This academic year, I ran a pilot study exploring the use of social networks in post-graduate teaching. This post provides a brief overview of the project and of the main findings, as recently presented at the Brookes-Burgundy’s 3rd joint research conference. This was a small study – it ran over a very limited time and the data was gathered from a very small population.
Last year, I decided to add a social media dimension to the post-graduate modules that I teach. Why? Two reasons, really.
First, it seems odd to me that today’s students are taught in pretty much the same away I was taught 20 years ago. Essentially, we meet weekly for lectures, with some readings and tasks to complete in between. For some time now, I have been following some discussion threads and writings about ways of extending learning beyond the classroom – and social networks are mentioned over and over again.
Second, whenever I ask someone in the industry what is the single thing that our students ought to do to improve their employability, the answer is ‘digital presence’. Invariably. Having a digital presence is important because:
- It shows recruiters that the student has the skills that they need – for instance, 95% of Nokia’s recruits are now identified through social media
- It is a major advantage in the interview process as discussed by Mark Schaefer here.
The next step was to choose the platform.
Upon consideration of the relative advantages and drawbacks of various social network platforms, I settled on Twitter. This was to be used in addition to the standard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).
At the start of the semester, I administered a short survey to obtain an overview of the students’ attitudes to the VLE and Twitter, and to assess their familiarity with the technology.
The survey was inspired by the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM). This framework is used to predict the acceptability of a technological tool, and identify any modifications that need to be made.
The results of the survey were very encouraging. Overwhelmingly, students had very positive perceptions of the technology’s ease of use and usefulness. They also had very positive attitudes towards both the VLE and Twitter. So, according to TAM, the experience should proceed smoothly.
One (big) caveat though – the vast majority of students were not using Twitter when the semester started. While some had an account, less 5% actually used it consistently.
Throughout the semester, I used Twitter, alongside the VLE, to share links to news articles, opinion pieces or other multimedia resources related to the topics discussed in the modules.
Surprisingly (for me, at least – given the results of the survey), there was very limited reaction to the module postings. By and large, the students did not reply or react in a tangible, visible way to the Twitter posts. Though, neither did they react to the content on VLE (which was consistent with behaviour in previous editions of the modules).
At the end of the modules, I ran the survey again but this time I included a small number of open-ended questions to capture the students’ opinions and suggestions.
While the students still reported very positive attitudes towards Twitter, these were now at lower levels than those reported at the start of the semester. Though, it must be repeated that I am talking about a short pilot study and a small number of responses, only.
On a more positive note, there was some student activity on Twitter in a broad sense. So, if the goal was to get students to establish a digital presence, it worked… for some!
The comments from the second survey help understand the lack of enthusiasm for Twitter.
Students could see the benefits of using social media as part of their development as digital marketers (e.g. to engage in online discussions with social media experts). Yet, opinions were divided regarding its role in the classroom: some students appreciated its inclusion, others felt that it was a distraction from what should be, in essence, a face to face interaction.
Mostly, they were not familiar with the platform. The fact that Twitter was used for one module, only, meant that some did not have enough incentive to invest time and attention to learn how to use it.
There were also some questions regarding the suitability of the platform for the needs of module delivery – i.e., the extent to which 140 characters can facilitate discussion and sharing, and best position the students’ in the eyes of potential recruiters.
These findings suggest that there is room for using social media in postgraduate education, though Twitter may not be the best tool.
If educators do decide to use Twitter, it is advisable to provide training and/or to direct students to good sources of information about the practical aspects of the platform as well as its potential in personal branding and career development – one such source is, in my opinion, the book The Tao of Twitter.
Educators also need to consider what tools are used in other modules and, if possible, consider initiatives at programme level, rather than for specific modules.
Recent user statistics suggest that Twitter is becoming increasingly popular among youth. Hence, some of the challenges faced in this pilot may cease to exist – particularly the ones regarding familiarity. Still, it needs to be carefully considered whether this is the most suitable platform for educational purposes.
Did these results surprise you?
As an educator, an employer or someone in the classroom, what are your thoughts on the use of Twitter in education?