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Social Media and Informal Learning

Monday, July 13, 2015 - 10:58am

An interesting new study highlighted on the CHE blog, Wired Campus, expands on the expanding reality of the impacts of social media on informed discussions within and beyond the classroom:

In a paper released on Monday, Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State University, argues that using informal social-media settings to carry on debates about science can help students refine their argumentative skills, increase their scientific literacy, and supplement learning in the classroom. Past studies have shown that informal settings, like conversations with friends, can facilitate learning, but according to Ms. Greenhow, very little has been studied about informal online contexts and social networks, like Facebook applications.

Ms. Greenhow and her research partners studied a group of nearly 350 students — some in high school and most in college — using a Facebook application about climate change called Hot Dish. Within the open-source application, students could post articles and start comment threads. Unlike discussion forums that professors might require students to use, using the Facebook application was voluntary, not connected to a particular course, and driven by interest in the topic.

Ms. Greenhow and her group developed codes to determine the presence of different types of argumentative skills in comment threads. “We did see argumentation, we did see that debate was on-topic and on-task,” she said. “It wasn’t purely social, it wasn’t off-topic.”

A compelling story on its own, though teaching is an altogether different question, I highlight this to also draw attention to the reality that change continues apace - with the technological tools at our disposal and communication becoming much easier than ever,* of course learning is also changing. Online courses are only the most obvious and perhaps least interesting example. The discussion forums are a free-for-all, uncontrollable but also useful and at times even elevating. All of these forces are all doing something to argument and knowledge. The skills that advance them bear some relation to those utilized at the School of Athens, though they are under new pressures. The tendency to become Cassandras or Pollyannas notwithstanding, we should keep tabs on this state-of-the-art, even as university campus dynamics are themselves a major force pushing it forward.

*The distance and time erasure is the most glaring difference, beyond even perhaps the speed with which we grown accustomed to it. Amusing to note how much of this was predicted in the 1920's.

Image: courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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