Students engaged in voluntary conversations in a Facebook group exhibited the ability to carry out sophisticated and on-topic conversations on science topics, with researcher Christine Greenhow showing that voluntary participation in informal discussions can promote learning even of complex subjects.
The stud, published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal, involved students ages 16 to 25 who voluntarily participated in a Facebook group on climate-related topics. The analysis showed that students enjoyed being part of the conversations and were able to exhibit skills similar to those witnessed in more formal education settings. The students carried civilized, productive and sophisticated conversations on the topics at hand.
For Greenhow, this study confirms that students need interesting, informal learning communities where they can express their opinions, discover opposing views and reach out to professionals and experts to gain more knowledge:
“One of the things we struggle with as educators is how to take students’ spark of interest in something and develop it in ways that can serve them,” Greenhow said. “If students had these kinds of niche communities to be part of, in addition to their formal curriculum, that could really provide a rich environment for them.”
The researcher says that unlike formal message boards moderated by educators and that often feel forced, informal settings allow students to be more expressive, and they “mix well with students’ everyday lives”.
Informal online groups helps students expand on the knowledge derived in the classroom and have the potential of piquing their interest in a field or topic they might consider a career in.
Greenhow is a social media researcher who has previously studied Twitter and found it to improve student literacy in both formal and informal settings.
Her research: “Twitteracy: Tweeting as a New Literary Practice,” revealed that Twitter helps students write in a concise manner, conduct research and directly communicate with authors and other experts to derive the knowledge and information they seek.
Unlike critics of Facebook and other social networking sites who believe it promotes loneliness, triggers depression and bullying, Greenhow’s research proves its usefulness as a potent education instrument. She believes that digital tools can have a great impact on how education is facilitated today:
“While any social network site can be misused,” Greenhow said, “there’s also a significant and under explored opportunity to develop these spaces as forums for learning, healthy academic debate and career development.”
Greenhow’s study is the first of its kind to focus on Facebook groups as a scientific literacy promoting tool. Previous research on online forums yielded mixed results. For the researcher such digital instruments can either bridge formal and informal learning or supplement formal, class-based learning.