Wednesday, 12 May 2010

H800: Weeks 13 & 14 – Activity 1b: Reading Salaway et al (2008) and Kennedy et al (2006)

On the face of it both of these studies appear to be looking into similar areas, i.e. the use of ICTs by undergraduate students. However, they are actually quite different in nature and approach.

The Salaway et al. paper seems to be part of an ongoing longitudinal study of undergraduate students' use of IT undertaken by the Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR). This particular paper presents the findings of the 2008 study. It is based on a large sample (>27,000) of students at American universities and community colleges. Each year the ECAR study gives particular attention to a particular aspect of students' use of ICTs, and the 2008 study focused on social networking sites (SNSs) such as Facebook.

The Kennedy et al. paper describes a proposal for a project to investigate how various ICTs can be successfully used within higher education. The proposal recognises that most students entering higher education are very familiar with a whole range of tools but suggests that many universities are not necessarily equipped to deliver courses in a way which exploits this. The study is based at various institutions in Australia.

A key distinction is that the Salaway paper is part of a large ongoing study, whereas the Kennedy paper is just a proposal. Therefore, the former is obviously able to present lots of findings based on hard data, whereas the latter refers mainly to an intended approach. Another obvious difference is location, but the context for both studies is similar, i.e. undergraduate students in Universities in 'Western' countries. One would expect the ICT experience and competence of students entering HE in both countries to be broadly similar. Both studies recognise that for students of the 'Net Generation' these ICTs are ubiquitous. Students don't necessarily view them with wonder and they are not in awe of them. They are part of everyday life, both for their social lives and for their studies.

There is recognition in both studies that SNSs are actively embraced by students. However, the findings highlighted in the Salaway et al paper seem to suggest that the primary use of Facebook and the like is for communication with friends and family ("staying in touch") and that although there clearly are examples of students using Facebook to communicate with other students about their studies, these tend to be in the minority. Furthermore, this use of Facebook tends to be outside the requirements of the course.

I suppose that the question which emerges from this is whether the power of Facebook can be harnessed to greater effect within education. I think there are at least two reasons why Facebook is not more widely used. In the first instance, it could be argued that some of the tools which are already widely used in education (such as VLEs, discussion forums and other platforms) provide the main facilities offered by Facebook. If that's the case then it is understandable that educational institutions won't rush to embrace Facebook when everything is already available. Another relevant point relates to control. Young people use Facebook so widely because they have complete control over who they connect with, what they say, how they present themselves, and so on. Any attempt by a University to hijack Facebook as a study tool could actually backfire, because students might view it as an institution encroaching on their personal domain. I only have conjectural evidence to support this view, having occasionally discussed this matter with my students and with my own teenage children.

Having said that I feel that there must be ways of exploiting the potential of SNSs to greater effect in education, and I'm sure that with a bit of imagination, an effective approach could be found.

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