Bodong Chen

Crisscross Landscapes

Notes: Greenhow2016-vu: Social media and education: reconceptualizing the boundaries of formal and informal learning



Citekey: @Greenhow2016-vu

Greenhow, C., & Lewin, C. (2016). Social media and education: reconceptualizing the boundaries of formal and informal learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 41(1), 6–30.






We propose a model theorising social media as a space for learning with varying attributes of formality and informality. Through two contrasting case studies we apply our model together with social constructivism and connectivism as theoretical lenses through which to tease out the complexities of learning in various settings. (p. 1)

Examples of social media include social network sites (eg., Facebook); wikis (eg., wikispaces); media- sharing services (eg., YouTube); blogging tools (eg., Blogger); micro-blogging services (eg., Twitter); social bookmarking (eg., Delicious); bibliographic management tools (eg., Zotero); and presentation-sharing tools (eg., Slideshare) (Gruzd, Staves and Wilk 2012). (p. 1)

Others argue that only a small proportion of young people are actually using social media in sophisticated ways that educators might value (Eynon and Malmberg 2011; Ito et al. 2008). (p. 1)

Using ideas derived from social constructivism and connectivism as promising initial lenses through which to conceptualize social media and learning, this paper problematises ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ across multiple contexts, illustrating the complex relationships between formal, non-formal, and informal learning. (p. 2)

Research on social media in education (p. 2)

t integrating social media in learning and teaching environments may yield new forms of inquiry, communication, collaboration, identity work, or have positive cognitive, social, and emotional impacts (Gao, Luo and Zhang 2012; Greenhow, Burton and Robelia 2011; Greenhow and Robelia 2009a, 2009b; Pimmer, Linxen and Grohbiel 2012; Ranieri, Manca and Fini 2012). (p. 2)

Many studies consider appropriation of social media within ‘formal’ and/or ‘informal’ learning, but in most cases these terms are under-theorized or treated as binary conditions, which oversimplify the complexities of the actual learning contexts today’s youth inhabit. (p. 2)

Some researchers suggest that appropriating social media can facilitate ‘seamless’ integration across learning situations (p. 2)

integrating formal and informal learning (Dabbagh and Kitsantas 2012). Others highlight the challenges of appropriation (Crook 2012). (p. 3)

Theorising social media as a space for learning (p. 3)

What is known resides not only in the individual, a position advanced by cognitive constructivists, but also in the collaboration and interaction among many (Vygotsky 1978; Windshitl 2002). Conceptually, social media practices seem well aligned with social constructivist views of learning as participation in a social context and values of knowledge as decentralized, accessible, and co-constructed among a broad base of users (Dede 2008); ‘ knowledge’ may become ‘collective agreement’ that ‘combines facts with other dimensions of human experience’ (ie., opinions, values) (Dede 2008, 80). Validity of knowledge in social media environments can be negotiated through peer review in an engaged community, and expertise involves understanding disputes and offering syntheses accepted by the community (Dede 2008). (p. 3)

onnectivis t ideas (Siemens 2005), which view learning as the process of creating connections and articulating a network with nodes and relationships, also seems well aligned with social media practices. (p. 3)

From the connectivist perspective, being knowledgeable can be seen as the ability to nurture, maintain, and traverse network connections; to access and use specialized information sources just-in-time; and as the ‘capacity to know more’ rather than the individual’s ability to construct meaning from prior knowledge, or ‘what is currently known’ (Siemens 2005, 4). Connectivism allows for non-linearity, unintentioned ‘ chaos’ and unanticipated network effects in the learning process as learning occurs within ‘nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual’ (2005, 4). (p. 3)

Underlying these ideas are assumptions that boundaries between learning in and out of ‘formal’ education can be porous, slippery and perplexing (Barron 2004, 2006). Definitions of formal and informal (and non-formal) learning are contested and the interrelationships are complex (Colley, Hodkinson, and Malcolm 2003; Sefton-Green 2004; Selwyn 2007). Some models attempt to draw clear boundaries between each term (EC 2001; Livingstone 2001; Eshach 2007) whilst others suggest that informal and formal learning are on a continuum (p. 3)

(Lai, Khaddage, and Knezek 2013; Sefton-Green 2004). (p. 4)

Colley and colleagues suggest that it is impossible and unhelpful to separate informal, non-formal and formal learning (2003) at all. Rather they argue that ‘It is more sensible to see attributes of formality and informality as present in all learning situations’ (2003: Executive Summary, emphasis as in original). (p. 4)

They describe an approach to considering the attribute balances which focuses on purpose (intentional/unintentional), process (structure, pedagogy, support, assessment, etc.), location (including norms and structures such as timetables in educational institutions), and content (high stakes knowledge to leisure interests). (p. 4)

Informal learning is described as that which is not directed by school or externally mandated but is learner controlled (eg., Ferguson et al. 2014; Luckin et al. 2009; Tan 2013;), exploratory, self-directed and spontaneous (Dabbagh and Kitsantas 2012; Mardis 2013; Yang, Crook, and O’Malley 2013). (p. 4)

Notions of informal learning are often compared with non-formal, not-school learning where one has certain objectives in mind (self-directed learning) and actively seeks information from sources that may include peers, mentors, or media (Sefton-Green 2004; 2013). (p. 4)

formal learning situations in which some agent - a teacher, an educational software program, or a learning management system - is directing the student’s learning. The agent guides the student through a formalized set of objectives typically generated by an outside authority, such as curriculum standards developed by professional organizations or mandated by the government. (p. 4)

In Table 1 we outline our model for theorizing social media as a space for learning with varying attributes of formality and informality. (p. 4)

Blurring boundaries: Digital cultures outside and digital practices within educational institutions (p. 6)

important to conceive of learning with varying attributes of formality and informality as pedagogical practices drawing on aspects of formal and informal learning become more commonplace (Weigel, James, and Gardner 2009). (p. 6)

Research suggests that young people are engaging in a variety of digital practices with social media. For example, Ito and colleagues (Ito et al. 2013, 6) present case studies of ‘connected learning,’ defined as ‘learning that is socially-embedded, interest- driven, and oriented toward educational, economic or political opportunity.’ (p. 6)

These examples suggest that technology has the potential to disrupt the boundaries between sites where learning takes place. (p. 7)

Next, to illustrate the theoretical model (Table 1), we present two research projects focusing on young people’s uses of social media for learning with varying attributes of formality and informality. (p. 7)

Interrogating social media as space for learning: applying our theoretical model to empirical data (p. 7)

In the first study (Lewin and McNicol 2014), which focused on mechanisms to transform and scale-up the use of technology in compulsory education, teachers in primary and secondary schools from 20 different countries were provided with resources and processes to stimulate technology-enabled pedagogical innovation. (p. 7)

social media tools, such as Facebook, blogs and wikis, were recommended to teachers to support learning activities such as collaboration and communication. The evaluation took place over five cycles of activity (2011-2014) and involved teacher surveys and case studies of resulting projects. (p. 7)

The second study (Greenhow 2011; Robelia, Greenhow, and Burton 2011), conducted with young people, aged 16-25, in the USA, explored the nature of young people’s use of a Facebook application called Hot Dish in their everyday lives. The application was designed in 2009 to accommodate young people’s knowledge-sharing about environmental science issues and provide opportunities to participate in civic actions related to global warming and climate change. Of the 1,100 registered members, 322 users opted into the study and voluntarily used the application. Participants were observed regularly over two months. Data were collected in the form of online surveys; online focus groups (n=16) and semi-structured interviews (n=12) with a purposeful sample of high/medium/low users; online comment strings in response to articles (related to environmental science); and from online statistics (p. 7)

The European study: Embedding social media in formal education (p. 8)

The Innovative Technologies for an Engaging Classroom (iTEC) project took place from September 2010 to August 2014. It focused on education in school contexts, primarily targeting learners aged between 7 and 14. In the first 4 of 5 cycles, teachers from 20 European countries were provided with resources to support pedagogical innovation with technology. (p. 8)

In all four cycles, social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, etc.) were suggested in three out of five learning activities and thus were central to the pedagogical changes recommended to teachers. (p. 8)

an emphasis on collaboration, communication and creativity, as well as digital literacy; social media, with its affordances mentioned earlier, seems well positioned to support such skills in the classroom. Therefore, through the project, teachers were encouraged to adopt social learning approaches supported by a range of social media tools. (p. 8)

For instance, social media were used by students for a number of purposes (primarily for teacher-initiated, intentional learning): (p. 9)

 Managing group work (finding partners, forming groups, sharing tasks)  Generating ideas  Communication with peers and teachers (group discussion, asking questions, receiving feedback)  Sharing information, resources and links  Documenting and communicating progress (sometimes to audiences beyond the classroom)  Sharing project outcomes such as presentations  Assessment and evaluation (peer, teacher) (p. 9)

In cycle 3, blogs were specifically promoted with 56% of teachers (n=334) reporting that students had used them to support their projects. (p. 9)

In Italy, in cycle 4, a teacher of Science at a secondary school decided to run a project over six weeks. The topic was volcanoes and teams of students were asked to design and produce prototype learning objects in game formats to convey knowledge to other students. The students decided what to focus on and how to present the learning (some aspects of the process were student-led). Initial proposals were discussed and refined within and between groups through the use of blogs and a closed Facebook site (p. 9)

Revisiting the data through a new lens (p. 9)

to facilitate intentional learning and determined externally (by the teacher). However, with greater autonomy, students helped to shape the learning activities; thus aspects were self- determined and also socially determined as they predominantly worked in groups. In relation to process, to varying degrees, teachers gave greater autonomy and control to their students. (p. 10)

This example highlights the complexities of teasing out formal and informal attributes of learning and the limitations of reducing formal and informal learning to binary opposites. (p. 10)

The USA study: Examining the digital culture of an environmental science-oriented Facebook application (p. 11)

Participating in civic actions (p. 11)

Hot Dish offered 56 different challenges to help users become involved in enacting pro-environmental (p. 11)

changes in the community; Hot Dish users completed 1523 of these problem-solving challenges, about 25% of which were from the category of challenges known as activism in the local community. Local activism challenges included attending a town meeting, writing a letter to the editor of a local paper, writing a local lawmaker, attending events to network with environmentally minded others, starting an environmental group or recycling program, volunteering for an environmental group, and taking part in Earth Day, a worldwide awareness-raising event. (p. 12)

Social aspects of Hot Dish motivated young people to participate and contribute more to this site than to other websites they frequented. (p. 12)

Participating in issue-oriented debate (p. 12)

Across the study period, young people on Hot Dish read 2103 articles, 89% of the total possible; they contributed 2153 comments. Of these, 220 articles included three or more comment strings. (p. 12)

To investigate whether and how young people actually engaged in substantive debate about the focal topic - a goal for users when designing the app - these comment strings were coded for evidence of argumentation about environmental issues (Greenhow, Menzer, and Gibbins 2015); extending an argumentation coding system originally designed for ‘ formal’ computer-supported collaborative learning environments (Sadler, Barab, and Scott 2006; Weinberger and Fischer 2006), comments strings were coded for four argumentation dimensions: participation, epistemic, argument, and social co- construction skills. Results indicated that these three skill subsets were also evident in the Hot Dish environment at relatively high rates. (p. 12)

Revisiting the data through a new lens (p. 13)

e see that this case demonstrates the use of social media for varied purposes; young people were intentional in seeking to interact with like-minded people and contribute, as well as consider, others’ ideas about a shared interest: environmental issues. However, their learning was also unintentional and socially determined; seeing others in the Hot Dish network perform civic actions sparked people’s intention and awareness of how they, too, could contribute, and in turn, they engaged. (p. 13)

In terms of process, learning was self-initiated and self-directed as young people chose which articles to debate and which actions to perform, if any. The process of learning was also peer influenced as the analysis of argumentation clearly showed how individual’s comments, such as a consensus-building comment or counterargument shaped the dialogue that was constructed (p. 13)

Expertise in Hot Dish was both pre-authorized and negotiated. The educational technologists evaluated documented completions of civic actions and awarded points, and the magazine editors determined, in part, what articles the community read. On the other hand, expertise was negotiated through participation. (p. 13)

In this project, we see that the location for learning was in some ways open-ended and not time- dependent, but in other ways, fixed in time. (p. 13)

Piggy -backing on young people’s existing, regular Facebooking activities (their digital cultural practices), Hot Dish provided an outlet to move beyond social networking mainly for socializing to debating socio-scientific issues of common interest, collaboratively pursuing civic actions, and networking related to their school- or career interests. (p. 13)

Challenges to appropriating this or similar social media relate to the structures required to ensure success including development, technical support, and assessment. For example, assessing whether or not, and how well, young people had documented their completed civic actions required the team to constantly monitor the site and provide feedback in a timely manner so that users would see their point awards. (p. 14)

Conclusions (p. 14)

Social media has unique and powerful features, readily facilitating connections to others (Ito et al. 2013; Siemens 2005) through sharing and community evaluation, leading to participatory engagement in effective, multimodal learning communities. (p. 15)

We n eed more research-and-design projects, like the US study, in which learning technology designs are grounded in the competencies that educators value (e.g., socio-scientific argumentation, civic engagement, and modern scientific literacy) but open-ended and user-driven to enable participatory cultures to emerge. (p. 15)