05 December 2009

data analysis

Please be kind...this is my first attempt at actually writing a true research paper. I'm talking about a paper in which I did real field research. Sure I've synthesized stuff I've read, but gathering data? Never really had experience doing it... So, here comes the first draft of the data analysis. Seems to me there is more talking and less analyzing than there should be...let me know what you think.

While the group interviewed during the process of gathering data on social media usage in an educational setting was not a large one, the subjects were chosen purposefully so that data would be obtained from participants who have experience with the use of social media, either positive or negative. The overwhelming majority of participants stated that their student’s educational experiences were enriched because of the use of social media. Many of these educational professionals feel that students are “plugged in” after school and it is “silly not to utilize social media to present information to students”. They also felt that it is a teacher’s duty to expose students to the type of tools they will be required to use both in the post-secondary education setting and in the corporate world.

When asked “why do you use social media in your classroom” a high school computer applications teacher said, “I came from the corporate world and I see these as tools with which students must, at the bare minimum, be familiar.” She felt if she didn’t teach them about social media, she would be doing them a great disservice. When the instructional technologist was asked the same question, she said, “This type of interaction encourages collaboration, not only between students, but between teachers and students”. It can really change the relationship between a student and a teacher. When teachers are willing to be transparent and step out into cyberspace with a real, authentic persona, students recognize what is happening and are more willing to be real with the teacher in return. Another teacher said he uses social media to “add interest to the class” and “encourage engagement” in what might otherwise be a fairly boring project. Another teacher indicated that students are going to use this type of media outside of class and it was “her duty to teach them to use it correctly and safely”. One of the participants made the analogy to sex education; students are going to figure out what to do, now would you rather have them figure it out from someone who might not be teaching them the most intelligent, safe way to do it? While that may be a rather crude analogy, it really makes an excellent point. Students need to be taught good digital citizenship because they are going to learn how to use it one way or another.

A Department of Education official stated he teaches teachers how to use social media because it “gives a sense of empowerment whereby they have access to a vast network that has been purposefully created”. The interaction he is referring to is his Twitter and Delicious network, which he has created by looking for people with common interests. He follows people for whom he has respect and through social media is able to see what they are talking about and what they are reading. Its similar to hero worship wherein one does the same things his or her hero does. Thereby, becoming more like the hero.

The only student available for interview summed up the reason high school teachers should be using social media; “Every student should be exposed to some kind of social media in high school because they basically throw it at you in college”. This brings up an excellent point: why the disparity between high school and college? Why are high school teachers so reluctant to bring social media, i.e. online collaboration, into the classroom when college professors are typically more willing to embrace it? This seems like a good topic to research further.

A Junior-level Earth Science teacher talked at length about a wiki project he had been working on for over the course of about six weeks. In this project, students are required to write about a particular phenomena related to astronomy or geology, or research a scientist and synthesize the information about the person’s life. When asked which aspects of the project he liked, the teacher responded with an answer that is thematic in wiki projects: “As a teacher (and consequent grader) I can track all changes a student has made to the wiki through the history tab”. This coupled with the ability to revert to any version in the history of the page, make wikis an excellent platform to use for almost any kind of writing project. During the course of the project, the teacher set weekly goals for students. The student progress towards a particular goal was easily traced by looking to see which page a student had edited and how often (or rarely) editing was done. He also liked the ability for students to be able to access their work from any computer with Internet access. He works in a school district in which students can only access work stored on the district “H-drive” when they are logged on to a school computer. With a wiki, this problem is eliminated; all a student needs is access to a computer with Internet capability. This teacher had students peer-edit each other’s pages. This is exactly what wikis are intended for and develop not only collaborative skills but writing skills, as well.

An instructional technologist pointed out to the researcher that wikis are also an excellent way to showcase student’s work. She also noted that it encourages “peer accountability”. She recounted an instance to demonstrate the fact:

I had been involved with a classroom of secondary students working on a wiki. There was one student who, during the course of his writing made the comment that he was “proud to be a racist”. Before the teacher could even be made aware of what was being said, the student’s peers stepped in and moderated the document to remove the offensive material. This was far beyond what teachers normally expect in this type of project.

She continued to point out that this was the first instance she had ever encountered this type of interaction between students. If this were carried out live in the classroom, it is likely it would not have been quite as civil of an exchange.

One of the participants in this survey is an English teacher at a large urban high school. She teaches Junior-level English to a wide socio-economic variety of students. One of the ideas she constantly stresses to her classes is to consider their audience when writing. She stated,

Wikis and blogs really broaden the audience of student writing. Up to this point these kids have only been writing for a teacher to read. No one else gets to see the finished work. What motivation do they have to seriously consider the audience when it is only a teacher reading it? With a wiki or a blog, students have to consider the fact that anyone with an Internet-connected computer has access to their work.

She continued to point out that there are actually widgets which can be inserted into your website which will give a visual representation, usually in the form of a map with dots, to show where the visitors to a website are coming from. Students are better able to get a sense they are writing to a broader audience when these tools are utilized.

During an interview with a technology teacher, the topic of process skills being taught when using social media in the classroom was addressed. She indicated that the main “meta-skill” taught is the process of critical thinking. Learning to use one type of social media carries with it a set of skills that can be readily applied to another type of media. For instance, synthesizing a paragraph into a 140-character post for Twitter applies to synthesizing research ideas to a wiki page. A Department of Education official stated he teaches teachers how to use social media because it “gives a sense of empowerment whereby he has access to a vast network that has been purposefully created”. The interaction he is referring to is his Twitter and Delicious network, which he has set out to create. He follows people for whom he has respect and through social media is able to see what they are talking about and what they are reading. Its similar to hero worship wherein one does the same things his or her hero does. Thereby, becoming more like the hero. When asked how student’s educational experiences are enriched by the use of social media, he replied, “Have you heard of the two by four by eight model of education? Students learn within two covers of a textbook, inside the four walls of a classroom, during eight hours of a school day; social media has the capacity to transcend that.” This is really the heart of what social media is about, at least when it is applied to an educational setting: it extends the classroom out into an environment in which students are more comfortable.

Social media can also extend the hours of a school day. A technology teacher informed the researcher of having the ability to see when students were online and actively posting on the discussion board within a Ning. She was pleasantly surprised to see that students were online occasionally on Friday nights completing assignments, many times well in advance of the due date.

The participants in this project have all had varying degrees of success in their efforts to integrate social media into some type of educational setting. A science teacher said his students didn’t really get the point of doing a wiki instead of a standard research paper, but many did enjoy the more creative aspect of making a webpage instead of “just writing a boring old paper”. A technology teacher indicated that she was “surprised at the high level of thinking students were putting into their responses on the discussion board”. It also seemed to her that students who seemed shy in class were more willing to open up and share in an asynchronous online setting. A state Department of Education employee stated that its very difficult, especially with Twitter, to “keep the signal to noise ratio” down. Sometimes there is so much information, its difficult to sift through what is important and what is just garbage. It simply becomes overwhelming and the reader gets nothing because of information overload. Another science teacher, who uses a discussion board as a means of having student review articles online, stated, “This type of interaction gives my students a non-threatening way to see there are many diverse worldviews, just inside our classroom. Think of all of the worldviews when you consider the enormous number of people outside our classroom walls!” He is actually building community by pointing out their diversity.

Many of those interviewed have future plans when it comes to social media. One said, “I just want to keep up with the most current tools available, my students are going to know what they are, so I have to do the same.” The Earth Science teacher said he would continue to use his wiki project even though some of his students “didn’t get it”. He feels you cannot adequately judge the success of a project based only on a single group of students. A technology teacher is going to increase the integration of social media into her courses. She feels this is the format of a class, especially a class in which students are learning about computers and specifically digital citizenship.

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