MICROBLOGS IN HIGHER EDUCATION – A CHANCE TO FACILITATE INFORMAL AND PROCESS-ORIENTATED LEARNING?

Ebner, Martin, et al. “Microblogs in Higher Education–A chance to facilitate informal and process-oriented learning?.” Computers & Education 55.1 (2010): 92-100.

Free text available here if you register with Researchgate.net which I did.

The study

This is an interesting study if only as an attempt to provide objective evidence of the educational impact of microblogging in two areas of learning. It analysed the microblogging entries of a group of business students (full time & part time) at an Austrian University. The students undertook a ‘New Media and Multi-Channel Management’ module as part of the research. This was undertaken as an additional item of study at a busy time during a semester when the students were taking up to 5 parallel course subjects. Students had to use two type of new media – microblogging (MBlog) and Wiki (MediaWiki) – in order to collaborate, communicate and produce business plans. A bit like big brother, the entries on the blog & Wiki were analysed weekly over a 6 week period and categorised into 8 different subtypes (for example, including a hyperlink, content reflects a discussion about the topics of the course subject). In total, 11214 posts from 21 full time and 13 part time students were analysed. To support the extra workload of the students engaging with the module, more of the credit points for this module were awarded on the process, less on the actual business case presentations. The students were told of this.

Theoretical Background

I had come across informal learning before in my studies. One of the best examples I used with a previous student was the informal learning that takes place in the medical centre when a new doctor is posted in. The new doctor will be fresh with ideas, certainly up to date with medical knowledge and keen to make a mark. However, what they may not know certainly in a military context is how a job may affect a soldier’s medical condition and vice versa. Therefore time spent either with the medics or with the soldiers will allow them to learn about occupational aspects of their patients’ role through social interactions. The formal curriculum may teach them about PTSD; the informal curriculum may give insight into the horrific experiences of young soldiers especially in Afghanistan by talking and working with them.

I knew roughly what process orientated learning was but sought clarification. From Wikipedia: Process Orientated learning is a pedagogical method in which students are encouraged to use process skills such as collaboration and written expression. Whilst reading this, I came across the term Positive Interdependence . This is where members of a group who share common goals perceive that working together is individually and collectively beneficial, and success depends on the participation of all the members’. Negative interdependence is the opposite and reminded me of the McLaren Mercedes F1 ‘Team’ of Louis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg (‘individuals can only achieve their goal via the failure of a competitor’).

Results

By analysing the types of posts after they had been sub-divided, the authors attempted to assess what sort of learning had gone on. Positive outcomes were that students chatted a lot & communication levels went up through the 6 week observation period. This causally demonstrated informal learning and collaboration. The use of hyperlinks went down suggesting students were sharing factual information initially but less so as the period went on. Coursework discussion also increased suggesting positive interdependence. However, and it is a big however, the authors noted when they analysed the posts for evidence of process orientated learning, the students tended to use microblogging as an alternative medium for collaboration because they had to. With the number of posts being so high, the authors were suspicious the students were playing the game. There was no reflection on how the medium itself was changing the way they were working. I am really not surprised here as when a student is told the majority of the marks would be awarded for process, of course they will use the medium. The authors acknowledged this but possibly missed a trick but not blinding the marking system. However this in itself may have been on ethically dodgy ground.

I also wonder what outcomes the students were told about. Were they asked to reflect on the use of the media itself or were they asked to use the media as method of collaboration. To be honest I have read the article several times and am still none the wiser. In their summary they quote McLuhan’s focus of ‘The Medium is the Message’ which I take to mean the research was about the medium of microblogging itself. They commented that the students did not reflect on the impact of microblogging on the way they were working. I have some sympathy with the students here. They are not educationalists interested in the deeper understanding of why microblogging might help. I tried reading McLuhan’s article but got to a bit about light bulbs having no message when my own light failed, late last night (or was it the red wine). I will try again this weekend & post any nuggets of educational wisdom as comments.

What does this mean? The authors come up with valid conclusions that microblogging has potential to increase informal learning and that the collaboration which has taken place suggests it can be a catalyst for process-orientated learning. It does need more research however. It would have been interesting for example to have compared the outcomes (the business plans) from two groups, one using microblogging and one not then marked these with the assessors being blinded to which ones they were assessing. This would not have measured processes though, just outcomes. There is also an assumption made that lots of communicative posts indicated collaboration. It may just have been students gossiping although to their credit, the authors spent a large amount of time analysing the posts.

This article made me think what am I try to achieve by blogging my critical appraisals and my article reviews? I am essentially making public the processes I am going through whilst writing my assignment (alongside the PBSGL). I reflected on this last night & came to the conclusion that I am really just throwing things into the mixer and seeing what comes out. This may all end with nothing (bar me being a bit wiser) but I suppose ultimately I am laying the foundation for my dissertation in 18 months time when I put SNS to the test in the context of peer review of teaching. Should I be looking at process orientated learning where a group of GP Trainers peer reviews the video of a tutorial? Or should I be looking at an outcome where the reviewee has a formative teaching plan based on the group feedback (as opposed to an individual reviewer). To be honest, I don’t know and I’m sure by the time I am writing my dissertation there may well be a new SNS which is the next best thing in education. Certainly exciting times in post graduate education and the thought makes the educationalist (or geek) in me tingle with excitement…

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