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3.6 Enhancing learning and teaching practice 

Social media tools have the potential to enhance learning, although early uses mirrored traditional media i.e. consumption by watching, reading or listening. More transformative uses make fuller use of the social aspects of the tools e.g. the use of blogs to engage with people and information outside the class; Flickr groups for peer review of created images; Google+ and Facebook groups for closed and semi-closed peer sharing spaces; Twitter for #edchat type conversations or back channel dialogue at events.

Pearson Learning Solutions has produced a series of annual reports looking at the use of social media in learning and teaching since 2009. The 2013 report (Seaman and Tinti-Kane 2013), based on a survey of c.8000 academic staff in the US, identified that staff use different tools in their professional practice to those used in their personal lives. Blogs and wikis were found to be the tools most commonly used in learning and teaching whereas Facebook predominated for personal use. Podcasts, the second most-used type of social media for teaching, were used at much the same rate for teaching as for personal or professional purposes. Previous surveys had shown marked disciplinary differences in the use of social media with humanities and arts, professions and applied sciences, and social sciences using social media for teaching purposes at higher rates than those in natural sciences or mathematics and computer science. This difference however narrowed considerably in 2013 with natural sciences, mathematics and computer science showing the greatest degree of growth.

The 2013 report also notes a change over time in how the social media sites are being used. In 2010 social media channels were being adopted but used in the same way as traditional media. The 2013 results indicated that staff are now more likely to ask students to create content for blogs and wikis than they are to ask them merely to read or comment on them. The report noted that podcasts still seem to be used in quite a traditional way and students are more likely to be asked to listen to a podcast than to comment on it (see however the University of Hertfordshire case study below). Podcasts are also more likely to be used for individual assignments whereas blogs and wikis are also used for group work. The main barriers to greater take-up of social media in learning and teaching appear to be unchanged over a number of years and relate to concerns about the academic integrity of student work and concerns about various aspects of staff and student privacy, including a reluctance to allow people outside the class to view or comment on course related content.

Nottingham Trent University (NTU): has used blogging to overcome a common problem for students on placement – a sense of isolation and separation from the rest of their cohort that often leads to a high rate of withdrawals. NTU used the approach to support trainee teachers but the problem is also a significant one for nursing students. Initially the focus of the closed blog was simply to create a support community and for students to use it as a reflective journal without specific learning objectives. The approach was so successful in the first year that in following years the community was formed pre-enrolment and the blog was also used to practice reflective writing and to get peer-to-peer feedback. Three years into the initiative the course had not had a single dropout and newly qualified teachers from the previous cohort were being used as mentors for the new arrivals via the blog. The main issue to be dealt with was data protection and privacy as students often named pupils and mentors even though they were told not to do so.

The University of Leeds: used blogs, wikis and social bookmarking to support web-based research in history in order to help students develop a range of transferable skills and practice the types of collaborative working that would be useful to them in the world of work in ways that could not be achieved through traditional essays and exams. The approach was project-based, with students conducting a piece of historical research, using social bookmarking to store and share the resources they collected, reflecting on issues and progress in a blog and presenting their findings in a wiki. The students were assessed on the quality of their blog post and the quality of their responses to other people, engaging in discussion and making links as well as their bibliographic work and final presentation. The switch from being an individual learner to being part of the learning community was an important one for the students and they found writing for a structured wiki format forced them to think in a different way to simply writing a linear essay. The wiki was publicly available and this obliged the students to think about copyright and intellectual property in ways they had not previously as well as finding it gratifying to have their work on public display.

The University of Leicester: piloted the use of Twitter to create informal support networks amongst undergraduates in biological sciences and MA level museum studies students. The students were very enthusiastic and accessed Twitter in a number of different ways, indicating that it was the service itself rather than any associated device that was attractive to them. The undergraduate network was very peer-centred, with staff not playing a central role and activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or when revising for exams. The postgraduate network was less active and more tutor-centred. The tutor-student interaction however centred around administrative details and peaked when there was a fall of snow during a field trip. The researchers concluded that the use of social media in learning and teaching practice appears to be viewed by students in a very different way to personal use. They found that students thought carefully about wording their tweets before they posted them and that there was no evidence of inappropriate language or behaviour although few of the students felt under any pressure to keep their tweets purely academic and none of them objected to academic staff being part of their network.

The University of Hertfordshire: used podcasting and wikis to enhance learning on a BSc physiotherapy programme. The wiki allowed students to start to build and organise knowledge in an effective way following on from their search and evaluation of information, and the students self-assessed and peer-reviewed the podcasts using a pre-defined rubric. By making a judgment on their peers and by evaluating their own performance, the students had an opportunity to reflect on their learning and experience. Creating a podcast also help them identify the need to be able to use different terminology when communicating with patients and professional colleagues.

The University of Southampton: has used Twitter and Storify to enhance learning in large group lectures. A maths tutor originally offered students the opportunity to tweet questions during lectures, realising that not all students are comfortable asking questions in a large group. He later expanded the experiment by using Storify to provide a permanent record and to expand on the answers given in lectures e.g. by adding images and videos. This combines the benefit of being able to answer questions at the right time during the flow of the lecture, whilst also being able to offer extended answers later and point to connected resources that encourage students to think around the topic without digressing and interrupting the flow of a particular lesson. When students email questions, especially around exam time, these are anonymised and the response posted to Storify so that all students benefit. An average of eight hits per student shows that learners do engage with the Storify resources. The lecturer chose the tools because they are quick and easy to use without worrying whether Storify was the optimal tool to support dialogue.

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