Evaluating web connectivity for adult distance learners – Facebook or forums?

Gardner, Christine (2014). Evaluating web connectivity for adult distance learners – Facebook or forums? In: Challenges for Research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things. 8th EDEN Research Workshop - EDENRW8, 27-28 October 2014, Oxford.

Abstract

With the growth of social networking over the past decade there are many questions regarding how, or whether, social networks can best be embraced within a formal learning environment. Adult part time learners need flexible study environments, with opportunities to interact at times convenient to them. Social networking, as an asynchronous communications tool, may offer learners an additional interactive educational platform.

For this paper, which is a summary of one chapter of a doctoral thesis researching 'equivalency of interaction' (Anderson , 2003), the focus is on student-student interaction within the Open University, contrasting the more formal online study forum as provided by the university, with interaction via social networking. The affordances of social networking sites, such as Facebook, are viewed in comparison to university-provided online forums.

The research was designed to have three phases; each phase comprising of questionnaires, interviews and observation. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected both during the research.

Research evidence suggests that students value the provision of online forums. Social networking can offer, for some, an attractive alternative interactive platform, yet not designed specifically for educational purposes.

• Not all students want to interact, but few have any objections or concerns if others do- and this extends to social networking sites.
• Although the questionnaire data suggested forums are valuable, observation of actual forum activity indicates that they are underused.
• Forums, as provided by the university, are valued by the students but tend to be underused. Forums work well in a formal monitored environment, but there should be a social space to encourage participation.
• Interview data revealed that forums could be seen as controlled, driven by the module content and have an obvious tutor presence.
• These factors could inhibit the more emergent type of learning that would enhance the social learning experience.
• Social networking can help promote student ownership of their learning.

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