The use of social networking by students and staff in higher education [federica oradini, gunter saunders]

Abstract: From September 2007 new and returning students at the University of Westminster have had a brand new way of staying in touch with their friends and classmates through an innovative new social networking site, Connect. The Connect system (powered by Elgg []) is allied to a re-development of the University’s online support for students called ‘My Westminster’. Available to all current students, it allows users to create their own profiles, upload photographs and documents, create and join discussion groups, send messages and publish blogs and presentations. So far (November 2007) Connect has over 3100 student and staff visitors and over 100 communities have been established. This paper will describe and present an evaluation of the initial use of Connect by staff and students. The nature and success of purely social type communities (e.g. the film club) will be discussed as will the creation and use of study groups that have been set up by students. An analysis of preliminary feedback from students and staff on the value of Connect in both social and academic life will be included.

For well over a decade now there has been widespread interest and innovation in different forms of web based learning (e.g. learning material availability, online discussion fora, online testing) often to support and complement face to face teaching [1, 2, 3]. Despite the beacons of first class work that exist the bulk of e-learning across higher education has been concerned with reproducing old models of teaching leading to largely passive online learning opportunities [4]. It is a fact that despite the mass of proof relating to the value and effectiveness of e-learning, and the shining examples of effective practice and student satisfaction, the predominant methodology for the teaching of undergraduates remains the one-to-many lecture [5]. As pointed out by Barnes and Tynan [6] some would argue that this is not surprising as many university teachers were themselves taught in a class room and so as teachers who have not had much personal experience of online learning, they are likely to continue to teach in a way that is familiar to them. However several other reasons are also often cited for this relatively poor penetration of interactive e-learning into the mainstream, including a lack of understanding of the technologies available and what they can do, the belief that e-learning is a poor alternative to face to face interaction, the growing perception that students are paying for and therefore want a face to face experience and, perhaps most critically, insufficient time for staff to not only understand the technologies available but to really think about how best to incorporate the effective practice emerging into their own teaching context [7].
Much of the e-learning that has been attempted by staff in universities since the early 1990s has centred on so called Web1.0 technologies manifested mainly through the tools found collected together within virtual learning environments (VLEs) [8]. Most of these tools are by design staff led, often work best for someone working alone and require therefore much effort and direction on the part of individual staff to be effective in changing the predominant pedagogic model within the framework of a traditional face to face course. In contrast so called Web 2.0 technologies are not by design ‘controlled’ and can therefore be managed and used to the same degree by students as well as staff.
They are also designed to facilitate and stimulate collaboration and sharing.