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Standard II: Curriculum

Appendix 2.4: Using Social Technologies to Foster Collaboration and Community Building in Face-To-Face Classrooms

Using Social Technologies to Foster Collaboration and Community Building in Face-To-Face Classrooms

Denise E. Agosto
College of Information Science & Technology
Drexel University
dea22@drexel.edu

Andrea J. Copeland
School of Library and Information Science
Indiana University-Indianapolis
ajapzon@iupui.edu

Lisl Zach
College of Information Science & Technology
Drexel University
lisl@drexel.edu

Using Social Technologies to Foster Collaboration and Community Building in Face-To-Face Classrooms

Abstract

Data collected from students in two graduate courses were used to test the effectiveness of expanding the use of a framework for maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing in online courses to face-to-face courses as well. Data from the students’ blogs and Zotero accounts were aggregated into a database and analyzed according to Zach and Agosto’s (2009) framework for maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing in online courses. Overall, the blogs successfully promoted collaboration and community building because students encountered few technical barriers and because the blogging was well-suited to sharing course-related knowledge. Zotero, however, failed in promoting collaboration and community building because of its dramatic technical learning curve, which led to student frustration and lost time. This research supports the framework’s proposed criteria for selecting technologies to promote successful student collaboration which include strong support of social presence, low learning curves, and easily facilitated student interaction. Keywords: knowledge sharing, blogs, Zotero, library and information science, open source, citation sharing, technology overload

Introduction

Previous research tells us that “Collaborative teaching and collaborative learning are both means of providing students with early exposure to working in a collaborative paradigm” (Gunawardena, Weber, & Agosto, 2010, p. 217). Beyond the professional benefits of teaching students to use technologies that they will need when they enter the workforce, there are also a number of related learning and social benefits that can be gained by promoting collaboration in the classroom. These include acquiring increased domain knowledge, supporting advanced critical thinking and problem solving skills, and understanding better how people interact in online information environments (Abrams, 2005; Du, Darlington, & Mathews, 2007; Lock & Redmond, 2006; Zach & Agosto, 2009). A critical factor in facilitating collaboration and knowledge sharing among students is building a sense of community.

While a large number of studies have investigated the use of social technologies for building communities in online courses, few studies have addressed this issue in face-to-face teaching/learning environments. This paper reports on a study, conducted in a face-to-face teach/learning environment, that tests a framework designed for maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing in the online environment. Data collected from students in two library and information science (LIS) graduate courses demonstrate the effectiveness of blogging to promote student collaboration and community building in the face-to-face course environments. A second collaboration tool, an open source citation management system, was found to be less successful. The paper will conclude with a discussion of techniques that foster the development of a “collaborative paradigm” both online and in the face-to-face environment.

Literature Review

Nature of Collaboration in Educational Settings

Mattessich et al. (2001) defined collaboration as “a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve common goals” (p. 4). Ingram and Hathorn (2004) suggested that true collaboration consists of three critical elements: participation, interaction, and synthesis. This means that collaboration in educational settings requires that students move beyond merely dividing up assignments to each independently produce separate parts of a project; true collaboration involves working together on shared tasks to create jointly-created work. As Prince (2004) explained, “The core element of collaborative learning is the emphasis on student interactions rather than on learning as a solitary activity” (p. 223).

There are a number of educational benefits that can be achieved by harnessing true collaboration for teaching and learning. First, when working together on course assignments, students engaged in true collaboration construct new knowledge and often come to understand course content (domain knowledge) better and retain it longer than via individual projects and assignments (Dawley, 2007; Johnson & Johnson, 1990). Researchers have also found a connection between collaboration during learning and increased critical thinking skills development (e.g. Abrams, 2005; Du, Durrington, & Mathews, 2007; Lock & Redmond, 2006). Based on an extensive literature review and analysis, Prince (2004) concluded that “a number of meta-analyses support the premise that collaboration ‘works’ for promoting a broad range of student learning outcomes. In particular, collaboration enhances academic achievement, student attitudes, and student retention” (p. 227).

There are also social benefits to using collaboration for teaching and learning. Learner satisfaction and engagement are increased when students make social connections with other students (Anderson & Simpson, 2004). There is also a strong connection between building a sense of community among a group of learners and harnessing the educational and social benefits of collaboration (Lewis & Abdul-Hamid, 2006; Hanna et al., 2000; McElrath & McDowell, 2008). Once students feel a sense of community within a class environment, they are more likely to engage in true collaboration, as opposed to merely dividing up work tasks and working independently without meaningful interaction and shared learning.

Arnold and Paulus (2010) showed that using online social networks leads to increased community building among course participants of a blended delivery course. Indeed, technology, especially social technologies, can support community building among groups of learners. Technology can also help to reduce some of the common barriers to effective knowledge sharing, such as distance barriers and time constraints between participants (Hendricks, 1999; Ruggles, 1997). This suggests that social technologies are likely to be especially effective for promoting collaboration and community building in online courses.

Concept of “Social Presence”

The concept of “social presence” might be key to fostering collaborating and community building in online courses. Social presence has been defined as “the degree to which a person is perceived as ‘real’ in mediated communication” (Richardson & Swan, 2003, p. 68). According to Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap, “One of the most consistent problems associated with distance learning environments is a sense of isolation due to lack of interaction” (n.p.). Social presence can help to reduce students’ sense of isolation.

Lowenthal and Dunlap (2010) emphasized the importance of establishing social presence in online courses, arguing that “Social presence is now a central concept in online learning” (p. 70), yet “there is surprisingly little guidance on specific ways to establish social presence” online (p. 70). Richardson and Swan (2003) concluded that “the amount and/or intensity of social presence students perceived in their online courses, from both their instructor and/or their peers, was directly related to their perceived learning” (p. 79). Limited social presence is likely to be a barrier to community building in the online environment, and a limited sense of community is likely to result in reduced motivation for effective student collaboration.

In face-to-face environments, social presence is not an issue. Paechter and Maier (2010) surveyed 2,196 Austrian university students about their preferences in learning via online or face-to-face course components. They found that the students “preferred face-to-face learning for communication purposes in which a shared understanding has to be derived or in which interpersonal relations are to be established” (p. 292). Students seemed to find face-to-face learning more conducive to effective communication during collaborative and communicative learning activities.

Study Methods

The site for this study was Indiana University’s School of Library and Information Science at Indianapolis (SLIS). SLIS offers the Master of Library Science (MLS) degree as well as post-baccalaureate courses for completion of school media and public librarianship certification. Enrollment for the academic year 2009/2010 was 330 students, with most of the students attending part time (74%). Seventy-one percent of the students were female, and the majority were under the age 33 (57%).

Two master’s level LIS courses held on campus in the spring of 2010 were evaluated for this study: one section of Adult Readers Advisory (S524), with 28 students enrolled; and two sections of Introduction to Research (S506), with a total of 51 students enrolled. Prerequisites for both courses are the same and include: Reference (S501) and Computer-based Information Tools (S401). Each course was used as a test-bed for integrating trial social technologies into face-to-face course delivery with the intent of increasing collaboration and community building among students.

Adult Readers Advisory (S524) focuses on teaching how to 1) assess library users’ reading and information needs and 2) identify appropriate information resources to meet those needs. With the goal of building a sense of community, the instructor required each Adult Readers Advisory student to create a personal blog using either Blogger (www.blogger.com) or Word Press (http://wordpress.org/) and to turn in all course assignments via his/her blog. Students were encouraged to follow each others’ blogs and to make comments on other students’ work, as well as to use the blogs as spaces for collaborative work and information sharing.

All student blogs were linked to a central course blog (http://slisbooks.blogspot.com/), maintained by the instructor. Assignments included writing annotated descriptions of six books; posting blog entries about three course-related topics of the students’ choosing; and either participating in a readers advisory role playing activity with five readers or creating an annotated themed booklist for a public library readers advisory program.

Introduction to Research (S506) teaches students basic concepts of academic research, including research question formulation, variable and participant selection, and basic data analysis techniques. For this course, written assignments included an annotated bibliography of research methods resources, a literature review on a library and information science research topic of the students’ choosing, a critical analysis of one quantitative and one qualitative research article, and a research proposal detailing an original or imagined research study written in the format of a journal article. Students were required to use Zotero (http://www.zotero.org/), an open source citation management system, to store all citations used for course assignments, and also to participate in two online group discussions. Zotero enabled students to learn from the research that their classmates had conducted and to discuss each other’s work online.

All three class sections were given in-class tutorials on how to use the blogging utilities and Zotero. Also, the instructor created a handout to guide students through the process of creating blog accounts and Zotero accounts.

Data Collection and Data Analysis

Data from the students’ blogs and Zotero accounts were aggregated into a database and analyzed according to Zach and Agosto’s (2009) framework for maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing in online courses. The first category in the framework is Keys to Success for maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing. It includes three key instructor behaviors (participation/engagement, personalization, and facilitation of learning) and two key student behaviors (peer interaction and equal participation). The second category is Educational Benefits of maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing. It includes five sub-categories: connection to practice, peer-to-peer learning, student control, teamwork skills, and critical thinking skills. The third category is Drawbacks to maximizing student collaboration and knowledge sharing. It includes four sub-categories: technology overload, technological learning curve, technological incompatibility, and student resistance. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. An Online Course Design Framework for Maximizing Student Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

Keys to Success Educational Benefits Drawbacks
Instructor behaviors:
1. Participation/engagement
2. Personalization
3. Facilitation of learning
Student behaviors:
1. Peer interaction
2. Equal participation
Connection to practice
Peer-to-peer learning
Student control
Teamwork skills
Critical thinking skills
Technology overload
Technological learning curve
Technological incompatibility
Student resistance

As this study sought to test the framework for use in face-to-face course design, data from the test classes were analyzed to determine the extent to which the framework can be used to promote collaboration and community building in face-to-face teaching.

Results

Overall, the blogs were successful for supporting collaboration and community building, but Zotero was unsuccessful. The analysis below shows how the framework explains why one of these two technologies was successful and why the other failed.

ANALYSIS OF STUDENT BLOGS

Ten of the 28 student blogs from Adult Readers Advisory were picked at random for analysis. The blogs supported two of the three main categories of the framework: keys to success and educational benefits. Framework sub-categories for which there was strong support included connection to practice, peer-to-peer learning, and student control. The two remaining sub-categories were neither supported nor negated. The development of teamwork skills was not part of the course design and therefore not analyzed, and while critical thinking skills were encouraged, data were not collected to enable analysis of critical thinking skills development.

Keys to Success

Instructor behaviors:

1. Participation/engagement

Participation/engagement describes the instructor’s frequency of activity and level of interest in online content sharing. In general, the more active and engaged the instructor, the more active and engaged students become, thereby increasing the amount that they learn from the course (Zach & Agosto, 2009). The instructor maintained a high level of participation in the blogs throughout the term, frequently posting comments and highlighting exceptional blog posts by sending links to selected posts to the entire class through e-mail or through in-class handouts. Each time this was done, the instructor integrated ideas expressed by students in their blogs with the course readings and the upcoming lectures and modeled her own engagement in the course.

2. Personalization

Personalization refers to the instructor’s enabling students to reveal aspects of their personal lives online to increase student social presence and community building (Zach & Agosto, 2009). Personalization of student blogs was tied to blog impact within the class community. Students whose blogs received the most comments from others tended to include personal introductions within their blogs, such as discussions of families, pictures of children and pets, and so on. The instructor also responded to each student’s class assignment postings. In this way she engaged with each student personally around his/her individual ideas and remained socially present between face-to-face class meetings.

3. Facilitation of learning

Facilitation of learning involves the instructor’s efforts to encourage students to learn by “actively search[ing] for new information, learn[ing] from each other, and advanc[ing] knowledge” (Li & Akins, 2005, p. 58). Although students designed and completed their assignments individually, collaboration did result voluntarily, and the in-class sense of community was enhanced by online interactions among students. Students referred to each other’s blogs while in the face-to-face classroom, and they also referred to online discussions about community blog posts and to their own blog posts. In this way, the collection of blogs documented not only the course products but the thoughts the course produced, thereby extending and facilitating student learning in the classroom.

Student behaviors:

1. Peer interaction

Peer interaction involves students’ discussing course content with each other, working together to understand course concepts, working together to create assignments, etc. Increased student interaction generally leads to increased student engagement and critical thinking, thus increasing student learning (Zach & Agosto, 2009). Even with the relative lack of structure for blog use, students still interacted with each other throughout the course. Table 2 details the total number of comments each student received and the number of unique commenters. Within this sample, the number of unique commenters ranged from 1 to 15. Students who posted more frequently received comments from more people. For example, the student with only one peer interaction had only posted five entries to her blog, whereas the student with 15 unique commenters had posted 35 entries.

Table 2. Number of comments and unique commenters for each student’s blog.
Blog Name Number of total comments Number of unique commenters
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet 18 7
E's Picks 15 5
Reading is Good For You 35 15
M. on Reading 13 5
SLIS 524 13 4
SLIS of Life 56 13
I'm Reading Fiction! 19 9
History and Libraries 5 1
Adult Readers Advisory Spring 2010 35 9
Overwhelmed Blogger 9 7

2. Equal participation

Equal participation refers to students’ contributing similar amounts of work to collaborative discussions and projects (Zach & Agosto, 2009). Equal participation is a key component to true collaboration. The number of total posts per students varied from four to 34. (See Table 3). If this were to be done again, due dates for postings would be required to encourage more equal participation during similar time periods.

Table 3. Total number of posts, posts not assigned, and posts following in-class discussions.
Blog Name Number of total posts Number of posts not assigned Number of posts on in-class discussions
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet 12 0 1
E's Picks 9 2 0
Reading is Good For You* 26 17 1
M. on Reading 7 0 1
SLIS 524 9 0 0
SLIS of Life 34 20 1
I'm Reading Fiction! 19 6 1
History and Libraries* 7 2 1
Adult Readers Advisory Spring 2010 20 12 0
Overwhelmed Blogger 4 1 0

Blogs analyzed from January 18 through April 8, 2010; *Blogs existed before class

Educational Benefits

1. Connection to practice

The field of library and information science (LIS) is a profession, and as a result, a strong focus of most LIS graduate programs is on preparing students to work in the field as librarians and information managers. Social technologies are especially effective in providing a connection to practice (Zach & Agosto, 2009). The blogs collectively provided a wealth of resources connected to the real-life practice of readers advisory. Through the blogs, the students shared their analyses 168 titles of genre fiction, literary fiction, poetry, and popular non-fiction, resources likely to be a use in professional practice. Additionally, the students posted their reading lists and readers’ advisory role playing results.

2. Peer-to-peer learning

In peer-to-peer learning, students move beyond learning from interacting with the course instructor and with course content via assignments and readings, to learning from knowledge building and sharing with their fellow students (Zach & Agosto, 2009). An important readers’ advisory skill is the ability to match one’s understanding of published works to a reader’s desire for a particular reading experience. The better one is able to identify what readers want, the better one becomes at providing the service. The blogging platform promoted course learning outcomes by enabling students to share their reading experiences and their knowledge of genres, authors, and readers’ advisory tools. By having the students blog their assignments rather than turn them into the instructor, the students were given the opportunity to communicate with a much wider audience. As the blog posts were accessible to the entire class, and the opportunity for peer-to-peer learning was greatly increased beyond that which was taking place in class. Proof of peer-to-peer learning could be found in the comments students posted to each other’s blogs. The students who posted assignments early provided models for other students who were less sure of how to begin blogging their assignments. This was made apparent when one of the first assignments, writing an openly critical book review, presented a challenge to many of the students. The instructor referred them to other students who had posted excellent examples.

3. Student control

The use of social technologies in online learning enables increased student control over course content and over the design of assignments (Zach & Agosto, 2009). The students were given complete control over their blogs. They could choose the blogging software, added features, use of their real names or pseudonyms, and the tone and style of their posts. Table 4 details some of the variation in how the students personalized their blogs. Six of the students chose to use their real names and five posted an image of themselves with one of them also posting images of their children and pets. All the students in the sample used at least two added blog features with one using 14 added features. Referring back to Table 3, seven of the ten students voluntarily posted entries not assigned, and six of the ten posted an entry as a follow-up to a heated in class discussion, e.g., feminism and chick lit or quality versus demand in readers advisory practice.

Table 4. Personalization of blogs.

Blog Name Use of real name? Pictures of Self? Extra features used
Where Many Paths and Errands Meet Yes Yes 4
E's Picks No Yes 3
Reading is Good For You Yes no 14
M. on Reading Yes Yes 4
SLIS 524 Yes Yes 2
SLIS of Life No no 3
I'm Reading Fiction! No no 6
History and Libraries No no 2
Adult Readers Advisory Spring 2010** Yes Yes 2
Overwhelmed Blogger Yes no 2

**Also included pictures of pets and children.

ANALYSIS OF SOURCE CITATION SHARING

Zotero, the open source citation management system, was much less successful than the blogs in promoting successful collaboration and community building among students. In large part, the blogs worked well because the students did not encounter technical difficulties in creating them. The blogging platform seamlessly facilitated collaboration and connection to the course content and in-class discussions, largely because students found it so easy to use. The technology that supports blogs seamlessly links and encourages communication, and as a result there were no drawbacks to using blogs to support the learning outcomes of the course or collaboration among the students.

With Zotero, on the other hand, technological problems ended up creating a barrier to collaboration, community building, and, ultimately, student learning. There were 11 small groups with four to five students per group. Students were expected to post material to Zotero at least twice during the assignment period. The number of posts ranged from zero to twenty, with an average of four posts per students. Thirteen students did not meet this average, posting just once (eight students) or not posting at all (five students).

Drawbacks

1.Technology overload

The use of multiple learning technologies can lead to technology overload, particularly for students with limited technological experience (Zach & Agosto, 2009). None of the students had used Zotero prior to taking the class. Using Zotero for the first time requires more steps and more knowledge of how different technologies work together than does creating a blog for the first time. Zotero only works with Mozilla Firefox, whereas Blogger and Word Press work with multiple browsers. Some of the students had to download Firefox to get started. Then all students had to download a special application to upload citations to Zotero. The blogs, on the other hand, were entirely Web-based. Many student complaints to the instructor related to students’ not fully understanding how a downloaded application interacted with the Web location of the class’s group on the Zotero site. Technology overload likely contributed to twelve of the 51 students not being able to upload any citations at all to individual folders on the Zotero site.

2. Technological learning curve

A high technological learning curve can take time away from interacting with course content, leading to reduced learning (Zach & Agosto, 2009). For Adult Readers Advisory, each student successfully created a Zotero account, but there were many difficulties in doing so. Once they had managed to create their accounts, most of the students could not overcome the learning curve required to effectively and comfortably use Zotero. The course teaching assistant received a total of 34 e-mails from students in both courses regarding difficulties they were having with Zotero just in the first month of the term. In 21 of these instances, lack of student technical know-how resulted in errors in using the program. Students had difficulty installing the Zotero application, synching their application with the Zotero course group, posting to the discussion forum, and uploading citation information and/or the full text of articles. As a result, the effort required to learn Zotero took away from time and energy students might have spent using it.

3. Technological incompatibility

Due to variance in students’ technological hardware and software availability, technological incompatibility can be a learning barrier to requiring a class of students to use a specific technology (Zach & Agosto, 2009). For the students involved with the current study, frustration with their inability to get Zotero to function properly resulted in a loss of interest in managing or storing their own citations, exploring citations selected by others in the class, as well as participating in the online discussion. Zotero was initially selected over other citation management systems because of its discussion feature. However, at the time of the course, the Zotero discussion feature was not well developed and lacked many of the features of other online discussion groups with which the students had prior experience.

For example, without using HTML hand coding, there was no way for students to respond to a specific post. Any organizing structure for the discussion had to come from the individual student’s ability to use HTML effectively. Zotero provided no on-site tutorials or instructions for the use of discussion feature. All troubleshooting was undertaken by the course teaching assistant and a few curious students. Zotero often experienced a problem with synching, and mid-way through the course all of the students had to upgrade to a newer version of Zotero, causing additional technological problems. At one point, one group ran out of available storage within their Zotero account, and students could no longer upload full text of articles to the group site.

4. Student resistance

Student resistance to new technologies and to new teaching/learning techniques is also a common barrier to learning via social technologies (Zach & Agosto, 2009). This was certainly the case with Zotero. All of the technological problems described above led to much confusion and anxiety. The first discussion experience was overwhelmingly frustrating for the students. In one week, the instructor received 24 e-mails regarding difficulties experienced using the discussion feature, and the course teaching assistant received an additional five messages. In addition to desperate e-mails, the instructor was met with noticeable hostility and many harsh complaints at the start of the class period following the scheduled discussion. A vote was taken in both sections, and not one student voted to have the second scheduled discussion in Zotero. The second discussion was canceled due to student frustration and resistance to continuing with the technology.

Discussion

Overall, the blogging technologies successfully promoted collaboration and community building because students encountered few technical barriers and because blogging is well-suited to sharing course-related knowledge. The online citation sharing system, however, failed in promoting collaboration and community building because of the dramatic technical learning curve, which led to student frustration and wasted time. Students who were required to create a blog did so with ease. Not one student had difficulty in creating a blog, and no student voiced any questions or complaints regarding the use of their blogs. Conversely, many students had difficulty creating Zotero accounts. Doing so involved downloading an application to the students’ hard drives, resulting in numerous student complaints and e-mail help requests to the course instructor.

Applying Zach and Agosto’s (2009) framework of factors designed to maximize student collaboration and knowledge sharing demonstrated that, similar to previous findings for online teaching/learning environments, crucial criteria for selecting technologies to promote successful student collaboration for face-to-face courses include strong support of social presence, low learning curves, and easily facilitated student interaction. As a result, social technologies that are successful for supporting collaborative behaviors in online teaching/learning environments are likely to have similar positive effects in face-to-face teaching/learning environments.

It is also important to consider the library work environment. Most future librarians will work in environments which involve both in-person and online communication. It is important for LIS students to experience professional culture, collaboration, and resources sharing given both venues; in order that they understand the value that each type of communication can bring. Online collaboration tools facilitate the integration of individual contributions to team or project based work. This is especially important when you consider the growing trend of team management in all types of libraries (Bernfeld, 2004).

Open source information tools are used by libraries and their users alike. By including such open source utilities in the curriculum, LIS students can understand the advantages and disadvantages of using these tools from the point of view of a user. This ultimately will contribute to their ability make critical decisions regarding the use of open source technologies in providing library services, as well as their ability to aid library users in their use of open source technologies.

Conclusion

Finding techniques that foster the development of a “collaborative paradigm” both online and in the face-to-face teaching/learning environments is critical, not only because these techniques can enhance the students’ learning experiences but also because they prepare students for the collaborative environment they will encounter when they enter the workforce. In recent years, students in online teaching/learning environments have become familiar with many technologies that have not found their way into the face-to-face classroom. Social technologies such as blogging are well suited to sharing course content. While younger students are already familiar with many of these technologies, graduate students, especially those who have worked before returning to pursue an advanced degree, may not have been exposed to these technologies in their personal lives. Ensuring that students are competitive upon graduation is a responsibility of teachers in both the online and the face-to-face environment.

True collaboration occurs only with participation, interaction, and synthesis. Providing exposure to social technologies, however, does not in itself ensure collaboration and community building. Not only must appropriate technologies be selected, they must be integrated into the teaching/learning environment (whether online or face-to-face) in a way that supports the desired student behaviors. Criteria for selecting technologies to promote successful student collaboration include strong support of social presence, low learning curves, and easily facilitated student interaction. In addition, successful integration into the teaching/learning environment requires a high level of participation from the instructor and significant personalization of the collaborative experience to increase community building and engagement.

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