Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments

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)).


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  1. Hi George,
    There are certain assumptions relating to whether “students tend to mix social and educational participation.” Assumption 1: the setting up of criteria of assessment would impact on how and why students would post and comment on those site. For instance, students may be expected to discuss only course related posts, and be focused, as and so their comments would be assessed too in terms of relevance, evidence collected to support their arguments. Assumption 2: Students are expected to follow the norms set up by the fellow students, and such norms including the setting up or negotiation of rules, such as how long should such a comment be made – one paragraph? Or whether one could be allowed to share ideas tangentially (which normally is not viewed as a good idea, despite that some brainstorming of ideas could lead to the improved creativity and connectedness. Assumption 3: How the teacher and fellow students would role model such behaviors would set the precedence for others? This is especially important to encourage everyone to participate, especially in a traditional online course, where the students would like to wait and see who would be leading the conversation (especially if the instructors would likely be posing any challenging questions, or be part of the conversation). Assumption 4: Whether the students are more interested in getting good grades as a result of participation and interaction, and thus collaboration, or they would really gain a lot of learning through those interaction, and collaboration, as perceived by the students. Here educational activities and social interaction might be blended together, as questions and responses may relate to the assessment activities, and or the academic advice, and emotional support that are given and shared by instructors, peers and other support staff. Assumption 5: To what extent would the participants (the students) fully reflect on their feelings and perceptions in a research study? Most students do like to share the great learning from their course, but may be hesitant to reflect on the social sides of their learning, mainly because they are looking for achieving the learning outcomes from the course. For instance, in the case of the traditional courses, is the assumption that:”Nearly all students are looking for a qualification, not the “social learning” that informal learners or lifelong learners are looking for, as in the case of learning via FB or Twitter”. In summary, I think your study reflects what may be typical with University students doing an online course with specific learning goals, in order to complete a formal qualification. How far would that be reflective of the situation of online learning for other sorts of learners – like those learning not for the degrees (like the MOOC) or the informal learners on the networks?

    • Dear John,
      Thank you for your comments. The five assumptions that you describe are potential explanations of what we are seeing in this study. As I discuss in my post there are many explanations of why we saw what we saw – we are not sure however which ones of these are true and which are not because we did not study the reason why (and given that we were interviewing participants, I would be hesitant to ask them to explain why they did not do something). I would like to say however, that all of the reasons that you are describing above could be true at the same time.

      Regarding your question: “How far would that be reflective of the situation of online learning for other sorts of learners – like those learning not for the degrees (like the MOOC) or the informal learners on the networks?” That’s a great question. Our study however, occurred in a traditional higher education setting. Thus, our results may not apply at the settings that you are describing. I would be interested in seeing how exactly results differ across contexts, and I look forward to individuals following up on our study and comparing our results to other settings.

  2. Dear George,
    Thanks so much for your elaboration, and wonderful insights. I am interested in seeing how exactly results differ across contexts too. I would like to follow up on your study and compare results with MOOCs.


  3. Jenny Mackness

    Hi George – thanks for taking the time to answer my question. It’s an interesting idea that a social platform may not be social at all, depending on the circumstances – or maybe we need to explore what we mean by social as opposed to educational. Some interesting things to think about :-) Jenny

  4. Hi Jenny,

    I would love to see a better treatment of these issues as well, especially with reference to “social.” I hope I didn’t give you the impression that social and educational can’t coexist or that they don’t overlap. They definitely do. It’s just that in this case, we did not observe any significant presence of social interactions that go beyond those that were prescribed. Thanks again for the comments!

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