A Social Network Can Be a Learning Network

David Plunkert for The Chronicle

November 06, 2011

Last fall, for my first-year writing seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography, I posted my students' expository-writing essays on our course blog. The assignment had asked students to describe a particular code or cipher that we had not already discussed—how it came to be, how it works, how to crack it, who used it. They described more than a dozen codes and ciphers. It seemed a shame that I might be the only one to read such interesting content, so I asked the students to read and comment on two papers of their peers. The course blog provided an ideal platform for that task.

About a week later, one of my students arrived at class excited. He had Googled his paper's topic (the "Great Paris Cipher") and saw that his paper was the third result listed. He said, with a little trepidation, "Some high-school student is going to cite my paper!" Another student asked if I had seen the lengthy comment left on his blog post by a cryptography researcher he had cited. "That's pretty cool that the guy in my footnotes read my paper," he said.

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Research by Richard Light, the author and Harvard University scholar, and others indicates that when students are asked to write for one another, they write more effectively. This is perhaps counterintuitive. Wouldn't students do their best work for those grading their work? But students aren't eager to be seen as poor writers by their peers, so they step up their game when writing for other students. Also, they know that their peers don't understand the course content as well as their instructors do, so they tend to provide better explanations when writing for peers.

Since my course blog was on the open Web, my students' work could be seen by others, including Google's indexing robots and the cryptography researcher. As a result, my students ended up writing for a much bigger audience. The papers they wrote for my course weren't just academic exercises; they were authentic expressions of learning, open to the world as part of their "digital footprints."

Sharing student work on a course blog is an example of what Randall Bass and Heidi Elmendorf, of Georgetown University, call "social pedagogies." They define these as "design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an 'authentic audience' (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course."

I've been taken by this idea of having students create work for "authentic audiences." Some instructors have students create projects for external clients, perhaps a proposal for a local civil-engineering firm (as my Vanderbilt colleague Sanjiv Gokhale does) or a coffee-table book for an animal-rescue shelter (as does Rebecca Pope-Ruark, of Elon University). External audiences certainly motivate students to do their best work. But students can also serve as their own authentic audience when asked to create meaningful work to share with one another.

I find that the Internet makes it relatively easy to use a variety of social pedagogies. Whether you're teaching an online course or a hybrid course or just adding a few bits of online learning to a face-to-face course, you'll find many online tools that provide a natural way to tap into the motivational effects of social pedagogies to engage your students. Here are a few of them:

Social bookmarking. When you save a Web site as a favorite or bookmark, it's added to a list that stays within that browser. Use another computer, and you don't have access to that bookmark. When you use a social-bookmarking service, you save your bookmarks on that server, making them available to you wherever you access the Web, and allowing you to share them with others.

Ask your students to create accounts on a social-bookmarking service and to bookmark Web sites, news articles, and other resources relevant to the course you're teaching. Create a unique "tag" for your course and have your students use it, so that their bookmarks can be easily found. Ask students to apply multiple tags to the resources they bookmark, as a way to help them locate their bookmarks quickly and to prepare them for the kind of keyword searching they'll need to do when using library databases. If you're teaching a face-to-face or hybrid class, be sure to spend some class time having students share their latest finds, so they can see the connections between this work outside class and classroom discussions.

Students most likely won't find this difficult. After all, you're asking them to surf the Web and tag pages they like. That's something they do via Facebook every day. By having them share course-related content with their peers in the class, however, you'll tap into their desires to be part of your course's learning community. And you might be surprised by the resources they find and share.

Back channels. These days it's common for academic conferences to have back-channel conversations. While keynote speakers and session leaders are speaking, audience members are sharing highlights, asking questions, and conversing with colleagues on Twitter. Some might see this as distracting, but for many it's a form of public note-taking and active listening.

Ask your students to create accounts on Twitter or some other back-channel tool and share ideas that occur to them in your course. You might give them specific assignments, as does the University of Connecticut's Margaret Rubega, who asks students in her ornithology class to tweet about birds they see. During a face-to-face class session, you could have students discuss their reading in small groups and share observations on the back channel. Or you could simply ask them to post a single question about the week's reading they would like to discuss.

A back channel provides students a way to stay connected to the course and their fellow students. Students are often able to integrate back channels into their daily lives, checking for and sending updates on their smartphones, for instance. That helps the class become more of a community and gives students another way to learn from each other.

Collaborative documents. You've no doubt heard that Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Less well known is that every page in Wikipedia has a parallel discussion page, where those editing the page debate which edits to make. A Wikipedia page on a popular topic is the synthesis of dozens and sometimes hundreds of contributors, a form of peer review.

Give your students assignments in which they must collaboratively create a document. You might set up a wiki for your course, divide students into groups, and ask each group to contribute something (an essay, research report, play, etc.). Aim for your students to engage in the kind of editing and revision that you do when you write papers with colleagues. Wikis and other platforms (such as Google Docs) usually let you see what each person contributed to the project, allowing you to hold individual students accountable for their work.

Collaborative documents need not be text-based works. Sarah C. Stiles, a sociologist at Georgetown, has had her students create collaborative timelines showing the activities of characters in a text, using a presentation tool called I used that tool to have my cryptography students create a map of the debate over security and privacy. They worked in small groups to brainstorm arguments, and contributed those arguments to a shared debate map synchronously during class.

Often our students engage in what Ken Bain, vice provost and a historian at Montclair State University, calls strategic or surface learning, instead of the deep learning experiences we want them to have. Deep learning is hard work, and students need to be well motivated in order to pursue it. Extrinsic factors like grades aren't sufficient—they motivate competitive students toward strategic learning and risk-averse students to surface learning.

Social pedagogies provide a way to tap into a set of intrinsic motivations that we often overlook: people's desire to be part of a community and to share what they know with that community. My students might not see the beauty and power of mathematics, but they can look forward to participating in a community effort to learn about math. Online, social pedagogies can play an important role in creating such a community. These are strong motivators, and we can make use of them in the courses we teach.

Derek Bruff is acting director of the Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in mathematics at Vanderbilt University.