Coffee shops, Facebook and effective social networking for education

I’ve been meaning to restart blogging for aaaaaggggeeesss and as I am away at the INTED 2017  conference in Valencia this seemed like a good opportunity.  Its always good to restart with a coffee related post – especially when in Spain where the coffee is rather good.

I’m reflecting on a session on social media that I have just attended.  There were three papers that particularly engaged me:

A. Najera, J. González-Rubio, R. Ramírez-Vázquez, C. Suarez, P. Gómez, A. Beléndez, F.J. Escobar-Rabadan, E. Arribas Garde, R. Reolid

These papers explored different uses of Facebook, in particular, in universities.  The first used Tinto’s integration theory to analyse social media use of students and proposed a new version of this to include social media participation.  She argued that students use  Facebook frequently but do not want their lecturers and academic life to impinge on this in a formal way.  It cramps their style, “its like having your Mum on it”.  I have some sympathy with this view!.  The last paper, however, discussed the creation of a Facebook group for staff and students from medical information to interact with each other. However, although the presenter argued strongly that “we should where students go” ie engage them academically with Facebook, most of the messages looked at the learning process not sharing academic content.  Students and staff had some concerns about engaging with each other via Facebook mainly down to privacy. There is a compelling argument that staff need to be supported and reassured that by understanding Facebook settings around privacy and content sharing, their concerns can be allayed.

What particularly interested me, however, was a comment around the use of Moodle forums. Students are not using these as they are not in Moodle all the time, whereas they are in Facebook all the time for other aspects of their lives.  Are VLEs dead then? Or is their shelf life limited? We know Facebook will change but should we ditch Moodle and just use the spaces where students are?

I’ve thought about this before (have I ever blogged about this?? hmmm) and often used the “coffee shop on campus” analogy to explain my thoughts on this.  So …. I like a decent coffee as do many students and if I want a posh coffee I need to go off campus to get it. However, that requires more effort and is less convenient. So, often, I (and our students) use the coffee shops on campus because they afford other benefits – time efficiency, networking with other staff, convenience etc – that outweighs the perhaps less than top notch coffee. I believe its the same with social media versus “institutional media” – is this a phrase I have just coined?! By “institutional media” I mean Moodle, Blackboard or other systems.  Students use it because it affords many advantages although it may not be their communication media of choice for all their lives.

I also believe strongly we have a duty of care for our students and need to provide systems to support them in their studies – reliable assessment tools and ability to communicate with staff, engage with others etc.  If we didn’t do this and only relied on external networking sites, such as Facebook, we are at the mercy of relatively unregulated providers who have no commitment to our students.  Following this analogy to the extreme, we may as well not provide anything, outsource the whole university and just deliver all our teaching in coffee shops 😉

But we should not be luddite or stubborn about this and pursue use of our institutional media at all costs.  We do need to participate and engage our students in their spaces, and through this draw them into those safer environments we have developed to support their studies (our institutional media).  This reminds me of my, as yet unfinished, article about physical spaces [note to self to finish this!].  There are often apocalyptic presentations that all university campuses will be obsolete in 5, 10, 15 (pick your timescale!) years time as students study more and more online. Yet these predictions over simplify the role and symbolism of the campus for students.  They regard it as a mechanistic, supply or consumerist environment, whereas for students (and staff) the reality is more complex. The physical space is imbued with much meaning for students and enables the serendipity of academic interactions that is difficult to recreate online.  I believe the same can be applied to the use of Facebook or the VLE.  Placing them in direct counterpoint is too simple. It is like comparing apples and oranges, both fruit, yes, but conferring different benefits and experiences.  We need more sophisticated ways of engaging students and staff across multiple media environments.  Going back to the presentations, the second session did present some interesting ideas and models on engaging students in networked environments to encourage active learning.

So, in conclusion, no Moodle isn’t dead nor is Facebook king.  We need to learn more about where are students are – both physically and virtually – as well as supporting our staff to take risks and engage students across multiple environments.  Now I just need to finish that paper….. Or time for more coffee.

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