Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology & Associate Professor at Royal Roads University

Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments


Posted on February 5th, by George Veletsianos in my research, NPS, online learning, papers, scholarship. 7 comments

I’m always excited to participate in dialogue regarding my work. In this post, I will respond to a couple of questions/comments posed to me as a result of a recent paper I published in IRRODL with Cesar Navarrete, who is a doctoral student at the Learning Technologies program at UT Austin.

The paper is: Veletsianos, G. & Navarrete, C. (2012). Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments: Learner Experiences and Activities. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 13(1), 144-166. [PDF]

In this paper we try to make sense of student experiences and practices in an online social network using within an online course. The abstract reads: While the potential of social networking sites to contribute to educational endeavors is highlighted by researchers and practitioners alike, empirical evidence on the use of such sites for formal online learning is scant. To fill this gap in the literature, we present a case study of learners’ perspectives and experiences in an online course taught using the Elgg online social network. Findings from this study indicate that learners enjoyed and appreciated both the social learning experience afforded by the online social network and supported one another in their learning, enhancing their own and other students’ experiences. Conversely, results also indicate that students limited their participation to course-related and graded activities, exhibiting little use of social networking and sharing. Additionally, learners needed support in managing the expanded amount of information available to them and devised strategies and “workarounds” to manage their time and participation.

The first question/comment is from Jenny Mackness who says: “I was surprised by the finding ‘students did not appear to mix social and educational participation’. In my experience, students have always mixed social and educational participation, e.g. in the coffee bar – or in my own work, wiki discussions will sometimes veer off into more personal, social discussions. Do you think your students did not mix social and educational participation in your Elgg environment because of the constraints of tutor presence/control, assessment and so on. I’m wondering where else they might have mixed social and educational participation. Did you ask them whether there were any ‘back channels’?”

Thanks for the question, Jenny! I agree with you that students tend to mix social and educational participation. We did not observe this on occurring in this study though. I believe both of these tendencies can be true, and sometimes even co-exist. One or two students sought social, non-educational interactions, but their attempts were not reciprocated. The majority of them just didn’t mix the two. Following up from this, it is interesting to ask why. We did not ask students about it but I can say that (a) just because we didn’t see it on the social network, it doesn’t mean that it did not happen (i.e., it might have happened on email), and (b) a lot of reasons might explain why: the fast pacing of the course might have been a factor; students might have been focusing on completing the course and its requirements; or students might not have felt that Elgg was the appropriate place for them to do that. It’s highly likely that it’s a combination of all of these. What’s important, I believe, is the implication that just because students are on an online social network, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will engage with each other in the types of social interactions that we see occurring elsewhere (e.g., twitter, facebook, etc).

The second comment is from Stephen Downes who says: “We haven’t heard a lot about Elgg recently but it remains an important model for online learning. One weakness of the case study is that it takes place in a traditional institution.” Results also indicate that students limited their participation to course-related and graded activities, exhibiting little use of social networking and sharing.” Then again, this might just be a feature of the (very) small group studied. I think the discussion of Elgg is valuable, but would place the case study as just one out of (we would hope) many data points.”

Again, thank you, Stephen, for the comment! I may be misunderstanding part of the comment, but I wouldn’t say that the fact that this study took place at a traditional institution is a “weakness.” That was actually part of the reason why we did the study, as the majority of the work that we have seen focuses on the use of these technologies outside of the institution, and individuals tend to think that findings will easily transfer to institutional settings. If you mean that the results were influenced by the fact that the course occurred in a traditional institution or that the institutional setting influenced how the technology was used, you are absolutely correct, and that’s an implication of the study. Finally, I agree with you in that this is just one case study of the use of Elgg and online social networks in an institutional setting. A collection of case studies can help us make sense of this phenomenon, and these are slowly appearing (e.g., in our paper we cite Arnold & Paulus (2010), Brady et al. (2010), Dron & Anderson (2009b)).