New York Blog

February’s SoNYC: On Science and Social Media – An Academic’s Viewpoint

Science Online NYC (SoNYC) is a monthly discussion series held in New York City where invited panellists talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. For this month’s SoNYC we’ve teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for a special event for Social Media Week. We’re looking at how social media can be used to communicate science, with the intention of concentrating on how the experiences can have educational value. More details of this month’s SoNYC can be found here.

To complement the event, we’re running a series of guest posts, recounting experiences where social media has been a key part of an education project. To start the discussions, Dr Alan Cann from Leicester University gives an academic’s viewpoint on how social media can be used as part of the curriculum. His post considers how the effects of social media usage can be measured and what the future holds for such technology. 

One of the best things about working at a medical school is that we have lots of students and lots of technology, so three years ago we ran a student through our most powerful NMR machine, and this is what we saw:

Image Source

Just in case you’ve had a sense of humour bypass, or my Ethics Committee is reading this, we didn’t really – this was one of those Photoshop experiments 😉

Nevertheless, institutional eLearning tools cannot effectively compete with the current generation of social networks for student attention. Yet there are good reasons for educators not to compete online with the attractions of alcohol and sex. In general terms, attention online is in short supply and although we know that Facebook can be a positive tool for education in some circumstances [1], I prefer to sidestep the complications of predominantly social spaces in order to provide some distinction. I try to foster the use of social tools for academic and professional development.

Dissatisfied with the lack of “social” in institutional tools such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), I started down a more outward looking path some years ago. Students log into the university VLE which acts an authentication hub, confirming their identities and providing us with a secure channel for information such as course marks, which, under the terms of the UK Data Protection Act, cannot be trusted to public sites. The university login provides us with an administrative layer but the interaction, and arguably the learning, takes place elsewhere. Although students may download PowerPoint presentations from the VLE, higher thought processes such as analysis and evaluation are associated with actions such as reading current content from RSS feeds on Google Reader and discussing the relevance of shared items to taught courses on Google+. Vital to this approach is the incorporation of student peer networks to amplify staff input [2].

Initially, I focussed on a range of social tools designed to foster student interactions. These included social bookmarking sites such as delicious, social citation tools such as CiteULike and wikis such as WetPaint and Wikispaces. Students were assessed on their use of these sites, but when assessment ceased, we found that very few students continued to use the tools. Some sort of social glue was required to maintain the enthusiasm. Our initial tool-based personal learning environment (PLE) concept rapidly turned into a people-based personal learning network (PLN) approach. As with all effective education, conceptual frameworks, in this case provided by a peer group rather than solely by teaching staff, win out over content alone.

A people-centred approach to peer learning, where academics assume the role of content curator, mentor, and technical support, places communication as a crucial requirement for success. This explains the failure of our initial tool-based approach to encourage students to curate their own information. In comparison with conventional tagging formats, the “just-in-time” attention management of activity stream architecture, where attention is continually refocused by active items returning to the top of the page, provides the reinforcement needed for continued use. Activity streams and the crowd wisdom of a peer network are at the centre of my approach to online learning. All this might seem like dry, academic posturing – but don’t say that to Facebook and Google, who have spent the last three years betting the farm on activity stream architecture.  Starting with the highly influential but now moribund Friendfeed, we were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach in terms of monitoring student engagement [3]. Students engaged in peer to peer discussions around shared resources and personal reflection on their own learning. The patterns of online activity were mapped using graphical tools and were used to inform staff how to guide individual students. Our statistical analysis showed that student contributions to the network could be used to discern student engagement with education in a way which give a far richer picture of online activity than traditional summary statistics such as course or exam marks.

Six months ago, concerned about the sustainability of FriendFeed, I switched our student network to the newly available Google+, and have not looked back. Google+ is conveniently linked to other tools that students use on our course (Google Documents for collaborative writing, Google Reader for RSS feeds), and has fine-grained privacy controls based on the idea of sharing content with user-defined Circles (see: here), which gives users confidence about sharing thoughts and content online. Google+ has proved to be an effective and engaging tool for student feedback [4].  We are currently analysing the structure of student networks on Google+ and looking in depth at usage patterns. If you’re interested in finding our more about this, follow me on Google+ where I post regular updates about my research.

What does the future hold? As connectivity continues to improve, undoubtedly massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as the recent Stanford AI class will keep growing, but the notion that universities will be swept away by organizations such as Udacity and Kahn Academy and abandon qualifications from ancient institutions in favour of free badges and Klout scores is as fanciful now as it was on the barricades of 1968. Eventually our sleeping educational leviathans will rouse themselves and stumble towards the sunlight uplands of enlightenment. Unless Google gets there first of course.

Alan Cann is a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester. His interests are science education and exploiting emerging social technologies to enhance the student experience and maximise student and researcher development. He is the author of two highly successful textbooks, has served on the editorial boards of several scientific journals, is creator of, and is Internet Consulting Editor of the Annals of Botany. He has worked as a consultant for numerous educational and scientific institutions, and has published extensively in the area of educational research. More information 



[1] (Junco, R. (2012) The relationship between frequency of Facebook use, participation in Facebook activities, and student engagement (Computers & Education 58(1): 162-171)

[2] (Cann, A.J. & Badge, J. (2011) Reflective Social Portfolios for Feedback and Peer Mentoring. Leicester Research Archive)

[3] (Badge, J.L., Saunders, N.F.W. & Cann, A.J.(2012) Beyond marks: new tools to visualise student engagement via social networks. Research in Learning Technology 20: 16283)

[4] (Cann, A.J. (2012) An efficient and effective system for interactive student feedback using Google+ to enhance an institutional virtual learning environment. Leicester Research Archive)


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