking: connect-ing students and staff
A social constructivist approach to the use of podcasts
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Social networking: connect-ing students and staff
by Federica Oradini and Gunter Saunders

The past decade has seen widespread interest and innovation in different forms of web-based learning (Anderson, 2007; Beetham, 2005; Jamieson, 2004). Yet the predominant methodology for the teaching of undergraduates remains the one-to-many lecture. It could be argued that this is unsurprising: many university teachers were themselves taught in a classroom and are likely to teach in a way that is familiar to them (Barnes and Tynan 2007). Other reasons cited for this relatively poor penetration of e-learning into the mainstream include: a lack of understanding of the technologies available and what they can do; the belief that e-learning is a poor alternative to face-to-face interaction; the growing perception that students are paying for and therefore want a face-to-face experience; and, perhaps most critically, insufficient time for staff to not only understand the technologies available but to think about how best to incorporate the effective practice emerging into their own teaching context (JISC Infonet, no date). 

Screenshot from connect

Figure 1: The Connect login page

Much of the e-learning developed since the early 1990s has centred on so called 'Web1.0' technologies avilable via virtual learning environments (VLEs) (Franklin and Harmelen, 2007). Most of these tools are, by design staff-led, often work best for someone working alone and require therefore much effort and direction on the part of individual staff to be effective in changing the predominant pedagogic model within the framework of a traditional face-to-face course. In contrast, the so-called 'Web 2.0' technologies are not by design ‘controlled’ and can therefore be managed and used to the same degree by students and staff (Selwyn, 2007). They are also designed to facilitate and stimulate collaboration and sharing. Whilst academic staff are currently still trying to work out how best to make use of older technologies, many students have moved on, certainly in their social lives, to using online tools that are much more flexible and user-centred (Lammers. and Murphy, 2002)
In recent years, social networking systems, which make use of Web 2.0 technologies, have received much attention in higher education in the United Kingdom. Increasing numbers of younger people (typically less than 30 years old) have made use of public systems such as Facebook and MySpace. Such systems, coupled to other Web 2.0 tools (e.g. social bookmarking and syndication technologies) help individuals or groups to readily create or find and then share knowledge (Hinchcliffe, 2007). Critically the capability of these systems to enable forms of communication controlled by the user makes them very different to the ubiquitous (and increasingly corporate) VLEs. In social networking systems, the individual user (or groups of users) can decide what they wish to discuss and who they wish to work together with (Elgg website). This means that social networking systems truly have the capability to deliver a platform for learning where the student is potentially at the centre of activities.

The scope for such student-led activity to complement and enhance the tutor-led work conducted within VLEs is considerable. It could contribute to a solution to the problem of teaching ever increasing numbers of students who have difficulty in attending regularly at a single physical location. In addition, the use of social networking systems also presents a viable alternative to the engagement of students within large physical classrooms often not built to serve the purpose of interactive learning. As well as their potential in the learning of an academic subject, social networking systems also have a major role to play in the effective induction and integration of very diverse student populations, which in the UK is frequently made up of a large proportion of overseas students and others who may have travelled a long way from their local community.

Screenshot from connect

Figure 2: Connect Flyer

The University of Westminster has 24,000 students undertaking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, research, professional programmes and short courses. There are more than 4,000 international students, from over 160 overseas nations, making Westminster one of the top 15 most popular UK universities for international students. The University is very much associated with courses that are taught face-to-face and currently has only around 100 students taking a distance learning course.

The University makes significant use of the Blackboard VLE to support its face-to-face course delivery. In most cases, the VLE is used as source of content (largely static and text-based) and only a relatively small percentage of courses use more active components of the VLE system (online tests, e-submission, discussion fora). In recent years, it has become clear that academic staff are finding it difficult to determine the best ways to make use of the VLE. There is a growing feeling that its use is merely re-inforcing a model of teaching where the teacher controls and is at the centre of the process. However, the last academic year saw the introduction of 3 student-centred tools within the VLE (e-portfolio production tool, blog and wiki functionality). To date approximately 4,000 students and 50 staff have made use of these tools indicating some interest amongst staff in exploiting these more active Web 2.0 technologies with their students. 
With this interest in mind and with the realisation that the majority of Westminster staff, in common with those at other Universities, have only a limited experience of Web 2.0 technologies, a decision was taken to provide a Westminster-only social networking system. The Connect system provided a range of features typically associated with Web 2.0 systems including personal and community blogs, tagging, private and public communities, personal and community file storage and social networking capability including full syndication support. It was reasoned also that the Connect system could be instrumental in helping to combat the difficulties faced by students in developing a sense of community across an institution based within a busy metropolis across multiple physical sites.

For the purposes of this study, our specific research questions were:

  • Would students who already use social networking tools want to use and benefit from a closed, university-only social networking system?
  • To what extent would students use such a system for socialising versus informal academic learning?
  • Would academic staff who are not Web 2.0 exponents explore the new technology to any significant degree?

Connect welcome screen

Figure 3: Connect welcome page

Research Approach
The study covered all staff and students who accessed the system between 10th September 2007 and 8th January 2008. The period of qualitative data collection occurred between 15th December 2007 and 8th January 2008. The evaluation methodology included detailed questionnaires sent to all users of the system coupled with an anonymous analysis of the blog posts made on the system. In additional some statistical data (number of blog posts made by 1st year students versus second or third years) was mined from the system database.
Quantitative data was collected via questionnaires in early October 2007 and then again in early January 2008. The qualitative data, comprising personal blog posts and community forum posts were read and then categorised into types with the number of types being created spontaneously as successive blog posts were read. Once all blog posts were categorised, a summary of the different categories was written and related to the research questions posed.

The Connect system was launched in September 2007. By 8th January 2008, there were 3,048 (approximately 2,300 students and the rest staff) registered users of the system. A total of 107 communities had been established and 508 blog posts made. The majority of students who accessed Connect were from the Business School, Computer Science and Social Sciences/languages. A much smaller proportion came from Biosciences/Health Sciences, Law and Architecture/Built Environment.
Amongst the undergraduates, more first-year students tended to access Connect than second or third years (first-year students comprised 34% of the total number of student users). More postgraduate students accessed Connect than either second or third year undergraduate students. Similarly, the majority of students who maintained a personal blog were either first-year undergraduates or postgraduates (64% combined of the total keeping a blog).
Amongst students who accessed Connect, 44% had logged in regularly (defined as an average of 2-3 times per week). 80% said the main reason that they used Connect was to look for people with common interests and arrange meetings, 14% wanted to share their views about University life such as reviews of museum visits for their course, whilst 18% said they needed the answer to a question or a problem they had. Some (about 5%) used Connect to sell things such as used books.

A high proportion of students, 49%, logged in only once. The most common reason for not accessing Connect more was that they preferred using other social networking sites, such as Facebook. Others mentioned that they used Blackboard to communicate with their fellow students or stated that they simply did not have the time. An appreciable number of students surveyed (about half) didn’t feel the need or see the point in Connect as they attend the University everyday and can talk to their course mates face-to-face. 
Personal Blogs
Personal blog posts on the Connect system could be broadly divided into reflective contributions or contributions that were in some way providing or seeking practical information, help or support. The former type, which comprised 55% of the total, could in turn be split into reflections linked directly to the University and those which were focused more generally on life, personal problems or external news/events.
Overall about 2.3% of users kept a blog with each user writing an average of 3 blog posts. Although more students than staff started a blog, students wrote an average of 2 blog posts, compared to 5 blog posts each by staff. The students mainly blogged to look for people with similar interests or for an answer to a question/problem or to advertise events and share feelings. Staff mainly blogged about their work or the subject they teach or to give their opinion on something related to University life. The blog post below is an example of a reflection related to a student’s course and shows how support was provided through the ‘comments’ feature by a peer:

“I don't know where to start or how to even begin formulating how I am feeling right now. I have lots of pent up frustration and the only thing I could think of to release it all was to write. OK so I get this amazing "job" on a music/fashion magazine a few weeks ago. I'm so chuffed - as you can probably imagine. The actual title of the job is "freelance fashion writer". The editor told me to come in for a day so she could see how I work, how much work I can get done etc so I go in and I produce a brochure for an upcoming charity fashion show. The environment is nice, people are friendly and at the end of the day she says to me that she would send my work to another writer and that she would contact me after the Christmas period to let me know how I did etc. It's been 3 weeks and I've heard nothing and so I decided to e-mail the editorial assistant to ask her if she knows what’s going on. That was at the beginning of this week. No news”.

Comment left for the student above by another student:

“As the saying goes: Don't put all your eggs in one place. You should have applied to as many place as possible (more than one), that way you have more chance to be successful than just waiting on one. Even applying to more than one doesn't help sometimes. I've applied to over 20 placement vacancies and a telephone interview was the furthest I got and some as you've noticed don't even send you a rejection email (Google :)). I am somewhat surprised the number of connections the university has in some industries though, hopefully they have more connections in your area than mine.”

The following examples show how staff and students used Connect to seek or provide information from/to other users or to stimulate discussion on a topic. For example, advice from a member of staff:

“If you miss being able to chat on instant messenger when you're supposed to be studying, there are a few ways around the university firewall. The easiest way is to sign in using “meebo”. It's free, and you can sign in with all the big instant messenger services in one place, and it rocks bells”.

Or news, again from a member of staff:

“Finally, the News Plugin problems in the SSHL site have been sorted out. Fabienne has done a great job co-ordinating the emptying of the page approval list then synchronising the staging and Live databases. Next week the Westminster Admin Root site will get the same treatment and all will be well with the world at last. Well at least with the News plugin :).”

Or updates on activities or hobbies or sports such as this from a student:

“Hi everyone, Just a quick post to let you know that the community for the Harrow Football team is set up. The address is: The Harrow football team won the BUSA4B division last season and were runners up for team of the year. This season we will be playing in BUSA Division 3A. For all those who are interested in joining the team, the trials will be taking place on Wednesday 26th September & Wednesday 3rd October at Chiswick Sports Ground, with buses to run from Harrow Campus. For information visit us at the fresher fayre next Wednesday between 11-4. Thanks.“ 

The remaining posts could be categorised as either speculative attempts to stimulate discussion on topics ranging from recent government decisions related to the funding of universities to the ‘Green’ agenda or were simply attempts to introduce themselves to the Connect community.
Connect Communities
The communities established by individuals and groups within the Connect system could be classified into 3 broad types.

Type I were typically staff-led and were established to discuss or exchange ideas on an issue associated with the functioning or business of a staff department or sub-section of a department. Thus the most popular (in terms of number of staff signed up to it) community was one set up to seek feedback on proposals for re-structuring the information technology services provision across the University. However, although many staff proactively joined into the community very few actually made any contribution. In contrast, a community set up specifically to consider a review of libraries in the University had a much higher level of activity and demonstrated through the community forum the potential for active discussion.

Type II communities were based around hobbies and interests. They included communities on film and cinema; food and beverages; music; the arts; domestic cats; and football clubs. The type II communities were set up just as frequently by students or staff and it was not unusual to see students and staff sharing such communities and exchanging views and information and supporting one another.

Within the type II communities were student-led efforts to engage students studying at a specific physical location to make friends across subject boundaries and to discuss issues that were affecting the student experience. For example, one student started a thread on the community forum seeking views to pass to the students’ union on the ideal student social space; this received feedback that could then be collated and returned to those responsible for managing and developing the University estate.

Type III communities were those set up for the support of academic study, with about half being set up by students (and generally excluding staff), whilst the rest were staff-led or facilitated. Staff-led communities of this type included those for the support of skills development (e.g. how to give presentations or how to make the best use of the institutional VLE) and others for specific modules of learning around an academic subject. So for example the Visual Culture Group community has the following as its stated aim:

This group is for sharing information about places, activities and events that you have been to, want to go to, or think you might be interested in going to and wondering if anyone else might go as well... Anything from a visit to a gallery, another town or a pub.

Staff and student feedback
Student feedback
Students were very evenly split about whether the Connect system was useful. Students commonly commented that Connect could be invaluable for making friends and supporting each other, especially within the first few weeks after arriving at the University. For example:

“It could be the best way for students to socialise and possibly find partners and be there for one another all the time.”

A frequently-held view by those in favour of Connect was that the closed community that Connect provided was better than the more diverse groups presented by systems like Facebook or MySpace. Even in circumstances where external systems provide a group function - there is a Westminster Facebook community, for example - it was often felt that the local nature and feel of Connect provided a personal and collegiate environment. Others felt it was helpful to keep online social activities that are linked directly to university life separate from wider online social activity outside of University.

In the survey, some students considered that a University-owned social networking system would be a good source of educational help, although they pointed out that the institutional VLE (Blackboard) was the best place for that. Linked to this view was the perceived need to better integrate Connect and Blackboard in order to provide a seamless transition between the more formal learning activities and a space where students had greater control and autonomy. Although Connect was considered to be a space where students had greater freedom to do what they wished, there was very strong support from students for their tutors to use the Connect system as well, and for them to be part of at least some of the communities together with students.
Amongst students who thought that there was no point in having Connect, most cited either not having enough time or there being too many systems for them to interact with or, most commonly, they already used Facebook and Connect duplicated what they could already do on that system.
Staff feedback
While most staff reported that they had very little time to use Connect, 84% said that Connect has a role to play in helping students to build a community either prior to or after arrival at the University. For example:

“I can certainly see the potential benefit to existing and prospective students. Existing students can, well, connect with others (albeit in a virtual sense) around common interests, as well as possibly to off-load, etc. Prospective students may find it useful in getting a sense of the nature of the social life at University.”

Concerns were mostly about the fact students would have to duplicate efforts to maintain two sites and questions regarding access to Connect after completing their studies.
Conclusions and discussion
The results presented indicate that students can benefit in a variety of ways from the availability of a closed ‘university-only’ social networking system. However, it is also clear that one size does not fit all; whilst half of the students surveyed could see reasons to have something distinct from say Facebook, the other half could not. Selwyn (2007) describes how Facebook can function ‘in different ways depending on the preference of the user’. This degree of personalization seems to be fundamental to its popularity and is an important factor to consider when seeking to offer students a competing technology. 
Whilst a significant number of students have engaged with Connect in this first phase of development, only a small minority of those have tried to use Connect for overtly academic-related activities. In addition, groups of students that did start communities with an academic focus were not able to maintain them successfully. Panckhurst (2008) suggests the value of ‘specific, focused tasks’ when trying to effectively use a social network for direct educational benefit. It is generally felt that the future of learning lies in a carefully planned and integrated network designed to give autonomy to learners, whilst involving tutors in a facilitating role, stressing the importance of guidance rather than management in forming “communities of practice” (Lave and Wenger, 1991 taken from Panckhurst, 2008).

Data derived from the questionnaire suggests that students were keen to see tutors active in the Connect system and this could explain why students did not use Connect that much for academic purposes. It is worth noting that where academics have encouraged and worked with students to engage with Connect for academic purposes (e.g. the visual culture group), more significant contributions have been made by the students.

Staff, perhaps not surprisingly, used Connect for quite different reasons to students, with their academic work often forming the focus of contributions. Whilst it was refreshing to see so many staff explore Connect, they, like students, found it difficult to maintain momentum in the activities that they started.

Taken as a whole, the results obtained from the evaluation show that significant numbers of students and staff see a future role for Connect within the University of Westminster. It is clear, however, that wider acceptance and precise definition of that role needs to be established and accepted before the full potential of Connect to support students and extend their learning can be realised. In particular, one of the most common pieces of feedback from staff and students alike was the need to integrate Connect with the more formal learning environment provided by Blackboard. It is hoped that having dedicated student-led, module-based groups in Connect, with all learners automatically assigned, would assist in establishing and maintaining meaningful “communities of practice”. This, coupled to a focused campaign specifically to explain the role of Connect in the wider picture of academic life is likely to lead to more successful and beneficial exploitation of the system than has been achieved to date.

Federica Oradini,
Gunter Saunders,
University of Westminster

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