The use of social networking sites in the aim to provide a more enhanced ambiance conducive to learning has resulted in both challenges that are yet to be faced, and advantages that are proving to be beneficial to the students. The purpose of encouraging students to post blogs on such networking sites is to furnish them with the opportunity to connect with the class outside the classroom, and thus increase their ability of asking questions, taking notes, and reinforcing concepts of biology that they may have missed during the class lecture so that they are fully equipped with an active interaction of the course.
This goal is slowly being met; but with various complexities that are yet to be resolved, as they become a source of hindrance to the students’ use of blogs and social networking sites. For instance, an initial survey in the class revealed that only one student was familiar with even the concept of the blog and the initial use of the google groups as a way to posing questions and having them answered did not prove fruitful-- students hardly responded to utilizing it. Not many were motivated to actively engage in writing in discussion groups. Additionally, contrary to what was expected, not many students interacted in a study discussion online prior to quizzes. The reason for this can mainly be attributed to time restraint in this fast-paced course-- students usually do not find enough time to post their thoughts, questions, notes, etc. online and then have an open discussion with others in an attempt to study.
Another possibility as to why students are negligent in posting may be the lack of incentive. However, even when extra credit points were offered for the first person to respond to a posted question, there was no response. In this regard, perhaps the assurance of knowing that the credit will be received bears great importance and directly affects the students’ participation in an online forum. Moreover, due to the fact that this is a science class, in which several topics/concepts are covered within an extremely short period of time, as opposed to a writing class or a more discussion oriented class, the difficulty remains of how students can connect with each other in studying the material online and actively participate in online discussions. It is obvious that only detailed questions pertaining to a broad concept are appropriate for posting online for a biology course; a question on an overall concept or chapter has a minute chance of being answered because it can only be covered within a class lecture, and cannot simply be posted on the internet. At the same time, it is necessary for students to realize that in a course which moves rapidly, they need to connect to get help.
Finally, another challenge that is somewhat already taken care of is to utilize a tool that is already familiar to the students. For example, when “Google Discussions” was used, the participation from students remained very low. However, when Facebook was used, more students showed interest and became more active in contributing to the online panel. Between different classes, the use of different tools tends to impose a burden on students, who then need to keep track of passwords, ID’s, etc. In this regard, a uniform platform appears to be advantageous to the students.
While solutions are being discovered to ongoing difficulties with the online discussions, a number of favorable outcomes are emerging from the use of such online tools. With Facebook, students are more readily posting questions about when a particular quiz, exam, class, lab, etc. will be held, and what the content will be. Some students are also posting videos they found on the Internet that are relevant to the topics covered in class. These videos are most certainly playing a role in furthering the connection between students, as students are free to view them and also post comments about whether the videos are useful or not. One student has also shared a source for downloading free biology content. Facebook also enables small announcements to be easily posted for the students to read and provides a direct link between professor and student. Students are free to pose questions, clarify a concept or idea, and reiterate what they have learned by posting comments. An overall sense of connectedness is there and the students are learning to interact with one another in sharing what they find interesting learnt in class. It is hoped that these key advantages will continue to nurture and foster a vibrant learning environment outside the classroom through social networking sites.
Last but not least, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation to the organizers and all the participants of the seminar for all the help and ideas and introduction to various web 2.0 tools. Special thanks to Ximena for constant reminders about the seminar and to Jason for his willingness to be available for help whenever needed.