Examining the use and application of social networking sites and mobile learning in education
Australian education systems have experienced noticeable and evidenced changes in policies and approaches to teaching and learning using ICT. In an increasingly mobile world, where information is more readily available, accessible and stored online, rather than in the traditional sense of local disc storage, social networking sites are growing in popularity, as a means of collaborating and connecting with others. Networking, creating and collaborating are some of the key characteristics of 21st Century learners.
This review will examine the literature associated with these changes which are grounded in contemporary studies on the nature of social networking and mobile learning in Australian schools. Particular interest will be given to examining the way social networking sites and mobile technologies are shaping identities of young people today in the context of engaging and continually changing learning spaces. Whilst the literature referred to here will focus on examining current trends of SNSs in secondary schools, it will also draw comparisons and conclusions from studies developed at the turn of the century, as this is the time when the use of Web 2.0 was beginning to be explored in classroom settings.
New educational policies are underpinned by contemporary research about the generations of digital natives (Prensky, 2004) and MCEETYA’s learning statement goes as far as to identify mobile learning technologies and social networking as not only being essential in the lives of young Australians, but that they are embedded in their lives, enabling them to construct knowledge, share, collaborate, communicate, design and innovate. (MCEETYA, 2005)
It is interesting then to point out that most social networking sites are blocked by school systems and policies are in place forbidding students to use their mobile phones for learning purposes. At a time of the launch of the National Digital Education Revolution and most schools implementing 1:1 device programs, including iPads, the reasoning for such outdated policies is questionable. In light of research which looks at how young people associate with social networking sites and mobile technologies, there is a strong need for governments to adapt to the needs of 21st Century learners. (NSBA, 2007). Many studies (Boyd and Ellison, 2007; Lampe 2007; Haythornthwaite 2005) examine the nature of social networking sites in the context of communications and computer studies, however, there is lack of research understanding students’ perspectives and student’s voice. (Greenhow 2004) Some of the existing studies are conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. (Levin, et.al 2002; Lenhart et.al 2010)
Education systems and online learning
With the NSW Department of Education being one of the largest education systems on the southern hemisphere, Australia positions a lot of its educational reforms in relation to U.S. studies and models. As a Commonwealth member, Australia inherently examines UK education systems and policies and our teachers ground much of their practice from the reviews such as BECTA (2007), Futurelab (2007) and yearly Horizon Report (2011).
In 2010, U.S. Department of Education published a review of studies which focussed on online learning and literature from 1996 to 2008. With a focus on examining the difference between face-to-face and online teaching and measuring student learning outcomes, studies which used substantiated research designs and which provided valid information in calculating and effect size, were taken into account. One of the key findings outlined in this review was that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” In the context of studies conducted on K-12 online learning, this data confirms that online tools that foster creativity, connectivity, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving skills allow students to be more effective learners. (Barron, 2006; Bullard et al, 2005; Means, et al. 2010; McLoughlin, 2008; NSBA, 2007)
Australian education reviews of the late 1990‘s and early 2000 focussed a lot on teacher-oriented goals and strategies for delivering better education by looking at the nature of teaching, as opposed to the nature of learning. The Quality Matters Report of the Review of Teacher Education NSW (Ramsey, 2000) stressed the importance of and the need for improving the quality of teachers and teaching. It is interesting to note that the introductory statement in the report says:
“The society we have is largely created in our schools. It is primarily from teachers that a love of learning is acquired. The intellectual energy underpinning our society begins in the classroom, where teachers develop the talents and capacities of their students… We are a ‘learning society’, increasingly reliant on the creation of knowledge, the acquisition of new skills and the communication of information. The boundaries between learning, work and social participation are becoming blurred.” (Ramsey, 2000, p. 9)
At the turn of the 21st Century, we were beginning to recognise the impact of social networking and the changing role of the teacher, from that of a knowledge giver, to a learning facilitator.
In 2004, the DET’s The Futures Project, aimed to determine the quality of services provided by the DET, as a public education system, as well as if and how the system may be improved. This project, as a consultation process, recognised the importance of ICT and it’s role in facilitating engaging learning and teaching practice. Whilst it also pointed out the need for a more effective infrastructure in public schools, this project did not however take into account or make the connection between ICT and pedagogy, rather ICT as a skills-oriented tool, for which teachers require clear guidance. This project, referencing the teaching and learning during the Web 1.0 era of “read only” online access, also began in the year the term Web 2.0 was coined and a new way of thinking and networking was starting to flourish. (O’Reilly, 2005) There is not much scholarly literature available hypothesizing on the influence of Web 3.0, or the Semantic Web, as it is known. (Ohler, 2008) Web 3.0 will provide a means for data integration whereby students conducting a search on Google for example, will no longer be given a list of possible related search results, but an integrated, categorised, interconnected and possibly already compared search report. Moravec (2009) presents a concise paradigm for thinking about Web 3.0 from a systemic perspective. Some of the key characteristics of Web 3.0 described by Moravec are that it is fundamentally complex and creative, conceptualised as intentional and self-organsing, as opposed to Web 2.0 being heterarchic and Web 1.0 hierarchic. What opportunities this intentionally self-organisational structure may bring to the way we design teaching and learning practice will remain to be seen, but a hypothesis could be drawn that educators will rely less and less on software and hardware driven learning design and instead conceptually creative and innovative approach to facilitating learning.
Social networking and young people
With social networking on the rise and Australia ranking as one of the greatest users of online social networking sites (Nielsen Online, 2007) in order to determine how students engage with social networking tools, it is also interesting to examine studies which look at reasons why some students, even if they are a minority, do not engage in social networking.
An Australian study by Media and communications in Australian families (ACMA 2008) study of young people aged 8-17 found that young people spent an average one hour and 17 minutes online each day, equally determined for boys and girls. The study drew conclusions from a quantitative national survey, as well as qualitative media time-use diaries, detailing what they used the internet for over a three-day period. The data showed that those aged 15-17 engaged in a variety of activities and spent 45 minutes on communication, 25 minutes on homework, 23 minutes on playing online games, 24 minutes on social networking sites and 14 minutes viewing audio-visual content.
This illustrates the importance of examining digital citizenship and online literacy in education systems where there is much diversity in quality of learning opportunities which schools facilitate. (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009) “Social network sites (SNSs) available via the internet may provide promising contexts for learning to supplement school-based experiences” (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009, p. 119)
While young people engage in accessing and creating significant amounts of online content, they are also taking the time to view the content of others, comment on blogs, create their own profiles without spending more time online, rather moving towards “mashing” these experiences into a single site in order to increase their efficient use of time. (ACMA, 2008)
The US Pew research project report Social Media & Mobile Internet Among Teens and Young Adults (Lenhart, et.al 2010) tracked the type of online activities young people engage in and found that 62% of online teens aged 12-17 access online sites to get news about current events and politics, 48% also purchase books, clothes and music online, 31% look up health, dieting or physical information online and 17% engage in discussions with others about health-related topics. (Lenhart et al, 2010, p. 4)
Last month, Mark Zuckerberg announced a radical Facebook change to be launched by the end of 2011. The decision is driven by a focus to bring events together through a timeline, which will allow users to share, yet have more control over the content which appears on their news feed. New partnerships were also announced with music, media and games companies, which will allow users to conduct all of their regular activities (as those young people identified in the ACMA 2008 report) without ever leaving Facebook. This suggests that not only will Facebook be a platform for graphing young people’s social experiences, but also, for the first time in history, we will have a graphed timeline of our daily lives and minute by minute descriptions of our experiences recorded and shared. New mobile technologies, such as the iPhone 4S with iCloud will enable the collaboration and sharing to take place effortlessly and globally.
What are the advantages of these technologies, interactions, youth perceptions and ways they experience life, for education? What are students’ expectations of schools in embedding these tools to engage the learners?
The Media and communications in Australian families study reported that 76% of time spent online by young people was at home (ACMA, 2008). Levin’s study (2002) outlines students’ use of the internet out-of-school and their dissatisfaction and digital disconnect with their school learning environment. It makes evident that access to the Internet is pertinent to the lives of young people, particularly when they tend to their homework tasks. Expecting students to complete homework which requires reference to online sources, yet not providing the similar opportunities at school seems to be comparable with some of the current policies enforced in school systems in Australia. These policies expect students to access a variety of social networks, yet make explicit rules against mobile device use in class and on school grounds. (Chatswood High School Mobile Phone Policy; Croydon Public School Mobile Phone Policy) One such example is Edmodo, an educational, safe and DET approved social networking site, which can also be accessed in a form of a mobile device application. Students are not allowed to use their “smart-phones”, such as iPhones or Android phones, in school, so the benefits of Edmodo ease of access, user-friendly platform, notes accessible whilst students walk from class to class or at lunchtime, can not be taken advantage of in an educational setting. Srivastava’s (2005) argues that mobile phones have not only become instrumental in shaping a new kind of identity, which is grounded in a sense of belonging, community and collective identity. (pp. 111-113)
If the recent ACMA study is identifying that young people still spend majority of their online networking and interactions, a lot of which include researching and chatting to others about their schoolwork, are schools today providing productive, safe and engaging learning environments, which facilitate the state of flow? (Csikszentmihalyi, 1977).
In examining how learning at school and outside of school are related, Barron (2006) proposed applying a learning ecology framework through a case study of three participants examining the different ways they develop interest in a topic. Barron proposes five types of processes initiated by the learner: (1) seeking out of text-based informational sources, (2) creation of new interactive projects, (3) pursuit of structured learning opportunities such as courses, (4) the exploration of media, and (5) development of mentoring or knowledge-sharing relationships. (Barron, 2006, p 193)
If we apply these to online networking sites, the links are easily identifiable and present in the form of searching the net, seeking out information, collaboration on design-based learning projects which could be structured through wikis, nings and similar learning management systems, exploration of wide variety of media on You Tube, Vimeo, Flickr, Edmodo, iTunes and alike, as well as the interconnectedness, learning, sharing and student-teacher, peer-to-peer relationships what are possible. The importance and value of feedback in such learning spaces allows learners to develop greater self-efficacy and confidence. (Bassi, et. al, 2007, p. 302)
However, educators must take into consideration possible negative effects of social networking if they are to provide positive learning environments. For example, as social networking interactions are built upon user commentary and feedback, the absence or lack of feedback could have negative effects and a disconnectedness. (Tokunaga, 2011)
Constructing online identities
A recent study (Rosland, et al., 2011) explored reasons why some Australian teenagers do not engage with social networking sites, finding that they lacked motivation, did not have the skills to utilise time effectively, preferred other modes of communication, preferred to engage in other activities, had cybersafety concerns and expressed a dislike of self-presentation online. The study engaged year 9 and 10 secondary students from two co-educational schools from middle-class socio-economic areas.
This study, employed a conceptual and qualitative research methodology focussing the analysis of data grouped by respondent’s beliefs. The participants were also given a questionnaire consisting of closed and open-ended questions on social networking sites. The study was limited with the small sample size and narrow school environment sample. It also did not include information about the participant’s access to the net or how and if their friends and families use SNSs, or their level of digital literacy.
However, examining these findings in relation to the benefits of social networking and mobile learning in tertiary education, which secondary school leavers need to successfully transition into (Cochrane, 2010) , we could also deduce that there is a need for secondary schools to consider ways in which social networking can act as a means for engaging the learner, effective time management, as well as considering reliable mechanisms to ensure cybersafety awareness and practice. How are these skills then transferred to our daily lives and the identity building, as well as social structures that exist beyond the school walls? What is the nature of the changing scope of the classroom environment and how does it impact on the learner’s identity as a whole? What difference, if any, should be drawn between the students’ and teachers’ online identities?
The ways adolescents’ identities are constructed in an online community was examined through a case study of a school students ranging between 8 and 16 in age and all of whom have been online for a period of 2 years. (Thomas, 2000) Whilst this study was conducted in 2000 utilising software called The Palace, which is still available online, but no longer maintained, it is interesting to observe how in the very beginning of Web 2.0, teachers and students were exploring collaborative practice and constructivist ideas of learners as knowledge creators and teachers as learners and facilitators. What this study found was that through a very simple visual online interface, students were constructing new identities in the visual form of avatars, but also in their conversations and interactions with each other. They built new communities, which now transposed beyond the physical classroom environment. Referencing popular culture icons, learners demonstrated their interests and how they like to learn best, whilst also demonstrating high levels of literacy and ability to engage in meaningful discussions. Whilst this study does not elaborate and critique the quality and nature of the participant’s constructed identities, it does raise questions about what do learners who engage in social networking and belong to online communities, such as this early form of chat rooms, value from these experiences? How is this similar or different to our classroom environments? Would this type of discursive practice and interaction taken place in the traditional classroom?
Whilst The Palace would most likely, by today’s standards and in light of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Tumblr and alike, be a non-engaging and visually unappealing tool for the participants of Rosland’s study, if we focus on the functionality of the tool and give safe working parameters, set meaningful and time-smart activities, would social networking tools help enhance meaning and value of learning activities? What do social networking sites offer learners that extends the learning which takes place in a physical classroom environment?
If the reasons why students in Rosland’s study did not engage with social networking sites were addressed, and if Thomas was to conduct the same study again ten years later, would the learning experiences and gain be greater if the learners (both students and the teachers) had access to a social networking, avatar-identity-constructed, online selves within a new community, which was accessible to them anywhere, anytime in anyway? If the social networking sites are mobile and therefore more easily accessible, would the learning gain increase? What impact would it have on student engagement?
With the expanding number of mobile devices entering the classroom environment and the consideration of research which is evidence on how new technological innovations and online learning spaces can serve as conduits for engaging the learner and enhancing learning gain, it is also important to consider the implications of social networking tools in shaping and re-shaping our identities. As young people spend most of their day time at school, the gap between home and school experiences of technology and online accessibility needs to be addressed and continually revised. Learners’ identities between personal, social and education lives are becoming more blurred each day and a greater amount of study is needed to assess the ways in which young people shape their online identity and what role education plays in that development. As such, examining how students view their use of social networking sites and mobile technologies in their every day learning is required. Web 3.0 is already entering the social and educational domain and will bring about a significant transformation of educational teaching and learning practice as we know it today.
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