Matthew Homewood: Extending learning spaces using social media (PH)

Matthew is Acting Head of Postgraduate Courses, as well as Learning & Teaching Co-ordinator here at NLS. He is a passionate advocate for technology enhanced learning approaches and has a growing reputation for his work in this area. Matthew has received national and international recognition for his contribution to learning and teaching, including an HEA National Teaching Fellowship, the most prestigious individual award for excellence in teaching in higher education, and the 2017 Global Legal Skills award in recognition of his contribution to the promotion and improvement of global legal skills. Matthew is also a finalist in the 2017 OUP Law Teacher of the Year Award and a winner of the NTU Vice Chancellor’s Outstanding Teaching Award for 2016/17.

Matthew’s session explores the development and design of a number of projects using social media applications embedded in an undergraduate law module, to facilitate online peer support networks. Matthew argues that such networks can provide a valuable and effective additional learning space to build communities and extend ‘traditional’ interactive opportunities with the aim of increasing engagement and enhancing the student academic experience.

Matthew highlights some of the concerns around technology generally in the classroom – do laptops form some kind of physical barrier between people, how do you know what they’re getting up to etc? He reflects upon some personal experiences, casting his mind back through the centuries to his own schooldays and the introduction of pocket calculators. There was resistance to pupils using those calculators, though some staff embraced them and thought how this early technology could enhance the educational experience.

I remember getting my first pocket calculator in 1980. My Mum bought it for me, as my main birthday and Christmas present combined. Unthinkable now, but it cost more then (£12) than a far more sophisticated calculator costs now.

Oops, Matthew has just admitted to teaching EU law – biggest laugh of the day so far!

He’s talking about the challenges of the constrained timetable, which means you see students once a week for only a limited period of time and may have no formal contact with them at other times. Conversely, if students decide you are the ‘go to’ tutor for a particular module, you can be inundated with queries outside of class – getting the same query over and over from different students. How do you manage expectations and offer students a good level of support when they either never talk to you or won’t stop talking to you? How do you ensure that you maintain a sensible balance and ensure that all students get the same support?

Matthew has used his Twitter account as an easy way to interact with students, including a proper interactive Twitter session where he advertised that he would be available for 30 minutes at a certain time. He gave them a hashtag to use –
EUlawrocks (no it doesn’t). He chose Twitter because it was a platform that would be familiar to students, its freely available and secure. Any questions and replies could be seen by everyone, not just the student who asked the question. Limiting the question to 140 characters made students think about the very heart of what their question was, so they got to the point more quickly. Matthew acknowledged the risk and anxiety for the tutor of being asked a question he might not know the answer to, because a 30 minute Twitter slot clearly demands an immediate answer. In fact, it was fine though occasionally he had to issue more than one tweet because he couldn’t fit the answer into 140 characters.

Student feedback was really positive, but Matthew also commented on how engaging he found it himself. An unexpected outcome was how students stepped in to answer questions themselves. He showed us screenshots so we could see how often other students provided the answer while Matthew was still frantically looking it up before Matthew had time to tweet.

It’s not so easy to identify impact on student achievement. Matthew has looked at what data he could and thinks it probably had a bigger impact on the middle ground, rather than the very high achievers.

He also cautions that not all students are familiar or comfortable with Twitter, so you may not reach everyone. Some colleagues were concerned that 140 characters would mean that questions and answers would be superficial, though I’m not sure that would worry me; sometimes, students just need a basic point to be clarified and then they can run with it themselves.

Matthew is now exploring other options, such as Facebook and Snapchat, though there are a range of reasons why these are not suitable. He has settled on Yammer, which seems to be more appropriate, has the right functionality and is supported by NTU. He has managed to embed Yammer into the online learning room for his module, so students don’t even need to install an app. Yammer is secure, free to students, facilitates collaboration and peer learning, has no character limits, provides opportunities to identify trends, plus it is supported by apps if students prefer that. Learning from his experience with Twitter, Matthew has taken a back seat as far as possible, encouraging students to take the lead in supporting each other. He was fortunate to secure the help of a student champion, who ensured that the Yammer board was lively and active. There were some great interactions, including one student who prefaced a response with ‘after conducting some research’. I’ll just pause while you consider that. A … student … undertook … research … in order to answer a question. How often does that happen?

Matthew is keen to emphasise that his use of social media doesn’t mean students can’t meet him face to face. Care is needed to think about the character and purpose of interactions and explore a combination of options.

Update: here is Matthew’s Prezi.

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