Monday, March 30, 2009

Should you use Social Networking Tools?

In looking at my thesis research I wanted to really look at Social Networking and what were the quantifiable benefits of the tool. I was given the opportunity to work with a distance education class, which I think is perfect for the SNS community building we want to see, but I had to look a bit deeper. What in essence is the point of education? Of taking classes? What are the outcomes that we try so desperately to quantify with projects and tests? And could I look at that without examining projects and tests :)

I felt that discussion boards were the key to not only online learning, but also this creation of community. That without discussions and interactions, you may as well be a correspondence course. The more I read, the more I came to value how important peer-to-peer interactions were, and how SNS can support these so well. I felt that interviews and surveys could give me a good idea of how students felt about using a SNS, but I really wanted to look at their discussion data and see what story it told.

So I came across the work of Gunawardena, Lowe, & Anderson, (1997), (see list of references) which looks at phases of knowledge construction (IAM) in a discussion board forum. So much of what I found was, "I agree" or "You are so right," and if I looked at that as an "interaction it would count, but it really wasn't substantial. It didn't mean anything. With the IAM coding scheme I was able to really see when discussions were fruitful and meaningful. Now the initial drawback to this is that there wasn't a large difference between SNS and traditional courses, except once.

You see Week 8 was an anomaly, but not just because of the phase variation, but also because it was the ONLY discussion started by a student. Authentic discourse occurred, because students bought into the issue. Then I realized what they key to using a SNS is - it is student-centered and they can have control over their learning.

As instructors we can't teach the same way with new tools. In order to take advantage of SNS usefulness, we need to shift our thinking about what a discussion board is and what it should be. We also have to shift our students expectations of what a discussion board is and how it can be used in a online class.

Just because you use a technology doesn't mean you are utilizing it.

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