The core Part Two undergraduate module, International Business Management and Strategy (MM272), was redesigned on two pillars: teamwork, and social media (Facebook). Formal student evaluations were high and feedback from focus groups with students was very positive – students found the use of Facebook effective and enjoyable, and students felt fully engaged.
Increase student engagement with team-based learning.
Integrate Facebook into module delivery.
Team-based learning forms a core part of the Part Two module MM272; approximately 150 students are enrolled on this module. Yet inter-team discussions within the team-based learning context were limited to and by the classroom. Team-based learning for modules with larger student cohorts is an especially promising context in which Facebook may enhance learning outcomes. A recent project at the University of Reading had evaluated Blackboard Learn and email as being confusing and dated to students for the purposes of sharing, and that Facebook provided a more flexible and familiar platform. As a two-sided network in which posters and readers provide each other with network benefits through interactions, Facebook complements team-based learning by allowing for posting of key team arguments online, and for multiple rounds of comments and responses – dynamic interactions that strengthen learning.
First, a closed course Facebook group was created, students were divided into teams, and six Facebook-enabled tasks were designed. These tasks were to vote for module coursework mark allocation across assessment areas, to submit case-based assignments by in-class posting onto dedicated Facebook events (with tagging of other teams for comment), to appeal multiple choice questions, to post analyses of current business topics, for the module convenor to provide assignment-feedback (but not marks), and to post a Q&A and documents for download.
Facebook enabled development of norms of ‘professional informality’; barriers were lowered and there was greater tacit understanding of the subject, with higher learning outcomes as evidenced from exams. Facebook was inclusive, and gave a ‘voice’ to students who might be more reticent in class discussion. Class time was not monopolised by one speaker, but all voices were provided an audience through postings and comments online.
Facebook has afforded advantages understood from a social constructivist perspective on learning – learning emerges from social activity. Students observed each other, their postings, and this shaped their behaviours, leading to the development of norms in interacting, and increasing the level of scholarship in assignments, consistent with social learning theory. Socially, the boundary between personal and professional becomes blurred.
This post relates to activities carried out on the EU ERASMUS Intensive Programme grant awarded to University of Reading to fund 10 students from each of Belgium, Germany and the UK, plus 5 staff in total from the three countries, to travel to Akureyri in Iceland. Once there, the grant funded a 2-week residential field course, including Icelandic students and staff, plus other lecturers from Reading, Iceland and Spain.
In July we set ourselves the challenge of combining technology enhanced learning, with a field trip to Iceland to sample ‘extreme’ microbes, with 34 students, many of whom had very little field experience. Also mix a multi-national environment with students from Belgian, German and Icelandic universities and you can see why we wanted to develop an effective online learning environment. The field trip had taken place previously in 2012 (see:http://ow.ly/A0EBo) and 2013, but this was the first year with so many nationalities involved. Our general objectives were to bring this diverse community together to teach them about microbiological techniques and processes, and to introduce them to environmental microbiology, by taking them into the extreme environments of Iceland to collect their own samples.
We chose Facebook as our platform for an online learning environment as we had experience in using it in previous modules, and with 1.23 billion active users, we hoped it would be something that many of the students were already using! We created the private group in February, and invited the students to join (making it completely voluntary). Initially we wanted to use it as a way to prepare everyone for the trip, posting relevant information and encouraging the academic staff who were involved in the trip to participate so that the students had a way of getting to know them before their arrival.
In the next stage we wanted to see whether we could use this Facebook group as a way of getting students to feel comfortable in preparing and posting a reflective blog post about their experiences on the trip. To do this we staged their learning, asking them to add short reflective posts within the private Facebook group, which could include photos and links. Not all of the students did this at first, but by the end many of them had done, or had at least commented on other peoples posts. The group also became useful for so many other aspects of the course. Simon Clarke ran a seminar, where students broke out into small groups and answered questions within this group by posting on the Facebook page. Simon was then able to discuss each group’s answers with the class, leading to some very active discussion. We also posted ‘breakfast quizzes’ which again lead to some very interesting discussion between the academic staff and students.
One element that worked very well was the use of iPads on the trip. We benefitted from investment made by the School of Biological Sciences into purchasing iPads, so that we were able to provide each student with their ‘own’ iPad facilitating many aspects of the field and lab work. For example we geo-logged each sampling location enabling students to record the conditions where their samples were taken, which helped when they came to interpret their findings.The iPads also meant that the Facebook group remained inclusive, not disadvantaging anyone who hadn’t brought along their own laptop, smartphone or tablet device.
At the end of the trip we ran focus groups with the students and staff to evaluate their perceptions of the use of the Facebook group during the trip. We are still going through all of the results, but the feedback was generally positive from both sides. The students and staff created their own safe learning environment, enhancing the experiences of both groups and enabling a different kind of learning which we couldn’t achieve otherwise.
As part of the assessment for the Reading students we set them the task of writing a short blog post about the benefits of fieldwork for microbiologists in a multi-national setting. They also produced short videos to demonstrate the process of collecting their samples through to their lab work. They created these entirely on their iPads and the results are really impressive. If you are interested then the blog posts are available here: http://ow.ly/A0OrW and we are currently organising a TEL showcase where we will discuss this project more, later in the new academic year.
Facebook can be a distraction to learning but it can also be an aid. I believe strongly that lecturers should do their best to make their subject interesting to students. It can be an uphill battle. However, this year’s experiment in using Facebook as a student engagement technology with a first year Photosynthesis class of 300 was a great success (measured by student response) and this is how I did it.
1) Set up a closed and secret Facebook group
For this you need a Facebook account and a Facebook friend who is willing to be signed up to the group. Log in to Facebook, select ‘Groups’ and then click the +Create Group button. Choose a sensible name for the group. You will need to add one friend to allow the group to be created.
2) Add some content
To help the students understand what is needed add a short welcome message – “This closed Facebook group is to allow me to run quick quizzes during the photosynthesis teaching. Sign up now but there is nothing you need to do in this group until the lectures are due.”
3) Invite the class the join
You can invite students by inputting their email addresses: click on the ‘Invite by email’ link then paste in the comma separated list of addresses. You can also email the link to the group via Blackboard and ask them to request to join. It is important in the covering email to explain the purpose of the request and that you are not asking, or needing, them to become a Facebook ‘friend’. Many students use Facebook for their private lives and it’s not appropriate for staff to have access to that in most circumstances. Also ask that they bring an internet enabled device to the lecture – phone, tablet or portable – it doesn’t matter which.
4) Monitor the joining requests
Make sure you add people quickly once they have requested to join. You should check at least once per day. If the proportion of the class joining is small to start with you will need to send a reminder round, however once some people are signed up it’s likely their classmates will get on with it. Don’t expect to get 100% sign up – some students don’t have a Facebook account.
5) Prepare your question and answer set
Think carefully about which points are important in your lecture, which are amenable to simple question and answer, and which issues can be chosen to give a spread of questions over the whole 50 minutes. Facebook surveys allow a question and then any number of answers but it’s best to keep the choice simple – anything from 2-6 works well. Don’t put the questions in Facebook yet – once they are there they are visible to the students and they can start answering them. Prepare a simple text document (I use Notepad but any text editor will do) and save the question and the answer set.
6) One day before the lecture
Remind students to bring internet devices. Explain to those without them that you will use a show of hands for them when voting is happening. Remind them that there is still time to join the group if they haven’t yet got round to it.
7) The lecture begins
Welcome the students, put Facebook on the screen and post a simple question related to the lecture topic. This gives those signed up a chance to vote and also encourages those that haven’t joined to join. This also gets the students used to the idea they are going to be interacting with you and the information you provide.
8) Question breaks
Over a double lecture period I posted 5 series of questions, roughly one set every 15-20 minutes. Interspersing the standard lecture delivery with these short changes of style and a request to think about what has been taught helps all the students to keep up and gives chance for peer learning via the Q&A exercises. In a class of almost 300 students it took 2-5 minutes to deal with each Facebook question and the accompanying discussion. While those with IT chose their answers I did a show of hands for the rest of the class. If you have only a maximum of 50 hands to cope with out of a class of 300 it’s quicker and easier to count.
9) After the lecture
The Facebook group is set up so students can use it for post lecture Q&A. Do let them know how long you will monitor it on a regular basis. If you are a regular Facebook user you will see if there have been any new posts. If you are using Facebook just for this, do make sure you log in periodically in case any questions crop up. Any questions that come up can be dealt with and the record is there for all students to see again at revision time.
Is it a good idea to encourage students to log on to Facebook during a lecture?
There is an obvious risk that encouraging students to log in to Facebook will simply distract them into checking their timeline. However, if the student has bothered to turn up for the lecture there is the opportunity to keep them engaged with the content through the mini lectures followed by highly interactive Q&A sessions. Experience this year suggests to me that the students find the approach engaging and highly educational. Certainly the module feedback from several students picked out this lecture from the rest of term as a successful approach to teaching.
Large first year classes can be difficult to engage during lectures. Students are new to University, often unwilling to stand out from the crowd and feel hidden amongst a large group. This is challenging for the lecturer who is trying to judge whether their lecture message is hitting home, whether they have paced their lecture at the right speed and whether the content of the lecture complements the background knowledge of the students. It is also challenging for the students who will become bored if the teaching material is pitched at the wrong level, delivered at the wrong pace or just find the content irrelevant. Interaction with the Facebook quizzes allowed the students to see the answers their peers were giving, allowed me to identify and discuss areas of misunderstanding and even to challenge the depth and confidence of understanding by setting the occasional question with no correct, or multiple correct, answers. In the case of no correct answers the students could query the options and offer a correct one. In the case of multiple correct answers the class could soon see that it was split over more than one option.
There are plenty of amazing facts to throw at students about photosynthesis – plants produce 42000 times the weight of the great pyramid in sugar every year, half our drugs are based on products of plant chemistry and the oxygen we breathe is a waste product of photosynthesis. However, this does not necessarily impress 200 first year students – available oxygen, food and medicines don’t seem to engage the imagination – they are just things that are there. The challenge was to find something interactive, that would work at this scale, that was not stupidly expensive to run, that didn’t need lots of equipment to be carted around campus and that the maximum proportion of students could relate to. That ruled out PRS systems (heavy to carry around and unfamiliar to students), twitter needed commercial software to gather data in a useful way live and the dominant demographic of those on Twitter is a rather older age range than our first year students. The obvious choice was to engage with Facebook. Student responses suggest this was a worthwhile experiment but I will only be sure when I have this year’s exam results to compare with last year’s.
It’s quick, easy and free to set up. I realise it’s not for everyone and will not suit all styles of lecture however there’s little lost by trying this approach once, it may suit your teaching and deepen student engagement.
On Thursday 18th April, the HEA hosted a conference in Bristol, showcasing some innovative uses of old technologies as well as demonstrating the cutting edge of new tech used in the delivery of teaching materials to undergraduates in medicine and dentistry. We attended in the hope that some of these ideas might be adaptable for teaching the increasingly tech-savvy undergraduates of UoR’s School of Biological Sciences and School of Pharmacy. The focus of this workshop was the use of mobile devices, social media and open practice in medicine and dentistry but was applicable to many disciplines. This was an intense day, packed full of interesting sessions including:
Twitter for forming networks
Blogs to support reflection
Apps for mobile devices e.g. Reflection app, Learning Suite app (MCQs), Clinical assessment app (tutor feedback sent straight to your eportfolio), Dr Companion app (5-6 searchable textbooks).
The University of Reading recently hosted the Classical Association Conference, the UK’s largest annual meeting for Classicists. As well as research papers, the CA traditionally hosts panels exploring the teaching of the subject at both school and University levels and covering new developments. Classics, despite its ancient subject matter, has always been at the forefront of modern digital techniques of teaching and research, as recent work here at Reading shows.
This year’s CA featured a series of panels dedicated to e-learning, and as ever school and university teaching staff enjoyed the chance to learn what new developments each others’ professions had found to be useful (or not). In The first panel, teachers discussed their use of online learning environments, and pupils’ use of and response to using digital classroom tools for collaborative learning in a session which led into a general and wide-ranging audience discussion on the merits and demerits of VLEs. A second panel considered the application of IT resources to language teaching via heavily interactive digital resources of various sorts. New classroom IT offers the scope for social collaboration via wiki-like pages, and for the development of learning resources that are project- and problem-based. On the other hand, VLE’s can lag behind commercial or social software in the ‘real world’, which shapes student expectations. The incorporation of social media in teaching contexts can blur the boundaries between social and paedagogic interactions in ways that can be both productive and challenging – the appropriate etiquette around appropriate Facebook use, for example, continues to develop for both pupils and teachers. The panels considered the need to make IT resources engaging enough to capture student engagement when the online environment can create an expectation of game-like experiences, while still delivering robust content and structure.
These panels reflected a growing interest in tools and techniques for digital learning, a topic of much current interest in our own University. The overall impression from the panel I chaired was that there is much excitement about what has already been developed, and what is about to come (MOOCs were mentioned more than once). At the same time, there was a sense that the pace of change can make it hard to back the right horse – that time, effort, or money directed at a current device or platform might be worth very little in a couple of years, and that solid, ‘committee-designed’ platforms within institutions can lag behind nimbler commercial offerings. Students are now such practiced digital consumers that any frustrations or shortcomings in (for instance) a VLE are likely to disrupt their use of it quite substantially, and make it hard for us to direct them to the digital resources that we want them to use. The same seems to be true in the school classroom. When done well, however, results seem to show a promising uplift in performance and student engagement; the consensus was that digital methods of teaching definitely deserve their growing place in the teaching toolkit.
The conference panels also helped to address what seemed to be a shared sense of frustration that successful initiatives can develop in isolation, with practitioners in different sectors or institutions working on similar projects but unknown to each other. Conferences like this help to bring such people together, and as ever the chance to talk to and learn from people across one’s own field and beyond was very rewarding for all concerned.