In my previous post, I suggested that for learning providers, simply having a presence on social media networks is not enough to engage students: not only are teens fabulously fickle, they are wary, resentful even, of authorities encroaching into their personal space:
“Facebook is more a ‘personal’ thing and i don’t really want to get school involved in it,” said one 14 year old girl.
“i believe that the schools influence should remain on the premises and should not stray into your social life,” echoed a 16 year old boy.
Unlike the natural attraction teens demonstrate towards their peers, it seems fairly rare for a teen to show any intrinsic interest in their school or college (75% say they don’t or wouldn’t use a school Facebook page). In the main, they’re just not interested. If they’re there, they want something from it.
An establishment in Buckinghamshire provided a range of bespoke collaborative tools hosted on their virtual learning environment (VLE). But the tutors were disappointed to discover that no students used the tools beyond the induction session and the compulsory assessment exercises. Meanwhile there was an entirely independent and thriving Facebook community where students shared experiences and supported each other with assignments. It wasn’t that the institution’s tools weren’t good, on the contrary, they were far more tailored to the needs of the students than those available publicly; rather the issue was one of trust and management. Participation in the formal learning environment transferred ownership and authority to the college, students were effectively entering school property. And the contributions in that space felt more scrutinised than the open-to-anyone Facebook group. The knowledge that tutors were ‘lurking,’ albeit benignly, in the VLE gave the impression that every post was being assessed and this prevented any free-flowing conversation. The Facebook group, on the other hand, was theirs, and somehow psychologically isolated from prying eyes.
The case study also illustrates the challenge of managing online spaces. Bear Stearns (the global investment bank now part of JPMorgan Chase) defined 4 categories in the social networking space and Matt Locke of Channel 4 revised those categories into his six spaces of social media. If any activity can be compartmentalised into dedicated domains (e.g. science in the laboratory,
work email on the office computer) then switching tasks is as straightforward as swapping rooms but when the lines start to blur (such as homework), people seek the path of least resistance – how do I do this most easily? In these cases, the management of the online spaces often boils down to “Can I do what I need to here?” Unless the second online space has something new to offer, or perhaps more importantly makes life easier, users will generally make do with what they have: simply duplicating facilities is not enough to encourage people to transfer allegiance or manage both simultaneously.
Engaging learners isn’t just about making the resource fit the user’s space though. A recent research project in Scotland described a year-long study where students were given a host of social media tools to co-develop learning materials for their course. The team reported a number of positive findings including the value of contributing and the sense of feeling part of something. But they also described how users regarded participation as extra pressure and how it didn’t improve reflective practice. Most tellingly, no-one, not one single student, continued to use the tools after the study (and its associated payments and incentives) finished.
I think what these examples demonstrate is that you can’t force students to engage with social media and secondly if there is a genuine need or desire, learners will seek out the most convenient format, regardless of where that sits, but ideally in spaces they already operate.
Crucially though, neither initiative offered any real value to the learners. In their own words:
“I don’t think there’s anything on it that i need to know”
“I just dont bother to and im busy.”
We seem to forget that young people are not compelled to accept Authority coming into their personal spaces. At this age (14-19), perhaps more than any other, learners will never be ‘friends’ with their school or college. At best, the institution will be a ‘Dad at the Disco’ type acquaintance. The only reason learner’s will come, let alone participate, is if they believe they will profit from the effort – either through immediate gratification or by taking something away that improves their life.