I sometimes find myself wondering why schools have not adopted online communities across the board yet. A school’s core business is to teach study skills and collaboration, which are exactly the kind of skills which enable a good community.

There’s no shortage of technology. The community platform Edmodo for example was made for students and teachers and is free, yet does not seem to be very widely used yet. Many schools are still working with blackboard environments, which are about a decade behind the times. I truly believe that there are great rewards for schools brave enough to take the leap forward into an online community.

The role of social media in informal learning

Generation Y (the so-called digital natives) are heavy users of social media. They communicate via Twitter and Snapchat, share their best pictures on Instagram and share videos on YouTube. Research by the CBS (pdf) shows that young people between 12 and 25 years old spend an average of 1 to 3 hours per day on social media. According to large-scale Dutch trend research by Newcom (pdf) 58% of young people between 15 and 19 are on Instagram, and 56% are on Snapchat.

Young people use social media as a way to develop their identities, for creative expression and to design their (virtual) environment. It is precisely the informal character of social media which stimulates these processes. These same young people use these channels for informal learning.

Research has shown that social media are a popular tool for informal learning. Research at Ontario High School for instance showed that 73% of students used Facebook for learning purposes. And this doesn’t apply only to Facebook. Twitter can also help support informal learning. Students in Austria were found to use microblogging as a way of getting to work on learning materials outside the classroom.

Ownership of personal learning process

An online community is a combination of various web 2.0 tools: blogs, status updates on for instance Twitter or Facebook, groups and personal profiles. Such an online community enables schools to accommodate informal learning. It also gives students increased ownership of their own learning process, and makes them more involved with their school.

The article Social media voor participatief leren. Achterblijver of voorloper in het gebruik van social media? recommends ways of adapting education to this principle. The authors posit that social media is particularly useful for competence-based learning, where social interaction is an essential component in constructing knowledge. Furthermore, they recommend instating a moderator who is responsible for the group process and proper implementation of the digital tools, since the mere existence of a community does not automatically guarantee that it will be adopted immediately.

Finally, this also requires teachers who are keen on the concept to integrate these recommendations into their lessons with a view to social and interactive learning. They will also have to create space for students to design their own educational process.

21st century skills

At the start of 2015 State Secretary Sander Dekker set up the Platform Onderwijs2032. Its mission was to formulate an advisory report to the government, identifying the essential knowledge and skills students in both primary and continued education should possess to enable them to fully participate in our (future) society.

Although most schools acknowledge the importance of ICT, research has shown that little time is structurally allocated to addressing digital skills in teaching practice (both in primary and continued education). The Platform is of the opinion that working and learning in the digital world and with new technology should be at the heart of future-proof education. Developments in the labour market also show that digital skills are essential to social integration and sustainable employment. According to the Platform, the digital skills most essential to students’ future careers are:

  • ICT skills
  • computational thinking
  • media literacy
  • information skills

The role of web 2.0 tools (or social media) is not to be underestimated, particularly for media literacy and information skills.

Competence-based learning should be set up in such a way that media literacy and information skills are actively incorporated. Participation in an online community will develop and test these skills automatically to some degree, since it requires participants to be able to search for and assess information in order to participate.

Blended learning

Blended learning combines various traditional forms of classroom teaching with e-learning, which consists of games, virtual reality, webinars or online videos. Web 2.0 and social media channels can provide information and store it in various multimedia formats: video, image, text and web applications.

Research into the use of social media (such as Twitter) for blended learning (pdf) shows that it motivates students to engage with the material, that it is a useful communication tool between students and teachers and that, in addition to being a social network, it also provides a highly individual learning experience.

It was also found that the learning process is asynchronous. Students and teachers are not as tied to a location in order to communicate and coordinate with each other.

A springboard to employment

Students at a vocational or professional continued education level can be prepared for entering into the corporate world much more efficiently by working more closely with this world. One way of achieving this would be to collaborate in a (private virtual) community.

In Amsterdam there are currently already a number of public/private partnerships bringing students into contact with companies through networks and classes: House of Logistics, Cyber Security, Jean School and School of House. The input from the business world allows students to gain exactly the experience and skills which are needed in the market.

To facilitate this, educational institutions could set up private groups, containing industry people and teachers, in online communities. This gives students the opportunity to make contacts and ask questions about their future in an informal setting. It also allows them to build up a network before even graduating.

Blended learning also allows teachers and employers to create teaching modules together in the community. Employers could also be invited as guest lecturers, and students could have work experience days at companies.

Online community as integral element

An online community can only be useful if it becomes an integral part of schools’ teaching methods. If implemented incorrectly, it will just become another new task piled on top of the huge pile of responsibilities already faced by teachers. Nor will it work for every student. Those who are able to handle greater personal responsibility will thrive in an online community, whereas less self-sufficient students will benefit from more traditional teaching methods. This makes an online community a powerful tool that can have great results in the right hands.

Image courtesy of 123rf.nl


Peter Staal

Community Building Consultant at Bind