It is not the story of how we have used technology-enhanced learning itself (though there is some crossover), but more about less formally pedagogic practices.
Back in the autumn of 2006, I attended a huge e-learning event in the US. Peripherally conscious of new developments beyond email, PowerPoint and e-text resources, I dragged myself to e-learn 2006.
After recovering from the (to an English person) excessive enthusiasm, hyperbole and relentless, grinding positivity of the sessions, I was able to use the journey home to reflect on what I could I make use of – notably, using a blogging platform to support independent student learning and develop their digital capabilities.
It started with a blog...
As a result I started a modest course blog called Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Gloucestershire with the intended audience being our current undergraduate students.
It took a while to get momentum behind it, but it slowly began to engage both the intended student audience and others with an interest in the subject area. That is, up to a point. While the blog persists today, and actually has a clearer role now than ever before, we found that other forms of new media came to surpass it in popularity.
During its brief moment in the sun, the blog was a noticeboard, debate hub, event invite, signpost and more. But social media, or more precisely Facebook, killed its wider role. While students still read the blog, by 2009 the comments had dried up: people did their interacting elsewhere. So, as Facebook was where most conversations were happening, we realised that’s where we needed to go, too.
...then we joined Facebook
Unworried, we began a departmental Facebook group - and saw an avalanche of student engagement, at least at the start.
When it first launched, students used the group to argue endlessly about the ethics of news stories, current issues in religion and philosophy, and – as with the rest of the internet – share cat pictures (RPE-related of course). Only the latter really persists (last week I posted about graduation tea parties, visiting speakers, and then a selfie I took with the campus’ random cat outside the refectory; the first two were ignored, the cat picture had about 40 engagements in the first 24 hours...).
Although we do use it as a catch-all announcement platform in tandem with the blog, we find the most useful function now is to invite people to events: increased ease with diary integration for many people seems to be effective at getting a response.
Exploring other channels
Alongside the blog and Facebook group we have explored other social media platforms. For example, we have maintained a photo presence via Flickr. Initially this had benefits – such as ease of sharing relevant imagery – but these have declined, and a student social media intern will now be managing a transition to Instagram, which offers good search options and is well used by our students.
My personal use of Tumblr has existed in an overlapping relationship with my professional, and our course, online presences. This is useful as a way of thinking of how my professional online persona exists, now, in a slightly uneasy tension with my personal one. This is not insurmountable, but does require a certain amount of thought and care.
With Twitter, I maintain @davidwebster – but this is really a professional version of myself, with appropriate levels of self-censorship regarding some topics; while @RPEatGlos is used by the course leader, the social media intern and I.
The last piece of the RPE online presence is a video blog. The content is uploaded via YouTube, and then embedded, and has proved an easy way to get rough-and-ready content up quickly, which can then be syndicated across other channels.
Cross-media initiatives, such as getting teachers to suggest topics on Twitter which we then respond to on philosvids, have worked well.
But we have also learnt lessons: The key one has been that we have perhaps overly muddied the purpose of philosvids. Initially it was to provide content of use to FE and HE students interested in religion, philosophy and ethics topics – and it still does that. However, it has also become a general repository for all sorts of little bits of video we generate.
In one way, that is fine – people can find things and use them as they choose, but I think it slightly detracts from a clarity of purpose that the video blog used to have.
We are giving thought to separating content out, when we find ourselves with infinite quantities of time to think it over…
Mosaic of platforms
In conclusion, we have gone from having a blog that did-it-all (or at least aspired to), to an ever shifting mosaic of platforms, that we hop between (like an 1980s SNES game maybe?).
In our approach to social media, we appreciate that our student body has various needs, as does the course team, and we needed a suite of tools, not just one single thing. Fantasies of a single-platform, killer-app solution are just that.
So, although it can something feel like we’re a jack of all trades, master of none, ultimately using social media and blogging with our students has been amazing for us, and led to a hugely elevated sense of course identity and loyalty. It’s not an endeavour for the faint-hearted, but there are fantastic rewards available in terms of student engagement and cohort identity, if you can devote the necessary time and effort.