Institution 1July 16th, 2009 — Marieke Guy
University of Bradford, Learner Development Unit
What is your current job/role?
I’m Head of Learner Development and Student Engagement. My unit supports students in developing their academic and numeric skills and we have devised a new strategy called Develop Me! which is designed to help students manage the process of initial engagement with the University more effectively. This is web based and includes workshops, self-assessment questionnaires and online study materials and resources. Our Ning social network is also part of this initiative.
How did you first get into using Web 2.0?
I’ve been using online tools ever since the internet was invented. With the advent of Web 2.0 tools, the flexibility and adaptability of the internet has become much more important. I have a personal Twitter account. Initially this was simply for personal communication, but recently I’ve been using it to tweet at conferences and engage with other people through ‘backchat’ and use of hashtags. I’m now considering whether I should get another Twitter account and split the work and personal stuff, or whether the unit or the university should have an account.
What are you using at the moment?
The big thing at the moment is our social networking space for new students – the ones who’ve accepted a place but haven’t yet started their studies. Social networking Web sites provide a place for communication between students, and between students and staff. Once registered with the site, users create a profile about themselves and can use the online forums and chat facilities to communicate with each other.
We started this last year using Ning. This service allows institutions to create their own social Web sites and social networks. It also allows private areas to be set up, and (for a fee) advertisements can be removed. We have made it clear that the University of Bradford does not own the servers on which Ning is hosted, and the social network login page has a box about privacy and safety online. We also explain that use of Ning is bound by university regulations and we find that people are using sensibly.
Why didn’t you use an in-house solution like the VLE?
Access to the institutional virtual learning environment (VLE) required internal usernames and passwords, and these are not allocated to students until they actually arrive. Because of this issue we piloted the project using forums in Moodle, as students could self-register. But we didn’t have a lot of success and very few students used it. The feedback was that Moodle wasn’t designed as a social network and people found it ‘stilted’. We knew other people in the university were using Ning to support students, so we thought we’d try it.
What else are you using?
We use a number of widgets with the Ning site. For example, we store documents on Box.net – just one place to store stuff and easy to update. We also pull in stuff on podcast streamers. We’ve got a YouTube channel (there’s a clip about the Ning site) and the university marketing department is populating this with a range of videos over this summer. We also have an iTunesU account.
What is the most useful Web 2.0 you’re using at the moment?
The Ning site has proved very successful and we’re rolling it out again this year. We have invested time in training a number of university staff and now have a critical mass of people in administrative, support and teaching roles who are comfortable using it. The feedback tells us that people find it easy to use and interact with.
It’s allowed new students to feel part of the institution before they get here. They can not only ‘meet’ people on the same course and in the same halls of residence but also from other disciplines. They can find out about timetables in advance of starting the course; mature and part-time students find this particularly useful if they are trying to organise childcare arrangements. People tell us they feel comfortable with our Ning site and that they ‘own’ it; they also feel they have a reason to be in this social networking space, whereas not everyone wants to be on Facebook.
The first year we recognised that although many new students were happy to use it, there would probably be others who weren’t using it for a variety of reasons – not having a computer and internet access at home, mature students lacking experience of this sort of technology, and people with disabilities. So this year the offer letter requires students to register but does also provide a telephone number so they can talk to someone if they have problems in doing this. Our nursing and health courses include a large proportion of female mature students, for whom there is often a lack of confidence in using Web 2.0 stuff but who are also usually committed to trying it out. One student last year commented that she had been very nervous about all of this but having got to grips with it had boosted her confidence not only about Web 2.0 but for coping with the course itself.
Are you currently thinking of trying something else?
There’s nothing specific at the moment, but we’ll be keeping out eye on what’s around when we have an issue or problem to solve.
How do you judge what’s good and what’s not in the Web 2.0 world?
What we use is chosen because it solves a problem in an easy to use way. However, there is also an element of university policy. So, for instance, it is university policy not to have an institutional presence in Facebook and MySpace, because students want that social / work split, but the institution does collaborate with the Students Union on their Facebook presence. The university doesn’t have its own blog, though a number of individuals do; one example is Graham Hill of IT Services.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
We are now reviewing the usage and purpose of our VLE – do we still need it? What should we be using it for? It’s primarily being used as a file store at the moment. Our experience with Ning and Box shows that this function can be achieved in other ways, so there may be changes here in the future. We’re trying to think about the underlying pedagogy in terms of identifying the right tools for the right purpose and then engaging effectively with them. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to keep using a variety of different tools to enhance the student experience.
And your final thoughts?
The process of embedding Develop Me! across the institution has been very interesting. The outcomes of the strategy are helping to drive forward a change in how we support students in transition and also help them to feel more in control of their University experience.
Minocha, Shailey A Study on the Effective Use of Social Software by Further and Higher Education in the UK to Support Student Learning and Engagement.
Case study report: (Case study 15)