Learning through social networking sites – the critical role of the
* and Matt Bowerb
NSW Department of Education, Glenwood, Australia; b
Macquarie University, Ryde,
(Received 6 October 2011; ﬁnal version received 7 December 2011)
This comparative case study examined factors affecting behaviour and learning
in social networking sites (SNS). The behaviour and learning of two classes
completing identical SNS based modules of work was observed and compared.
All student contributions to the SNS were analysed, with the cognitive process
dimension of the Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy used to measure the type of think-
ing that students demonstrated. Key ﬁndings include the trade off between social
and learning contributions, the potential of SNSs to enhance motivation and dig-
ital literacy development, and the critical role of the teaching in inﬂuencing the
behaviour and learning that transpired. Effective teacher implementation in the
SNS was associated with positive teacher–student relationships, establishing a
‘learning’ rather than ‘social’ attitude towards the SNS, and the online presence
that the teacher exerted.
Keywords: social networking sites; SNS; e-learning; technology; Web 2.0;
online spaces; Australian secondary schools; engagement; Ning
Social networking sites (SNSs) are no longer deﬁned as simply a communicational
tool that ‘allows one to make new friends, renew or maintain old acquaintances and
establish romantic relationships’ (Beckenham, 2008, p. 2). SNSs are sophisticated
web-based services that allow individuals to construct a proﬁle, form social networks,
and view and traverse information with others (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Hence, SNSs
are in fact a very complex place where individuals are required to utilize a number of
IT and social skills to form a virtual representation of themselves and interact effec-
tively with others. They can be used by a large range of age groups (over the age of
13 years), and can productively connect a diverse group of students whilst creating
multiliteracies and developing cognitive capabilities (Healy, 2007).
Some research has found that SNSs are the most popular form of communica-
tion amongst teenagers with ‘95% of SNS users being teenagers aged between 16
and 19 years’ (Ellison, 2008, p. 81). Thus there is a possibility to draw upon the
popularity of SNSs to engage school students and utilising the online skills that
students already possess.
*Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Educational Media International
Vol. 49, No. 1, March 2012, 1–17
ISSN 0952-3987 print/ISSN 1469-5790 online
Ó 2012 International Council for Educational Media
In an educational context, SNSs may bring both opportunities and limitations to
the classroom. SNSs create new opportunity for self-directed learning, supporting
all levels of cognitive abilities, peer-based learning and the development of new
media literacy, yet the role of the teacher in helping students to accomplish these
objectives is a somewhat open question.
Boyd and Ellison (2007) emphasise that SNSs are part of a larger suite of Internet
technologies that collectively fall under the category of Web 2.0 tools, along with
blogs and wikis. In their normal context, affordances associated with SNSs include
the ability to facilitate:
• Connectivity and social rapport.
• Collaborative information discovery and sharing.
• Content creation.
• Knowledge and information aggregation.
• Content modiﬁcation (Burden & Atkinson, 2008).
Overall, Web 2.0 tools encompass a variety of meanings that include an increased
emphasis on user generated content, data and content sharing and collaborative effort
(Albion, 2008a). In SNSs this is achieved by their capabilities to create online groups
that enable users to ‘Chat’ in addition to search for and critique information as well
as post and withdraw data, audio and video ﬁles (Sale & Sinis, 2008).
Currently Facebook is the world’s most used social networking site with over
750 million global users (Alexa, 2011; Facebook, 2011). It is reported that female
teenager’s access and use SNSs more frequently than do male teenagers (Ellison,
2008). Ellison (2008) also found that SNS users aged between 18- and 24-years-old
spend an estimated ‘6–10 hours a week online’ (p. 91). More recently, it was
reported that of Australian Facebook users (of all ages), one of every ﬁve minutes
is spent on SNSs (comStore, 2011). Thus, it can be speculated that teenagers may
spend more time online than completing homework or study.
Many researchers attempt to elucidate why today’s students ﬂock to these sites.
Some, such as Boyd (2008a), suggest that it provides teenagers with opportunities to
create a desired proﬁle of themselves that perhaps is not normally associated with
them in person. Many others such as DeSchryver et al. (2008a), Shaheen (2008) and
Vie (2008) have found that SNSs provide teenagers a ‘sense of worth’. This implies
that teenagers can create a personal proﬁle that may not best represent them in real
life, but presents them as a unique and ‘cool’ individual online and therefore, others
should befriend them. It is noted that some teenagers who are unpopular at school and
as a result possess very low self-esteem are thriving online due to their ‘better pre-
sented’ proﬁle and ‘coolness online’ (Boyd, 2008a, p. 129). Additionally, SNSs pro-
vide teenagers with a voice that is ‘heard’ by others as well as providing them with
the opportunity to be ‘innovative’, where in traditional cases this may be difﬁcult for
a teenager to do (Ellison, 2006). Additionally, Boyd (2008b) states that many teenag-
ers have turned to these tools to simply replace traditional ways of keeping a journal
or telephoning a friend. This is perhaps due to teenagers thriving on their immediate
access to the world and such behaviour is indicative of their culture’s fundamental
right to the free ﬂow of information and expression of opinions (Leung, 2003).
2 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
International reports such as The Horizon Project have paid particular attention to
how SNSs have enhanced student engagement in the classroom through their
‘relevance to teaching, learning, and creative inquiry’ (Johnson, Smith, Willis,
Levine, & Haywood, 2011, p. 11). Findings from McLoughlin and Lee (2008), Bec-
kenham (2008) and Ito et al. (2008) show strong student engagement occurring
through the use of SNSs in the classroom.
Given that SNSs are the most popular form of communication amongst teenag-
ers (Ellison, 2008) there is an opportunity to transfer motivation and associated
information and communication literacies into an educational context. Overall,
SNSs permits students to participate in numerous activities. For example, ‘Flickr
and YouTube facilitate the sharing of photos and videos with both “real world” and
“virtual” friends, whereas Facebook, MySpace and Friendster allow users to utilise
a range of multimedia elements’ (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007, p. 665). PBworks and
Ning have been identiﬁed as having great potential for promoting online and ofﬂine
collaboration and for disseminating research and resources (Knobel & Lankshear,
2009). Thus, SNSs may contribute to an improvement in literacy and numeracy as
well as preparing them as citizens in a global world (Murray, 2008) and may enable
self-regulated learning (Vie, 2008) by exposing them to deeper learning and
developing higher cognitive skills (Lynch, Debuse, Lawley, & Roy, 2009).
Unfortunately, limitations surrounding the SNS expertise of teachers, perhaps
due to the Digital Divide as conceptualised by Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) and
the potential abuse of online spaces (Boyd, 2008b) may inhibit successful use of
the tool. The Ning Network, which has been the focus of benchmark studies for
Arnold and Paulus (2010), Barbour and Plough (2009) and for the Horizon Project,
2011 (Johnson, Smith, Willis, Levine, & Haywood, 2011), is used in this study to
examine how SNSs may enhance the learning processes in a high school teaching
and learning environment. The study investigated if SNSs can be used to pedagogi-
cally enhance learning of curriculum. An emerging ﬁnding from the study was the
role of the teacher in contributing to the quality of the student learning experience.
A total of 48 Year 10 (Stage 5) commerce students from a school in the western
region of Sydney participated in the research study (24 students in each of the two
classes). In 2011, the school had 870 students enrolled, of whom 122 students were
in Year 10. Of these Year 10 students, 84% had a language background other than
English (LBOTE) and the vast majority were of European background. Out of 48
participants, four students were recognised as having learning difﬁculties. All stu-
dents in this year group had their own laptop which was used in all ﬁve 60 minute
periods daily. The two classes that participated in this study were not graded or
Two Ning Plus versions of the Ning Network were used to conduct this
research. The Ning SNS enabled all registered students to work in secure environ-
ment only accessible by account holders. Identical SNS tools and lesson material
speciﬁc to ‘Stage 5 commerce: Employment issues’ was created on each class’s
Ning Network (see Figure 1, below).
The Ning Network contained all of the detailed class work instructions and all
of the tools that students were required to use. The tools used in the ﬁrst four
lessons included, but were not limited to chat, forum discussions (13 in total), blogs
Educational Media International 3
(four in total), and video and photo albums. An assessment task (e-portfolio assess-
ment) complete with a marking criteria was to be completed in the ﬁfth and ﬁnal
lesson. The range of tools were selected to utilise the varying ICT abilities of
students based on existing claims such as that by Hansford and Adlington (2008)
that digital natives regularly engage with these tools, thus have already developed
quite complex IT capabilities.
The overall module used Anderson and Krathwohl’s (2001) Revised Bloom’s
Taxonomy in the design of the lessons. The Anderson and Krathwohl’s Taxonomy
provides a hierarchy of cognition that classiﬁes learning into levels that extend from
lower order thinking skills of ‘remember’, ‘understand’, and ‘apply’ to higher order
thinking skills of ‘analyse’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘create’. Some questions and tasks
required students to use Ning tools such as the blog to demonstrate higher order
thinking skills. Other tasks used simple and common SNS tools such as ‘Chat’ to
exercise lower order prerequisite tasks. The taxonomy is recognised as ‘being more
useful as the taxonomy intersects and acts upon different types and levels of
knowledge’ (Wilson, 2006, p. 2).
Both Ning Networks were accessed over ﬁve consecutive 60 minute lessons
stemming over three weeks during Term 1. Students logged onto Ning via a link
that was emailed to their student email. Three classroom teachers and the researcher
all took part in observing students.
Both classroom teachers observed their own classes for all ﬁve lessons. In order
to increase the reliability of observations, an additional teacher also observed all
lessons in both classes (10 lessons in total). The additional expert observer was a
permanent executive staff member employed by the school to assist other teachers
in their development of ICT lessons and pedagogies. All three observers were
Figure 1. The interface design for the two Ning Networks.
4 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
provided with identical training, structured training materials and observation
Data was recorded in detailed observation instruments that had been designed
for the project. The instruments included information such as the period in which
the lesson took place, the number of students present that particular lesson and the
number of students who had a laptop with them as well as both open and closed
questions regarding student behaviours, student learning and general classroom
climate. Closed questions were measured on a ﬁve-point Likert scale from ‘strongly
agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’.
The researcher observed all online activity in real time from off-site and saved all
student contributions to Ning electronically. All observations were recorded in an
observation journal. Particular attention was afforded to the number of postings in
each tool, the quality of work, and if student online behaviour was inﬂuenced by the
actions of their peers or teacher. The researcher also marked the e-portfolio assess-
ment task. Together all observers (teachers and researcher) monitored front and back-
stage behaviour permitting the identiﬁcation of patterns surrounding SNS use.
All work created by students were saved electronically, printed and used to sup-
port observer and researcher ﬁndings. Calculations of the number of postings con-
tributed by total students and by class in all tools allowed objective analysis to be
conducted. Each contribution was categorised into either social or learning contribu-
tions. Those considered a learning contribution were then assessed according to its
level on Anderson and Krathwohl’s cognitive process dimension. This resulted in a
comparative matrix denoting the cognitive ability of participating students when
using particular tools. The NetLingo dictionary (NetLingo, 2010) was used to inter-
pret and decipher any online acronyms posted or jargon that students posted in their
contributions to Ning.
At the completion of the ﬁfth and ﬁnal lesson, students were asked to complete
a ﬁve minute online Student Feedback Survey. This survey was directly linked from
their Ning website and comprised of ﬁve point Likert scales, closed and open ended
questions regarding student’s general use of SNSs as well as their feelings toward
A range of strategies were implemented to maintain continuity of ﬁndings and
promote impartiality including:
• Using predeﬁned learning material for ﬁve lessons (lesson plans).
• Using two identical Ning Networks (one per class; Class 1 and Class 2).
• Recoding contributions for all participating students (student contributions to
• Using predeﬁned observation and survey instruments.
• Conducting one training session for observing teachers.
• Using additional observers; traditional (teacher observers) and online in real-
Triangulating researcher observations with teacher observations reduced the
potential for speculative reporting thus enhancing the reliability and validity of ﬁnd-
ings (Johnson & Christensen, 2008; Yin, 1994).
Educational Media International 5
6 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
Class 2 was observed at completing more class work than Class 1. Class 1 limited
their activity to ‘Chat’ and forum discussions, whereas it was observed that Class 2
was engaged with the conceptual challenges posed within the module by participat-
ing in forum discussions and blog entries. Table 1 depicts the percentage of students
who used each tool in each class and overall.
Both initially and throughout the study, teacher observations indicated that stu-
dents in both classes were excited to be using Ning. Students did not encounter any
problems locating the Ning Network, creating an account or navigating around the
SNS. Immediately, students showed signs of past SNS use. There were no major
differences between Class 1 and Class 2 in their ability to transfer these skills into
the classroom as all students were observed at using Ning without any complica-
tions and without needing additional verbal instructions from their teacher.
This was re-enforced by the responses to the Student Feedback Survey as 91%
of students stated that they have used a SNS in the past with 77% disclosing that
they found Ning easy to use due to the likeness of similar functionalities on Face-
book. This was further observed by the researcher as all students actively used
‘Chat’ and the forum discussion immediately after initial login.
A total of 2359 contributions were made by all students. Table 2 illustrates the
number of total contributions posted in each Ning tool during the course of the
Table 2. Number of contributions in each Ning tool.
Total Class 1 Class 2
Chat 1,238 1,103 135
Forum 458 210 248
Posting Messages on Proﬁle Pages 188 80 108
Invited Friends 178 93 85
Gift Giving 156 68 88
Blog 79 7 72
Sharing Photo/Image Files 37 6 31
e-Portfolio Assessment Task 23 1 22
Added External Application 2 0 2
Sharing Videos Files 0 0 0
Table 3. Key difference in class activity.
Class 1 Class 2
Little activity overall A lot of activity overall
Chat and Forum Discussion focused Forum Discussion and Blog focused
Inconsistent behaviours observed Focused and engaged behaviour observed
Massive amount of Net Lingo used Minimal Net Lingo used
No sharing of multimedia Sharing of photos
Selected particular questions to complete Followed all instructions
Only one student completed the e-portfolio
Majority of students completed the e-portfolio
Educational Media International 7
Of all students, 69% logged onto Ning outside of class time to complete lesson
work with 67% and 71% of students from Class 1 and Class 2, respectively,
accessing the SNS after hours. There were limited differences between students of
both classes when accessing Ning outside the classroom, however, the researcher
observed that students accessed all of Ning’s tools except ‘Chat’ even though they
could see their peers online. Analysis of student contributions to Ning identiﬁed 55%
of students working ahead whilst 45% used this time to complete unﬁnished tasks.
All three observers identiﬁed the main differences between the two classes as
outlined in Table 3 below.
Levels of cognition
There was great variance in the way students used the site. Students in Class 1
displayed extremely social behaviours resulting in one third of participants only
using their time to converse in ‘Chat’ in all ﬁve lessons. The majority (96%) of stu-
dents in Class 1 did not progress past forum discussions and the quality of these
responses in this tool generally did not constitute any considerable degree of intel-
lectual rigor. Further, in this class only one student completed all 13 forum discus-
sions, one of the four blog entries as well as the e-portfolio assessment task. This
resulted in students only completing tasks that required the identiﬁcation or the
deﬁning of key terms and concepts. As students (except one) did not complete their
blog or e-portfolio assessment task, only activity in the lower order levels as
presented by Anderson and Krathwohl’s Taxonomy was observed.
Contrastingly in Class 2, 71% of students used all Ning tools as required by the
module. Students developed their learning and created connections between the dif-
ferent tools on Ning. In reference to Anderson and Krathwohl’s Taxonomy, 92% of
students were observed in applying higher order thinking skills of ‘evaluate’ and
71% demonstrating ‘create’. Additionally in this class, 17 students completed all 13
forum discussions, all four blogs as well as the e-portfolio assessment task. Figure 2
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
Percentage of Students
Class 1 Class 2
Figure 2. Anderson and Krathwohl (2001), cognition levels achieved in each class.
8 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
below depicts the percentage of students in each class who successfully attaining
each taxonomy level of cognition.
As stated a total of 2359 contributions were made by all students. The contribu-
tions of Class 1 were primarily of a social nature (see Figure 3 below). Contribu-
tions scored as ‘learning’ met the lower order levels of this taxonomy hierarchy and
were visible in contributions made to forum discussions, blogs and in the sharing of
photo/image ﬁles. There were 31 instances where students copied the work of their
peers and posted it as their own.
Contrastingly, in Class 2 less social and more learning contributions were posted
on Ning (see Figure 4). More students were observed to use higher order thinking
skills in most module contributions, which is directly opposite to Class 2.
Figure 3. Hierarchy of cognitive process levels present in contributions in each Ning Tool
in Class 1.
Figure 4. Hierarchy of cognitive process levels present in contributions in each Ning Tool
in Class 2.
Educational Media International 9
Overall, 87% of total students reported in their Student Feedback Survey that they
believed that Ning assisted them in contributing to their own learning, as one
student elaborated by stating that they ‘were able to ﬁnd and develop their own
information’. However, students in Class 1 limited their online activity to ‘Chat’
and to at least one forum discussion (out of 13). Forum discussions were selected
based on ‘ease’ and although responses were related to the question, they were brief
and typically consisted of ‘copy and pasted’ answers found in Google search,
Yahoo Answers and the textbooks CD ROM. Only 17% of students completed all
of the 13 forum discussions which interestingly, comprised of the more ‘vocal’ stu-
dents whom in a traditional learning environment would not normally complete as
much class work (observation posited by Teacher 1).
Class 2 students demonstrated proﬁcient self-directed learning as at the
commencement of all ﬁve lessons, students arrived in class, logged onto Ning and
began completing their work without the intervention of Teacher 2. Teacher 2 also
reported that she often felt redundant as students took control of their learning
immediately. These students were observed by the researcher to follow the lesson
instructions and complete all tasks sequentially, resulting in completing more class
work, making more connections between tasks and producing better researched and
articulated responses than students in Class 1. In Lesson 4, Class 2 students began
using ‘Chat’ to ask their peers questions about how to complete certain tasks and
began using the forum discussion to compare and clarify their responses against
their peer’s postings. In the ﬁnal lesson, Teacher 2 commented that all students
completed the e-portfolio assessment task autonomously.
In this study, the term ‘synthesis’ is used to refer to the connections that a student
makes between various pieces of their own work and the work of others that is
posted in different areas on Ning such as on two different discussion threads or in
at least two different tools. Due to the differing quantities of work posted by stu-
dents, vast differences between the two classes emerged.
As a result of the inactivity as recorded in the contributions in Class 1, it could
not be determined if connections between work was made. Alternatively, in Class
2, 65% of students were observed to make connections between the different tools
on Ning as they linked ideas, drew on content, evaluated and created new informa-
tion in their forum discussions and blogs. Synthesis consistently grew over the ﬁve
lessons in Class 2 and by the ﬁnal lesson connectivity was immense and easily
observable in the e-portfolio assessment task (an example of this is provided in
In Class 2 there were 15 (out of 18) students who incorporated work that they
completed during the ﬁrst four lessons into their e-portfolio assessment task.
Modes of social interaction
In this study, social rapport refers to the strength of relationships between students.
All students accessed their proﬁle page (as pictured in Figure 6) and used the ‘Chat’
and forum discussion tools in varying degrees throughout the ﬁve lessons. Particular
10 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
paths were followed in the development of friendships. Students were observed to
typically begin by chatting to their peers and strengthening their relationships by
sending invitations to each other to be their ‘friend’. Once this was completed, the
two students would give gifts to each other, and then converse collaboratively
before contributing to learning tasks. Minimal NetLingo was used by Class 2 and
similarly to Class 1, it was restricted to ‘Chat’. However, NetLingo was used to
replace words in responses and not for conversing on matters irrelevant to the task
All but one student in Class 1 commented in their surveys that they viewed
Ning as more of a ‘social’ site. Developing and maintaining social rapport appeared
to be the key focus of this class as gift giving was a prominent activity for all Class
1 students. So prominent was this that competitions quickly arose between students
of whom received the most gifts. It was found in their contributions that students
received up to seven gifts. On average, students in Class 1 received three gifts. The
observing teachers later commented that students became quite verbal regarding the
exchange of gifts and began broadcasting that they received a gift and its sender’s
identity to the class. This encouraged additional gift giving, and motivated more
students to invite each other to their proﬁle page.
On the other hand, Class 2 reported that they viewed Ning more as a ‘learning’
resource. Observations by teachers and the researcher concur that students extended
themselves past ‘Chat’ and forum discussions and completed ample amounts of
work in any one period. Interestingly, students in Class 2 spent less time establish-
ing their friendship network but overall, invited more friends to their proﬁle pages
Figure 5. Connectivity observed in a student’s e-portfolio assessment task.
Educational Media International 11
(having an average of four friends) and distributed up to eight gifts (on average,
students received four gifts).
Importantly, none of the teacher–observers reported any incidences of misuse of
the SNS tool and there were no reports of foul play, cyber bullying or intimidation.
Additionally, no such instances were identiﬁed in any of the student contributions.
It was observed by the researcher that Teacher 1 did not log on to Ning and by the
expert observer that little communication between Teacher 1 and his students took
place. As a result, students did not rely on their teacher for assistance if required.
Figure 6. An example of a students proﬁle page (student identity hidden).
12 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
Opposite observations were found in regards to Class 2 by the observing teach-
ers. Teacher 2 proved to be very nurturing and spent a great deal of time discussing
class content with her students as a group and in one-on-one situations. The adviser
further added that Teacher 2 used (traditional) structures in her classroom whilst
using Ning permitting her students to entrust her and openly share their class work
with her as well as their peers. In one lesson, the adviser also reported that there
were up to six instances where students asked the teacher to check their work
before it was posted online.
In terms of online presence, the two teachers displayed extremely differently
behaviours. Teacher 1 did not log onto Ning whereas Teacher 2 did and ensured
that all students in Class 2 were also logged on before proceeding to actively use
Ning herself. Teacher 2 also connected her laptop to the classroom projector and
displayed her work to her students. She too, participated in traditional SNS
behaviours of Chatting, sending invitations and gift giving (see Figure 7).
According to Teacher 2, students were forthcoming with information and delib-
erated about the content of their responses before posting them online. Numerous
postings by students in this class were well researched, constructed and presented.
These students also asked for their teacher to check their work as soon as it was
posted in order to receive immediate recognition (as reported in her observation
Figure 7. Teacher 2’s proﬁle page.
Educational Media International 13
instrument). It was also observed by the researcher that when Teacher 2 was
participating in a particular tool, such as posting a contribution to a forum discus-
sion, students were more likely to be engaged with the same task.
It was observed by the adviser that the online presence of the teacher strengthened
teacher-student relationships. As stated, Teacher 2 participated in traditional SNS
behaviours such as partaking in gift giving which in this instance signiﬁed the
acknowledgement of commendable work. Teacher 2 reported that students felt privi-
leged when they received such a gift and responded by calling out or making an
announcement on their proﬁle page (as observed by the adviser and researcher). Such
activities also prompted other students to complete their work in an attempt to captivate
their teacher’s attention. Such behaviours were not observed nor identiﬁed in Class 1.
This study elucidates that the use of SNSs in high school classes may lead to vary-
ing learning outcomes that may not depend on the SNS itself. The vast differences
between the two classes which used identical instruments is essential to this study
as this depicts that the level of success of SNS learning activities can vary between
classes depending on the way they are implemented. Factors such as teacher–
student relationships, establishing expectations, classroom implementation and the
nature of online teacher intervention could facilitate a positive classroom climate
that enhanced overall student engagement and learning.
The lack of online presence of Teacher 1 may have indicated to students that their
work would not be checked and therefore it did not need to be completed. This may
rationalise why Class 1 students made limited use of the tools in Ning as well as
why their quality and level of learning contributions was lower. Teacher 2 logged
onto Ning and used it in real-time with her students. This appeared to contribute to
her students completing more work, staying on task and displaying a higher level of
maturity in taking ownership of their work. The pre-existing climate of the classroom
appeared to also inﬂuence the students’ learning experience with SNS, with more
positive student-teacher relationships leading to more on-task learning behaviours.
The SNS activities could support a full range of levels of thinking based on the
tasks and tools. In Class 1, almost all contributions posted were of a social nature
(refer to Figure 2), whereas in Class 2, 97% of contributions were of a learning
nature and could be categorised according to the cognitive levels of Anderson and
Krathwohl’s Taxonomy (as shown in Figure 3).
The e-portfolio assessment task required students to more deeply synthesise their
understanding, which may have acted as an intellectual challenge to some students.
This was observed particularly in Class 1 where 92% did not attempt to complete
the e-portfolio assessment task and did not extend their thinking past ‘analysis’.
Contrastingly, 65% of Class 2 students made clear links between content in various
tools when completing their e-portfolio assessment tasks.
It was found that when students made larger volumes of non-social contribu-
tions, students were more likely to display behaviours of synthesis (refer to Figure 5)
and demonstrated higher order thinking skills (refer to Figure 2). Such activity
concurs with Burden and Atkinson’s (2008) study that students are able to actively
perform activities of sharing information, discovering information, aggregating
information, and modifying content when using SNSs. Given that one class
achieved these outcomes and the other did not, establishing the students’ conceptu-
14 N. Callaghan and M. Bower
alisation of SNSs as a learning tool rather than a social tool may therefore be criti-
cal in terms of promoting higher order thinking in SNS environments.
SNSs enabled self-directed learning. Students in Class 2 were able to log onto
Ning and immediately attend to all of the tasks as instructed without any teacher
intervention. These students systematically followed all instructions and were able
to work collaboratively online when required. Such behaviours were observed when
students used the ‘Chat’ tool asking each other for assistance. It was also observed
that those students who displayed higher levels of engagement took ownership of
their own learning made more connections between posted data. The structured
approach offered by the SNS enabled to work ahead on their module tasks by
logging in outside school hours.
SNSs promoted motivation and engagement. This was observed by the class-
room observers that 85% of students overall remained on task during each lesson
and by classroom observers whom reported that they strongly disagreed that stu-
dents were disengaged. Over 2000 contributions were posted online during the
course of the module indicating that students were motivated to collaborate in a dig-
ital framework. However, Teacher 1 claimed that although the number of contribu-
tions was not as high as Class 2, Class 1 students still completed more work whilst
using Ning than in a traditional classroom setting. Therefore, regardless of how
established or structured the classroom climate is prior to SNS integration, the level
of engagement overall was found to have increased.
Students appeared to be able to effortlessly transfer their skills of using social
media personally into an educational context. All students were able to access and
use Ning’s tools immediately after log on without requiring teacher support. In
regards to the overall experiences of students with the Ning SNS, no differences
between classes were identiﬁed; all students were able to take immediate ownership
of their online space. This observation coupled with the differences in learning out-
comes between the two classes indicates that technical competencies in SNSs do
not necessarily result in a higher quality of student contribution or learning.
SNSs also promoted social rapport. Students were able to communicate using
more social modes that they enjoy such as using NetLingo. Interestingly, this was
restricted to ‘Chat’ suggesting that students acknowledged that colloquialisms were
appropriate in some but not other contexts such as the e-portfolio assessment. Gift giv-
ing was also a prominent activity between students in both classes. This supports the
notion that SNSs assisted in maintaining social rapport between students and in the
creation of a positive online learning climate within the classroom, though the extent
to which this supports or interferes with learning appears to depend on the instantia-
Although this comparative study does provide evidence for how different imple-
mentations of the same SNS can lead to different learning outcomes, the small scale
of this research study limits the extent to which ﬁndings can be generalised. Future
research could also investigate cause-and-effect relationships to determine a compre-
hensive set of strategies for improving the quality of interaction and learning in
SNS environments. The use of similar methodologies could investigate how to
provide effective professional development and may involve recognising and imple-
menting taxonomies of learning. Such knowledge would not only empower students
by enhancing their learning experience, but also empower teachers and educators in
their design and delivery of SNS based learning experiences. Furthermore, research
Educational Media International 15
could also gauge if students with learning disabilities and learning difﬁculties would
beneﬁt more than mainstreamed students in using SNSs.
This study demonstrates the critical role of the teacher in engaging effective online
learning in SNS environments. The quality of teacher–student relationships, the extent
to which a ‘learning’ rather than ‘social’ attitude was established, and the online pres-
ence that the teacher exerted in the SNS all correlated with more successful student
learning. Positive teacher behaviors were associated with greater levels of student
maturity and more on-task performance. There appeared to be a trade-off between the
amount of social contributions that students made to the SNS and the level of thinking
they demonstrated as measured by Anderson and Krathwohl’s (2001) Revised
Bloom’s Taxonomy and the degree of synthesis they evidenced.
In an age where students are using SNSs as part of their everyday lives and
teachers are often reluctant to use SNS due to fear of the unknown, this study dem-
onstrates that the type and quality of learning that transpires in SNSs does not
appear to be attributable to the technology. SNSs can promote greater levels of
student motivation and engagement, and enable students to utilize higher order
thinking skills. Utilising SNSs draws directly on students’ experience with social
networks and can be used to develop their technological and media literacies.
However, the extent to which these outcomes are achieved in SNSs ultimately
depends on the way the SNS learning activities are implemented by the teacher.
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Educational Media International 17
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