Published on 2013/12/09

With a Little Help From My Friends: The Value of Social Media for Distributed Learners

With a Little Help From My Friends: The Value of Social Media for Distributed Learners
Social media channels have provided online learners with the opportunity to create communities outside of the classroom that can support their academic success.
Many mid-career learners are unable or unwilling to take a large chunk of time off from work in order to attend a postsecondary institution. Though these students (and often their bosses and colleagues) see great value in educational upgrading, they don’t want to put their careers on hold in order to achieve their educational goals. As such, they often opt for distributed or online learning options as a way to achieve needed professional development in their free time while remaining in their careers.

Of course, going back to school is difficult enough for mature learners, even when they have the structure of a classroom and regular contact with an educator. When the program is mostly online, this situation can be even more challenging. Small problems escalate quickly, questions may not get asked or answered and students can easily fall off the radar, losing regular contact with their peers and instructors.

Over the past five years, however, the growth of social media has begun to offer a support network for distributed learners, particularly when combined with a cohort model of online learning.

Informally, in my work teaching online, I have noticed a large difference in completion rates between students who establish a Facebook page or other online (outside of the classroom) communities with their peers compared to students who do not have a similar social support system.

Importantly, I have not seen or participated in these student spaces myself. The ones that seem to work best are those that are student created and moderated, away from the view of instructors. These communities allow students to have social interactions common outside of the traditional face-to-face classroom, but that are missing from the day-to-day of online learning. While a private student-led online community may create concerns about academic honesty, many of these issues can be mitigated through thoughtful course design.

Distributed learning can be an isolating experience when one is alone in front of a computer, reading and completing assignments. A social media community gives students a place to compare notes, complain about instructors, work through challenges and celebrate successes. In short, it humanizes what is otherwise an often sterile and transactional online class process.

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Readers Comments

Chuck Dull 2013/12/09 at 8:36 am

Interesting points, I always find it interesting that the minute we suggest students organize with students we also have to mention academic honesty. You’d think smart people could build curriculum that builds on collaboration rather than always label it. Open study allows students to organize in study groups peer to peer awarding badges as the value of their answers improves. It would be great to see a study of what you postulate, while I tend to agree, hard data tells the tale.

Jeff P 2013/12/09 at 10:59 am

Well said. I would also be interested to see some research substantiating the anecdotal evidence Hodson has accrued about the value of social networks in improving student outcomes.

If indeed there are significant differences in outcomes, perhaps some instructors could be persuaded to facilitate the creation of such networks — although I agree with Hodson that the instructors themselves should be barred from participation in these groups to give students an unfiltered forum for expression.

The reason I suggest having instructors get involved in at least encouraging these types of networks is that, for people like me who work with remedial students, we are constantly looking for ways to engage and support them. How great it would be to simply have to point them toward a Facebook group, sit back and watch their peers take over some of the engagement/encouragement work.

Bridget Williams 2013/12/09 at 6:20 pm

From my own experience, I can say that Hodson is onto something. I am an adult student currently finishing up a postgraduate certificate in publishing. We’re a small program and take all of our required courses and many electives together (online, that is). A few of my classmates came up with the idea of starting a Facebook group to post interesting case studies from our own work and also to have a place to gripe. That was about nine months ago. Now, I estimate that about three-quarters of the people in my program are part of the group.

Sometimes when I’m up late finishing an assignment, I feel comforted when I log onto Facebook and see many of the group members also online and working on the same thing.

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