May 4, 2016Uncategorized

Ksenia A. Korobkova & Matthew Rafalow

Published Online: May 4, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This article argues that the set of skills and strategies associated with managing digital publics online represent an emergent literacy practice of importance to literacy researchers and educators. Drawing on two case studies of online communities popular with contemporary youth to learn, play, and socialize, we articulate how youth participants strategically negotiate multiple audiences online with varying levels of publicity in order to achieve learning outcomes. In one case, players of a popular production-centered video game share their content in ways that garner the specific kind of audience and feedback they need for their projects. In another, members of an online fan fiction community analyze and negotiate expectations of their audience in order to craft media that garners attention and sustains readership. Both examples identify how skills centered on navigating and managing publics – that is, multiple audiences that are permeable across a wider public online – constitute a recognizable and important “new literacy” in digitally mediated learning environments. We situate our empirical studies in sociocultural theories of learning and historicize the work in contemporary digital cultures and the general move from the writer-reader relationship to writer-audience relationships to more complex relationships within digital publics.  The article ends with considerations for literacy researchers, policymakers, and practitioners interested in technology-mediated practices of today’s youth.

Keywords: new media, literacies, interest-driven communities, publics, online production, youth studies

Introduction

Researchers and practitioners alike have interrogated the role of technology in living, working, and learning in the 21st century. Increasingly, scholars call attention to the kinds of skills and artifacts technologically-mediated environments offer to participants. With the aid of digital technologies, learners pursue new pathways of participation, writing, and collaboration (Thomas & Brown, 2011). Researchers document how youth develop valuable literacies as they create and remix multimedia texts in blogs, wikis, and social networks in online communities (Black, 2006; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). In turn, those working on reimagining schooling in the 21st century have thought about ways that learning environments might harness the potential of digital technologies in helping youth access new opportunities for learning. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills explicitly calls for educators to think about new aptitudes linked to digital communication, on-demand access to information, and collaboration across networks (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2006). Questions arise about what it means to effectively communicate and collaborate in an increasingly networked world.

Studies show that youth in online communities or affinity spaces are highly aware of their audiences, real or imagined (Berkenkotter, 1981; boyd, 2006), and pay close attention to how they represent themselves and their work. Less is known about how youth themselves narrate and navigate their position across multiple audiences in participatory online settings. In the context of an ethnographic multi-sited study of youth-driven production practices in online communities, we documented the multiple ways that youth manage, negotiate, and interact with audiences. Drawing from this work, this paper provides a detailed portrait of how young people situate their work in complex digital environments. We ask: what does it mean for young content producers to work with not one, but many digital publics as part and parcel of content production? How do they talk about audiences in relation to their identity, status, and group membership? What effects does dealing with multiple real, cognitively constructed, and networked audiences have on their sense of self as composers and their production practices? And, relatedly, how might this work inform our thinking about adeptness, literacy, and sociality in new media? In sum, we find that learners develop key skills pertinent to learning in the 21st century: the ability to strategically navigate audiences across digital publics in order to construct a meaningful socialization and learning experience.

Study Context

This research took place in the context of a larger study on the socializing and learning dynamics of interest-driven online groups that support academically relevant knowledge seeking and expertise development (Ito et al., 2010).

As part of this bigger project, we looked into two different online communities. They were similar in that both were youth-led, digitally-mediated, and interest-fueled that enabled self-initiated production of new media. They differed in the kinds of media they produced and in the kinds of passions that fueled their projects. The first case study focused on an online story-sharing community centered on sharing Fan Fiction stories about a popular boyband named One Direction. Another case study examined a video game online community in which members designed and critiqued new levels for a game called LittleBigPlanet 2 (Media Molecule, 2011). Both studies highlight how informal, technology-mediated learning environments, as compared with most school contexts, often encourage self-sponsored learning activities. The cases focus on young people participating in new media composition practices and dealing with various online publics, albeit in very different contexts.

LittleBigPlanet 2 (Media Molecule, 2011), also known as LBP2, is a puzzle-platformer video game that was released in January 2011 for the Playstation 3, and Sackboy Planet is a companion community of LBP2 players where they interact and share the levels they produce within the game (Sony Interactive Entertainment, LLC, 2016). After its release the game was purchased widely, particularly within the United States and the United Kingdom. A key facet of the game is its digital tools that enable players to produce their own levels, art, soundtracks, and animations. Players use these tools and develop skills in creativity and problem solving, and are provided opportunities to create levels with others and share them to the community at large. The game gives players a side-scrolling video game experience that is productively coupled with activities designed to teach players to create their own levels. Sackboy Planet is a popular online community centered on an interest in LBP2, and it was the focus for this project.

Wattpad (WP Technologies, 2016), as both an app and a web site, is a popular place for young writers and readers to congregate. In addition to being a writing platform, Wattpad invites graphics, book covers, and forum discussions of all things related to writing. The site includes a writing platform as well as a way to publish, share, discuss, and improve one’s writing. Although Wattpad attracts users from all parts of the world, stories in the English language are the most prominent, and Young Adult and Fan Fiction genres are most popular, since the robust majority of the site is of adolescent age.

The comparison between the production practices and the way members discussed their participation and production seemed fruitful because members of both online communities were engaged in making and sharing new kinds of media artifacts — game levels on the one hand, and Fan Fiction books on the other. Composition practice was directly linked to participating and being recognized as a part of the particular community. Production in both cases was driven by the fan community and enabled by new technology. The products in both cases were multimodal (made up of print texts, videos, and audio) and intertextual (involved references to other texts, narratives, and objects related to the fandom). Moreover, internal mechanisms of reputation management, recognition, and boundary work between the experts and the novices were tightly bound up with the practices of composition and circulation of products. Members of both communities talked about what it takes to talk the talk and walk the walk in order to be seen as adept in their craft, authentic in their fandom, and valuable to the community. In the interviews, “making” stories and levels was narrated as “making for” different groups and purposes. Members talked about producing content for different groups, adapting their language and tool use to effectively speak to the particular group. For example, in the course of a day, a One Direction fan was able to share a moving image she made on Wattpad and Tumblr (a microblogging site), because those are networks for fans, and think about but ultimately reject the decision to share the same product on Facebook, because her parents might be able to see it. The longer version of the gif was shared on Wattpad with a caption to index her amassing video editing skills and the shorter version of the .gif file was circulated on Tumblr with a caption that made the product seem like an inside joke. For the members, producing and circulating content was also about managing diverse audiences — groups the producer was also part of and thus more aptly called “publics.”

Conceptual Framework and Related Literature

This study draws from several connected literatures: the sociocultural study of literacy, with a focus on research on new literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006), and multimedia (Jewitt & Kress, 2003). Researchers and theories of “new literacies” posit that digital technologies enable the production of new kinds of texts and, in turn, new possibilities of interaction and meaning-making. This way of looking at literacies draws from sociocultural approaches to learning and literacies that see engagement with texts as more than coding and encoding words on the page, but also involving values, identities, group membership, and power dynamics (Gee, 2007). In recent decades, scholars working in the way of recognizing literacies as plural, context-embedded and fundamentally social practices have turned their attention to practices and texts made possible by new media technologies, such as social networking, modern gaming practices, and participation in online communities (Black, 2006; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Work in this vein sees social participation with new media, such as gaming, as involving new kinds of reading, writing, and relating practices: as a literacy in itself.

Researchers of new literacies consider playing digital games and participating in related online spaces, such as message boards, to be consequential literacy practices. Researchers such as Gee (2003), Jenkins, Clinton, Purushatma, Robison, and Weigel (2006), Lankshear and Knobel (2006) bring attention to ways in which online and media-rich activities function in specific semiotic domains, calling on detailed knowledge and developed know-how. New technologies usher in new affordances, of which new skillsets and literacies are but few.

The Internet raises the visibility of fan production. Private activities can be transferred into a public arena – online fan communities where massive audiences provide motive and encouragement for creative work. Moreover, the interactive affordance of fan web sites mean that a fan could go beyond her individual ability and benefit from others’ reactions, critiques and knowledge (Black, 2008). Research on digital writing, socializing, and production has recently moved away from thinking about authors composing for audiences and toward thinking about authors composing as part of participating in groups, social forms, and digital publics. Coined by boyd (2010), “networked publics” describe participation in public culture that is supported by technologies. The term refers to both the “space” created through networked technologies and the “collective” born out of the connection of the people, technologies, and practices within that space (boyd, 2010). Because of proliferating new ways to connect to each other online, we have an abundance of networked publics to address and engage with daily. But we still know little about how learners navigate networked publics as part of their informal literacy enterprise. Moreover, although some literacy research have focused on meaning-making and collective-forming practices in online spaces, especially in studies interested in fandoms and affinity spaces, they hone in on one particular website and public. In this article, we propose that to fully understand the rich literacy practices of young people afforded by digital technology, it is necessary to conceptualize socialization and learning across various sites, spaces, and spaces.

Working within the traditions of conceptualizing literacy as a social practice, and in a polemic with studies of new media as enabling new types of literacies, our comparative project focuses on how youth negotiate different online publics as an integral part of production and participation in interest-driven online communities.

Research Questions

  • How do young people navigate digital publics and associated varied audiences to effectively engage in socially-supported creative production?
  • What features of digital publics enable young people to engage in navigation practices as a means of supporting creative production?

Methods

The two case studies utilized mixed methods to delve into a particular community, members of which were connected to each other in two ways: (1) with an online forum and other media and (2) through a common interest. Using content analysis, ethnographic observations, surveys, and interviews, we explored the dynamics related to learning, literacy, production, reputation, and audience management.

The LittleBigPlanet2 case research design focused on observation and interviews with members of Sackboy Planet, one of the largest online player communities (Media Molecule, 2011). We obtained data through two means: observation in Sackboy Planet forums, and interviews with Sackboy Planet community members. Observation in Sackboy Planet’s online forums was conducted during a nine-month period in which we visited the websites several times a week and observed interaction in the forums and the forum chatrooms. Observations, including quotes or excerpts from dialogue on the website, were recorded in field notes compiled the same day of observation. We began by interviewing the creator of Sackboy Planet, as well as the publicly identified moderators of the community. With the permission of the site’s creator, we posted an open call for interviewees, noting that we sought to speak with players both new and more experienced with the community and with LBP2 (Media Molecule, 2011). We ultimately draw from interviews with 24 community members who vary by age, race-ethnicity, gender, and geographic location. Interview questions were informed by observations in the forum. The questions were used to conduct semi-structured interviews, allowing us to probe for emergent themes, as members clarified questions that had emerged from our observations.

We also investigated the One Direction fan community on Wattpad (WP Technologies, 2016), a mobile-based story sharing community, over a nine-month period.  In-depth interviews were conducted with 25 participants, the protocols for which were semi-structured and designed to elicit discussion regarding the participants’ experiences with Fan Fiction production, critique and comment structures on the website, involvement in fan communities, school experiences, home and family environments, and the relationships between those contexts. From those interviews, we followed up on topics, organizations, and websites mentioned by the participants, such as social networking groups, school clubs, videos, and jokes that were important to them and circulated in their respective fan communities. These follow-ups are meant to give a more holistic picture of fan writing and media production practices, literate histories, and involvement in Fan Fiction communities.

Artifacts created by study participants are also analyzed, focusing on media objects such as the stories posted by participants, forum postings, book covers, trailers, gif files, and participants’ profiles. Background surveys, interviews, and objects created by participants were studied across and alongside each other in order to look for differences and similarities in the experiences of study participants.

Although interactions on both field sites are available to the public, we took steps to ensure the anonymity of those we interviewed and observed to minimize any potential risks for study participants. Our recruitment and observation strategy were not perfect means by which to reach all participants of a community, as it would be incredibly difficult to individually gain consent for passive observation on platforms where thousands of people interact. However, our research design maximized community awareness of the study through the aid of community leaders to develop and share public notices of research activity that allowed community members to both the researchers and the institutional review board any questions about the project. Identifiers from all excerpts are anonymized, and no names (including usernames) were used. Additionally, we obscured any excerpts from observed activity online (while maintaining the meaning of the quotes) in order to reduce searchability and minimize the risk of participants being identified.

We use content and discourse analysis techniques (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Gee, 2007) to analyze a variety of interviews, forums, and media artifacts we collected. Thematic, iterative coding (Saldaña, 2009 was used to code the multimodal dataset. We took several passes at the data – to see the kinds of recurring topics that emerge and to identify the themes in the data and how they related to each other.    We used analytical software Dedoose to derive overarching thematic categories that emerge with regularity across the data sources. Using the software helped us generate codes to represent given characteristics of studied contexts such as available technologies, symbolic and material resources, supports and barriers to participation, and recognition management systems within those communities. Moments of code switching or lengthy explanations of how one would produce something differently for one space or another became coded as “navigating.”

Case and Cross-case Data

Imagining Digital Publics for Playful Production

Through the advent of computer-mediated technologies, much of what has previously been labeled as “private” becomes “public.” Although hardly resembling a townhall meeting of a small town, social media technology such as Facebook and Twitter are often analyzed under the heuristic term “publics” as both a group of people and a communicative space. However, what happens in affinity spaces inspired by specific passions or interests? Moreover, what happens when the interested individual or learner becomes invested in more than one digital public? These questions animated selection of data from the larger project in order to understand strategic maneuvering users undertook when navigating different publics. To contrast different types of interest, levels of involvement, and affinity space architectures, we interviewed members of two very different interest-different communities, albeit the shared passion for playful production.

Navigating Publics for Feedback on Sackboy Planet

A central means of participating in each of these online communities is sharing created products and circulating them among members of the platform. Participants on Sackboy Planet share their levels in development on the community forums for feedback from other participants to improve their design skills, to promote their work, and to join level creation contests that have awards. Sackboy Planet is a digital public where these learning artifacts are shared. But like in other online contexts, attention is a scarce commodity. Due to the very high volume of content and ways to interact with others in the community, Sackboy Planet participants have to sift through many posts, blogs, and chat logs to suss out which game levels are worthwhile to review. While some scholars tend to argue that attention scarcity is necessarily “bad” because of its effect of obscuring people (see DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2004), on Sackboy Planet such a phenomenon creates opportunities for learning. Attention scarcity denies some youth the ability to share their work for advice, but designers can also be strategic as they navigate the Sackboy Planet public to draw out the type of attention they need to grow as budding game designers.

One example of this phenomenon can be observed in a post by a community member named Sacklad. His post, which was in a very visible area of the forum allocated for feedback on level design, was among a few of the most popular posts in that section. His post, however, was not fully in accordance with the rules of this section of the forum. Forum administrators leave notes, or sticky posts, where they set these rules and decree them to others in the forum. Forum discussions would be unwieldy and make it difficult for participants to find the types of content they are looking for if it were not for these rules. A full one-third of the one hundred and fifty pages of responses to Sacklad’s post was about topic-appropriate discussion of level ideas and recruitment for other level designers, but then Sacklad stopped requesting new ideas and teammates. Instead, he used the remaining one hundred pages to share updates about his game and encourage readers to follow his project until it debuted. Some forum participants became annoyed that the thread drifted from the original topic and broke some of the forum rules, and they asked that the discussion be moved into a private group away from this public post. However, Sacklad believed that keeping it in public was valuable:

EVERYBODY JOIN THE PRIVATE GROUP!! NEVERMIND BECAUSE THIS THREAD IS STAYING! LOL!!

I said that because I want the rest of Sackboy Planet to know that this project is still in development…and by the way, this is the most visited thread on the site…I want everyone to know

In order to promote his own work, Sacklad navigated not only the existing rules of the community that restrict off-topic dialogue but also the digital publics of the Sackboy Planet. In doing, he created an approach that operated much like the use of a megaphone in a crowded room: he accrued a considerable level of attention towards his work despite the fact that the forums were saturated with others’ posts about levels they created.

Sometimes community participants shared their levels in development in less public settings, and they used different communication mediums and privacy settings to achieve the audiences they desired. For example, Luchadoro created a blog post announcing his project and called for feedback:

I need a group of testers to play my level, identify bugs or problems with the game, and submit these errors to me. If you are interested I will send you a private message containing a highly secret code needed to access and play the level. Then you can find some friends (three, for the most fun!), play the level a lot and share any problems with me!

Blog posts are in a less public area of the website, and while viewable to the public they are much less visible than the forums. Additionally, Luchadoro used privacy settings within the level design to require a code or password to be able to view his designs. I asked why he used blogging and passwords rather than a post in the forums:

I wanted to make sure [the level] was bug-proof and that everything worked smoothly. And I also wanted to award players with a preview of the level. I wanted feedback. That was my main goal.

By using blogs and passwords, Luchadoro was able to reach out for feedback while also not sharing a level creation that had a lot of problems in its design. I asked him if he would have garnered the same kind of feedback if he asked for help in the much more public areas of the forums. For Luchadoro, using blog posts and privacy settings allowed him to obtain his desired audience:

I would have gotten feedback I think. But for one thing the level could have had a lot of bugs. And for another it’s much easier to get feedback if you actually ask people for feedback. It’s way more likely to get detailed, very informative feedback. Actually I got a message for two full pages of feedback, so it was worth it. After about six testers I turned everyone down.

By using blogs, a quasi-public space on Sackboy Planet, to share his levels in development, and privacy settings to restrict project visibility, Luchadoro navigated the community’s online publics to reach the type of audience he needed. Implicit is Luchadoro’s preconception that there are multiple ways of imagining audiences on Sackboy Planet. Moreover, he reached for this particular audience because he was not at a stage where he wanted the project to be fully public – it had design problems and needed more work. While the website does have specific areas for level sharing and feedback, those areas are highly visible to the broad public. Luchadoro used blogs and passwords to innovatively tackle online publics and obtain an environment for level creation and learning best suited for his own needs.

But in addition to these opportunities, learners also face challenges to get constructive feedback as a consequence of how others wrestle with attention scarce nature of the Sackboy Planet public. As part of the design of the game and the online community, players can “heart” or “like” a level or artifact that they think is well produced. These hearts are used cumulatively as metrics of success that elevate certain artifacts to the top of well-publicized lists. During interviews, participants report that others will try to “game the system” in ways that unfairly provide attention to some levels over others. One way participants achieve this is by asking for “hearts for hearts.” Jimbob explains:

Someone was asking for hearts for hearts and that’s not allowed on the site…Sackboy Planet looks down on that because you’re not really giving feedback to the creator, it’s like you are just promoting your level without really playing it…sometimes they don’t play so it’s not really fair, that’s why the forum doesn’t like it. (Jimbob, 2013)

Community participants look poorly on participants who bypass the slow process of level reviewing through instead asking for hearts from others for hearts in exchange. “Hearts for hearts” is one way that users game the metrics system and evade attention scarcity on the forums by boosting project visibility. Attention scarcity can therefore create barriers to participation by making it more difficult for participants, especially new participants, to engage with others in the community around their work.

While attention scarcity can create barriers by minimizing opportunities for participation, it also generates new avenues for participants to generate the kind of publicity they need for their own learning and development. During our fieldwork in Sackboy Planet, we observed how participants shared their level designs with others for different purposes. Usually, levels in development are posted on the Sackboy Planet forums for feedback to improve their skills and designs, to promote their projects, and participate in contests. But players would also share their content elsewhere on the website to strategically garner the kind of attention they wanted for their projects.

Content Management for Publics among Wattpad Directioners

Self-described fans of the boyband One Direction or Directioners — although dissimilar to LBP2 level producers in interests and demographics — follow similar patterns of thinking about making and sharing in their community. Directioners on a story- and picture- sharing website called Wattpad.com often compose Fan Fiction stories, book covers and animated picture files in connection to the band. They talk about the complicated design-oriented thinking implicated in the making and circulating such objects across various fan networks they are involved with. In relation to composing gifs (looping animation image files with no sound), Directioners speak of inspired by what they see on Tumblr and other social networking sites and once they make the product, sharing it selectively and differentially among those networks. In .gif production, Directioners take clips from the band’s interviews, videos, and confessionals and turn them into short loops, often adding words and captions or transposing other images to get the desired effect, whether it be humor or innuendo.

Making a picture of a .gif that is highly successful involves many moving pieces: researching the oeuvre of the boyband and their more niche taped appearances, figuring out the audience’s likes and dislikes, familiarizing myself with the web-based gif-making software or Photoshop, the attention and detail-orientation required to getting the time stamps exactly right when clipping video, and so on.

During the data collection period, we noticed that it was not possible to account for the full range of these fans’ literate repertoires without staying attuned to different audiences for whom these cultural producers were performing. Participants shifted discourses and channeled different sets of skills when dealing with different publics. For example, when dealing with fellow fans on Tumblr, the author might put on their knowledgeable fan hat, while when writing for fan fiction writers and readers on Wattpad, she might tap into her literary knowhow. Following the thread of their interest, participants cycled through different technologies, environments, and digital publics.

One adolescent participant, 15 year-old Nessa, narrates the challenges she faced in learning the craft of making .GIF files. She has been writing Fan Fiction or fiction based on popular media objects for quite some time on various websites but has lately ventured to the “Multimedia Designs” forum on the website, as she was getting interested in making graphics, covers, and trailers for her stories (mostly about “the boys” as she affectionately calls the band). This forum was targeted for users to help other user improve their design and media collage skills. In the “Designs” forum, she was able to get feedback on the story cover illustrations she was making and help with her Photoshop skills. As time went on, she asked for less hands-on help from her fellow forum posters (e.g., collaborating on the same illustration and having them “shop” a piece of the picture) and asked for more indirect, general feedback.

Once she got the hang of the .gif art formation, Nessa began to post the animated images on her fan Tumblr blog account. After getting help with transposing words onto the images onto the forum, she began to practice the art of aphoristic writing. She explains, “I wasn’t very funny at first… Not a lot of people followed me.” This has changed, since Nessa’s creation have about a hundred thousand followers on her original Tumblr blog and as many on Twitter. The main mechanism responsible for this increased popularity is audience awareness. Nessa knows what her audiences are into – what jokes are en vogue, what’s going on with the band, which songs are being played on the radio. She crowdsources content from her story-sharing website account to get some of this information. She also beta tests various prototypes of her .gif files on the Wattpad forums in order to gauge whether her new meme will stick. She often keeps more literary jokes for the story-sharing website and more mundane content for her fan blog.

Cross-case analysis

Recent scholarship on new literacies argues that digital technologies, and particularly games, offer avenues for youth to learn important skills by invoking a number of important modalities. Yet, this work does not well consider key features of online learning environments, namely, their relationship to online publics, in developing theoretical platforms for learning with new media. Although educators have long seen learning as situated within a particular audience or set of audiences, online environments like those explored in the present cases are linked to multiple audiences that have permeable boundaries. In other words, youth must learn skills needed to navigate multiple audiences within a broader public online.

Our cases show the challenges and possibilities for literacy development centered on navigating and managing online publics. On Sackboy Planet, LBP2 players wrestle with a phenomenon called attention scarcity — their level designs are one of thousands shared in the community. In some cases, players find ways to promote their own content by gaining notoriety by bending forum rules to generate lots of comments on their level-in-development. In other examples, players strategically select the specific avenues to share their level designs, such as on harder-to-find blogs rather than very public forums, to get detailed feedback from select players. Both examples show how youth strategically workshop their designs across different levels of public space online in order to improve their craft. One Direction fan fiction writers probe the expectations of their community in order to craft media that can be shared while sustaining peer interest. For example, some writers share ideas with select members of intended audiences to “test the waters” before publishing more widely.

Comparison of the two contexts yields several insights about the prowess of internet publics to drive transmedial negotiation and mediation. The features that empowered this kind of participation were the same in both cases. In LBP2, attention scarcity, passion, and reputation management lead to the engagement of different publics in publishing new levels. On Wattpad, scaffolding on the site, rules and norms of participation, and the availability of different audiences for different needs allowed the engagement of different publics in publishing artifacts connected to the users’ favorite band. Sociotechnical designs of both interest-driven communities drove navigator engagement in both sites, as youth played with multiple publics as part and parcel of their crafting practice. Recruiting and sustaining peer interest in a topic that they care about was an important catalyst to make and publish media, in both cases. The main navigation strategy in the gaming community was delimiting audience to reduce risk and to amplify voice. By contrast, the main navigation strategy on the story-sharing app was experimenting with and shifting content to appeal to multiple different audiences.

Discussion

The cross-case analysis presented here illustrates how participants of two interest-driven online communities navigate multiple publics online for learning. These youth strategically create and share their work across different tiers of publicity to achieve the kinds of feedback and recognition they needed for their own purposes and at their particular stage of work. These empirical cases thus build on our existing notions of literacy practices by showing the value of navigating publics online for learning. These examples also expand our thinking about the relationship between creator and audience to a reality where youth come to see their work as existing within more fluid relationship between collective creation and reception among others online.

On Sackboy Planet, youth shared their work in different parts of the forums to garner feedback from different audiences within the community public. In some cases, learners used privacy settings to share their designs-in-progress with select people who they knew would give in-depth feedback. In other examples, participants shared their designs in parts of the forum that cast wide audience nets – like using a megaphone – in order to generate interest and publicity. These strategies reflect conditions of online publics that are critical for understanding twenty-first century literacies. Audiences online are variable in their size and reach and also provide different types of feedback that have implications for how learners and their learning artifacts are received within the broader community. Participants thus must understand these differences and employ strategies for sharing their work that achieve the outcomes they need for their own developmental agenda.

Fan Fiction and related media-producing fans of the popular band 1D youth produced and shared various fan artifacts in different communities with strategic understandings of the underpinning values and purposes of each discourse community. Users understood the ability to post more amateur fan artifacts on Wattpad’s forum section, such as drafts of fanfic stories, while showcasing deep fan knowledge and writing skills. At the same time, the same users would call upon fan networks on Twitter and Tumblr, using quick humor and meme juxtaposition, showcasing broad knowledge of pop culture and wit. Although much has been written about value laden uses of discourse in different communities (see Gee, 2007), it is worth exploring in more depth how young people in technology-mediated contexts, enroll themselves into and perform specific kinds of competencies in more than one digital public at one time. This strategic skill of maneuvering, or navigation that is as skillful as it is playful, is highlighted in data exemplars presented here. Just as literacy practices evolve, as tools and texts change, we are calling attention to this type of navigation as a meta-literacy practice.

Observed literacy practices among study participants, across both sites, showed that the bifurcated constructions of writer and audience or coder and consumer did not hold up. Instead, we found actors that occupied multiple roles and negotiated multiple audiences as part of their literate participation in technologically mediated interest driven communities. Moreover, because they often spoke to members of networks that were just as active as they were, our participants were just as often writers as readers of the finished cultural products. Thus, digital publics might have more analytical purchase when studying interest-sparked adolescent literacy experiences online as they move through and among technologies, spaces, and networks. Rather, following theorists of ecologies (Bronfenbrenner, 1979/2009), we find that interest-driven communities embedded in digital publics – like any systems consisting of human and nonhuman actors – are complex, evolving, and relational. Taking an ecological perspective means considering a variety of learning contexts, composed of activities, resources, relationships, and interactions (see Barron, 2006). Moreover, each learning context might call upon different configurations of people, as we have demonstrated in this paper.

Both of the cases can be considered “openly-networked” digital ecologies that evoke mercurial engagement with multiple interest-driven publics (Connectedlearning.tv, n.d.). In the connected learning framework, openly-networked learning spaces link together “institutions and groups across various sectors, including popular culture, educational institutions, home, and interest communities” (Connectedlearning.tv, n.d.). We learned that “in the wild,” as part of their online interest-driven pursuits, youth actively create individualized, openly-networked spaces that weave together different digital publics.

Educational institutions and policy makers should heed these findings about the importance of managing digital publics for learning and children’s development as tinkerers. Typically, researchers and practitioners envision the school as a monolithic entity that constructs children as an audience for learning. This assumption is very problematic. First, it limits the social networks where children are allowed to play, learn, and share their ideas with others to connect them to opportunity. Second, it positions children as consumers of educational content from teachers rather than active participants and creators within a given setting. As we find, kids can be rather adept at developing skills needed to create and share across digital publics when given the opportunity. Schools and educational policymakers need to consider what structural supports are needed to enable, rather than dismantle, kids’ capacity to play online and across multiple settings beyond the classroom in order to prepare children for the twenty first century.

Jenkins and colleagues published a list of important skills that enable engagement in today’s “participatory culture” that proves salient here (Jenkins et al., 2009). Specifically, they highlight negotiation and transmedia navigation skills that when used together, interweave with the negotiation skills we are highlighting in this paper. Transmedia navigation, in their framework, means following the flow of stories across multiple modalities. Negotiation has two meanings: “first, as the ability to negotiate between dissenting perspectives, and second, as the ability to negotiate through diverse communities” (Jenkins et al., 2009, p. 99).

Although current research has shown how young people in transmedial ecologies (Jenkins, 2010) work side-by-side and with each other, using different modes and technologies pursuant to their task, researchers are only beginning to capture ways in which youth produces new texts (games, stories, gifs) not only for different audiences but due to being part of several digital publics. Thus, along with the list of important new skills scholars of new literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2007) and participatory culture (Jenkins et al., 2009) propose, we add a new one: navigation of digital publics. This paper has shown that this is an essential skill in gaining access to new literate, social, civic opportunities in transmedial contexts.

Lastly, although we often hear about youth lacking a critical orientation in today’s fast paced technological world, it is important to note that aspects of navigation in and of different publics shares key characteristics with what has been described as critical literacy (Luke & Dooley, 2011). Critical literacy is seen as a disposition toward texts:

…as human technologies for representing and reshaping possible worlds. Texts are not taken as part of a canonical curriculum tradition or received wisdom that is beyond criticism. Rather they are conceived of as malleable human designs and artefacts used in social fields. Texts, then, operate in identifiable social, cultural and political contexts. The aim is to develop learners capable of critiquing and making texts in their cultural and community interests. This involves an understanding of how texts and discourses can be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed to represent, contest and, indeed, transform material, social and semiotic relations. (Luke & Dooley, 2011, p. 856).

Because young people profiled in this paper exhibited markers of deconstructing and constructing multimodal artifacts for different audiences, they exhibit key characteristics of critical literacy. In particular, learning that different audiences have different aims, strengths, and weaknesses and thus need to be strategically interwoven into one’s learning network is an important insight that lends itself to the roots of critical literacy. In turn, youth learn how to make texts to further their own goals. These skills – already honed in the “wild” of fandom’s cultural practices – need to be elaborated and explicitly taught in formal learning environments in addition to informal ones. In this way, learning publics can inform one another.

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Biographical information

Ksenia Korobkova is a doctoral student at University of California — Irvine, specializing in Literacy, Language, and Technology. She researches informal learning networks, social technologies, media and discourses connected to learners and learning in “new” designed environments. Last year, her research projects include Fan Fiction writing, critical literacies in virtual worlds, digital storytelling, and visualizing causality using touchpad apps. Ksenia holds degrees in International Development, Psychology, and Literature from U.C. Berkeley and has more than three years of research experience working on projects for the U.S. Department of Education, NSF, and UNICEF.

Contact: ksenia.k@uci.edu

Matt Rafalow is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at University of California, Irvine, an ethnographer for a MacArthur-foundation funded initiative called the Connected Learning Research Network, and a researcher at Google (YouTube). He has also been a scientist at Yahoo! Labs, and a design researcher for GovLab. My work primarily centers on younger generations and digital technology, though I also study particular uses of technology with colleagues in other research areas (education, dating, organizations, and social movements).

Rhonwen Bowen, Annika-Lantz Andersson & Sylvia Vigmo

Published Online: April 15, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This paper presents a case study in which the implications of using social media as part of English as a second language learning are explored. More specifically two principle questions are embraced: how does the institutional setting of a shared blog co-determine the framing of the activity by the students? And what does this framing of the activity imply for the textual interaction and linguistic repertoires that the students use? The empirical material comprise of community documentation of a blog that was created in an international collaboration between two upper secondary classes in Sweden and Thailand. The study is grounded in a sociocultural perspective and the analysis of the blog postings was informed using the conceptual distinctions of frame analysis. The findings show that the students’ linguistic repertoires draw on both the language that is taught in school with rather cultured formulations corresponding to their imagined expectations of fulfilling a school task, but also to their out-of-school code-mixing vernacular and jargon which are prevalent in social media. The challenge for education is how to embrace social networking sites without diminishing students’ digital vernacular yet encourage and inspire their parlance in ways that enhance second language learning that may be less present in their digital vernacular but useful in other communicative contexts.

Keywords: English as second language learning, Social networking sites, Blog, frame analysis, linguistic repertoire, digital vernacular

Introduction

Participation in social networking sites (SNSs) can, without doubt, be argued to constitute a major part of young people’s everyday communicative practices (e.g. Erstad & Sefton-Green, 2013; Kern, 2014). In SNSs, new modes of communication have developed in which typically written and oral practices are mixed and merged together with other semiotic resources to form a communicative hybridity of linguistic repertoires (Androutsopoulos, 2014). Characteristic of the linguistic repertoires in SNSs is that they range from formal interaction to spontaneous encounters with speakers of other languages. With the enormous development of the Internet since the 1990s, English has become a lingua franca in many parts of the world and in many areas, such as academic writing and, not least, social media. The number of users of English has increased rapidly (Graddol, 2006) entailing that approximately 80% of English speakers do not have English as their first language (Christison & Murrey, 2014). As a consequence of this increase in usage, English is no longer the exclusive domain of what was traditionally called the native speaker, e.g. people born in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and U.K.; this implies that the various Englishes that are used across the world as a convenient code of communication emerge as diverse and dynamic.

In the wake of this development, educators of English as a second language have tried to embrace the possibilities and challenges of using SNSs in language-learning activities. However, the ability to use English in Web 2.0 applications is not always considered as language competence from a more traditional viewpoint and schools have been criticized for not recognizing out-of-school language competence (Kern, 2014; Thorne, 2009). Advocates of using social media in language-learning contexts argue that the use of SNSs supposedly facilitates new forms of communication using, for example, blogs as teaching and learning tools in the foreign language classroom to promote communicative competence (e.g. Baym & Boyd, 2012; Blattner & Lomicka, 2012; Yang, 2011). Other positive research findings refer to improvement of learners’ autonomy and intercultural communication (Lee, 2011). Sceptics, on the other hand, maintain that the use of SNSs as part of schooling could compromise traditional literacies (e.g. Ziegler, 2007 and for an overview see Manca & Ranieri, 2013). However, an over-simplified focus of the usability of social media for language learning tends to neglect the tension that exists between practice logics of Web 2.0 and traditional educational practices and will not support our understanding of the multifaceted nature of communication on the social web (Bonderup Dohn, 2009; Selwyn, 2009). By utilizing SNSs as part of educational activities, students are able to bring experiences to the classroom. In turn, this implies that students are offered the possibility of becoming more apparent agents, which changes the power relations in the classroom as it “decentralizes the role of the language classroom” and opens up for a more student-empowered environment (Thomas, 2009, p. 21). It may be assumed, therefore, that the increased amount of research concerning the use of Web 2.0 tools in the language classroom must be indicative of the dynamic shift that is taking place among language educators towards an increased use of this continually evolving online environment (Wang & Vasquez, 2012). Consequently, there is a need to continue to explore the use of English in social media sites to further our understanding of the implications this use and competence might have for more institutional language-learning practices.

Aim and research questions

The overall aim of this case study is to explore how students communicate in English as a second language when blogging on Blogger (www.blogger.com) as part of educational language-learning activities. The case study was conducted in an upper secondary school class in Sweden in an international collaboration together with an upper secondary school class in Thailand. The study has a particular interest in how the contextual practice of SNS co-determines students’ use of linguistic repertoires. Analytically, this is addressed by adopting a sociocultural perspective on learning, in which learning is understood as social processes that are embedded within activity, context and culture (Vygotsky, 1939; Wertsch, 2007). For the analysis of the text-based communicative blogging activities, the frame theory derived from Goffman’s (1974) interactional perspective is applied. In Goffman’s (1974) terms, people make sense of activities by framing or defining them by using their previous experience of similar situations, even if the present activity and contextual possibilities and constraints are new. In this study, the following research questions are embraced:

  • How does the institutional setting of a shared blog co-determine the students’ framing of the activity?
  • What does the students’ framing of the activity imply for the textual interaction and the linguistic repertoires utilized?

The use of SNS in the second language-learning classroom

Sweden with its population of approximately 10 million inhabitants is considered to have a high level of English proficiency; imported cultural media are always broadcast with Swedish subtitles and as the majority of the media are from the U.S. and U.K., people are subjected to a considerable amount of English on a regular basis. Furthermore, the Swedish Media Council (2013) in an investigation of 13 – 16 year olds states that 81% of these teenagers have a computer of their own and Internet access. However, the Swedish Schools Inspectorate (2011) conducted an evaluation of English teaching in schools for 12 – 15 year olds and discovered that English lessons were very conservative and often based on traditional materials and the use of digital devices in the English classroom was rare. Even if the use of IT in the classroom has increased since this investigation was conducted, what remains is the fact that teachers are still faced with enormous challenges to provide learning opportunities with the use of social media to young people for whom English is an integral part in their daily lives.

Through the use of SNSs, young people of today are in touch with a wide range of speakers of different languages and different cultures and they continuously make use of whatever linguistic devices necessary in order to communicate. This implies a kind of cultures-of-use in which various linguistic activities are used for different pragmatic goals such as creating a picture of oneself as a multilingual communicator (Thorne, 2003). Various forms of linguistic repertoires can be conceptualised with what Thorne (2011) calls living language use where the participants utilize their digital vernacular. This may include the use of emoticons, various Web resources, such as Google Translate, the sharing of websites, music videos, photos etc. Furthermore, even if the communication is in the form of written language, it may embrace a spontaneous and informal style that is comparable to oral speech. (cf., Kern, 2014; Lantz-Andersson, Vigmo & Bowen, 2015). From a sociolinguistic perspective, this diversification is described as code-mixing, i.e. the close proximity of different linguistic codes in one and the same sentence lacking a pragmatic function (Androutsopoulos, 2013). Linguistic repertoires are, therefore here, in line with Androutsopoulos (2014), conceptualized as participants’ individualized linguistic choices, linked to technologies of communication, which range from formal interaction to spontaneous encounters with speakers of other languages online. Such encounters are consequently more complex than traditional institutional language-learning contexts including “ multiple language capacities and cultural imaginations, and different social and political memories” (Kramsch, 2008, p. 390).

As argued earlier, a growing global population in the western world use English as a lingua franca for various private interests as well as for work and study; young people’s ubiquitous media use and interactions on SNS include, to a great extent, the use of English. Sundqvist and Sylvén (2012), for example, have studied Swedish students’ English oral proficiency and vocabulary and the impact of out-of-school English. Their findings showed correlations between school test scores and the amount of out-of-school English the students were subjected to. Students are, therefore, exposed to a variation of linguistic repertoires with real global audiences and to a kind of language use that belongs to the unauthorized language of young people. This leads on to the question of what kind of linguistic repertoires do we find in online communication. In a discussion of linguistic behaviour and what actually constitutes a language, Normann Jörgensen (2008, p 164) states that language users could be described as “actors, and they act upon, and sometimes against, norms and standards” implying that language users employ whatever means they have at their disposal in order to communicate successfully. In addition, SNSs such as Blogs are inherently informal and as they are not subjected to censorship, bloggers “may take the liberty to freely use language as they wish” (Montes-Alcalá, 2007, p. 163). Furthermore, young language users become familiar with specific features of several different languages without actually knowing the languages in question; in addition, they are not usually inhibited by this fact. These emerging forms of utilizing language could be labelled as a type of as languaging to describe the diverse use of linguistic repertoires used by speakers to meet the communicative aims desired (Normann Jörgensen, 2008, p 169). Similarly, Gynne & Bagga-Gupta (2013) in a study of young people’s languaging and social positioning in a bilingual, Swedish-Finnish educational setting use the concept of chaining to describe the ways humans “connect oral, written and other semiotic resources including different modalities in the course of naturally occurring daily life” (p. 483). Rather than focus on the alternation of various codes, this concept highlights “the meaning-making potentials of various settings where human beings use a range of communicative resources in both “oral” and “literacy” contexts”.

The linguistic repertoires utilized in SNSs by young people who are not native English speakers have also proven to establish translocal cultures in which the linguistic, social and cultural actions together merge both the local and the global in new ways (Leppänen et al., 2009). Thus, the use of new media offers opportunities of communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Studies focussing on enhanced intercultural dialogue have reported on not only improved language-learning outcomes (Ware & O’Dowd, 2008) but also increased pragmatic awareness (Chun, 2011; Stockwell & Stockwell, 2003) and intercultural competence among participants (Lee, 2011, 2012; Schenker, 2012).

Together with the arguments above concerning linguistic repertoires and opportunities for developed language awareness, a major premise to take into consideration is therefore that communication on SNSs is based on completely different interests and goals, in comparison with what has traditionally been regarded as learning and knowledge as part of second language schooling (see for example, Kern, 2014 and Bonderup Dohn, 2009 on learning).

Theoretical framework

This study is grounded in a sociocultural perspective in which learning is seen as situated, taking a particular interest in language as a meditational tool for communication and interaction (Vygotsky, 1939; Wertsch, 2007). This implies that the students’ interactions are seen as social practices both in relation to the local situated practice of schooling and in relation to the contextual practice of communicating on SNS. The conceptual distinctions of frame analysis (Goffman, 1974) have guided the research in analysing how the students frame the activity of blogging as part of schooling and how that co-determines their use of linguistic repertoires. The framing of activities relates to how participants define activities and adjust to their situational norms and the other participants. During the framing activity, participants deal with conflicts of framing and frame breaking and these lead to temporarily established frameworks. This becomes traceable in how the students express themselves and through their use of various linguistic repertoires. In both the sociocultural tradition and Goffman’s perspective on social interaction, the individuals are seen as active agents in understanding and shaping the world. This means that the individuals, the context and the physical tools create the learning practices and form an indivisible unit of description. The framing is seen as constituting the activity and the meaning of a textual utterance is dependent on how we have framed them in the specific activity; it helps us to determine how to continue with the activity. In light of the perspective adopted here, the framing of the textual interaction in a certain activity is crucial for the researcher to consider in order to try to understand how the activity is understood by the participants. A critical element of how we frame activities is that it is dependent on earlier experiences and how we relate these experiences to the activity at hand. These earlier experiences also support how we expect certain activities to be understood (cf. Tannen, 1979). This implies that the concept of framing is a useful analytical tool in analysing how students dynamically reframe classroom tasks into new activities in line with new contextual practices such as SNSs (cf., Hattem, 2007; Lantz-Andersson, Vigmo & Bowen, 2013; Vigmo, & Lantz-Andersson, 2014). The theoretical underpinnings in this study can thus be looked at as a starting point for understanding the use of SNSs in relation to the linguistic repertoires that are used.

Methods

The study is part of a research project called (blinded for review[1]) with the objectives of exploring the implications of the merging of young people’s second language use in social media contexts and second language-learning practices in school. This case study took place in an ordinary English lesson in an upper secondary class in Sweden. The 18 to 19 year-old students were introduced to the blog that they were to share together with an upper secondary class in Thailand. The blogging activity was thus introduced as part of an English as second language class and based on an agreement between the teachers in Sweden and Thailand and the researchers. When the class blog was completed three months later, the first step was to summarize the interaction in the groups, which was conducted by using Blogger’s overview feature. This was done to obtain a general summary of the postings and comments in the groups and for the selection of the screen shots of postings and comments that would serve as illustrations for the further quantitative analyses of this case study. All the postings and the comments were also gathered by taking screenshots to enable different kinds of mapping and sorting. The mapping was done as a first analysis of the type of postings which received comments, the content of the postings, the language use etc., (see also Lantz-Andersson, 2016; Vigmo & Lantz-Andersson, 2014).

The blogging activity was initiated in Sweden with a one-hour classroom session. This session is also video documented, which is analysed elsewhere (Lantz-Andersson et al., 2013; Lantz-Andersson et al., 2015; Vigmo & Lantz-Andersson, 2014) the researchers participated and observed the classroom session, but the main focus of this study is the postings and comments in the blog. The analysis draws on Interactional Ethnography (Castanheira et al., 2001), with a focus on the postings and the comments of the students to explore how they made use of various linguistic repertoires to communicate. Scrutinizing the textual interaction, the analyses of the linguistic repertoires that were used aimed at interpreting how the students framed and re-framed the activity in accordance with their temporary definition of the situation (Goffman, 1974). Interactional Ethnography is also compatible with Goffman’s theoretical stance in which interaction is seen as a job that participants in an activity do; this includes various layers of self-presentation, the wish to cooperate, the wish to complete a school task etc.

In this study, we have followed the ethical codes as required from the Swedish Research Council. In addition, the Regional Ethical University Board has approved the study before any fieldwork was conducted. The students involved were informed of the research project and it was made clear that participation was entirely voluntary. They were informed well in advance that the postings were not to be graded or assessed. Informed consent was collected before the study started and reports from the project were made confidential by using pseudonyms in order to prevent the identification of individuals. The class blog in this study was furthermore only made accessible to the students in the two classes, their teachers and the researchers.

The setting

This case study was undertaken during the spring term of 2012; the blog was established in March 2012 and completed in May 2012. In total, the blog consists of 34[2] published postings and 82 comments; 26 of the postings received at least one comment. The blog was created as a collaboration project between a school class in Gothenburg, Sweden and a school class in Bangkok, Thailand. It was established through personal contacts and correspondence via email. The teachers’ participation involved encouraging the students to be active in using English as a second language, but their texts were not part of any assessment or grading in English as a school subject. In the lesson, when the blogging activity was introduced in Sweden, the students were divided into groups consisting of 2-3 partners in each. The Swedish students were informed that the activity that was to take place in class was to start the blog, not to have the blog as a continued activity during lessons to come. Consequently, the students were given the option to continue with the blog themselves after this initial class session or refrain from participating. In Thailand, working on the blog was not given time in class but the teacher encouraged the students to blog during their spare time.

To start the process, the Swedish students were given an initial prompt from the researchers and also told to use whatever semiotic resources they wished. Giving them the freedom to choose a topic of their own, using the prompt as a point of departure, and allowing them the freedom to use other resources, enabled them to engage freely in the blog (cf. Lee & Markey, 2014). The following prompt was used to get the blogging activity started:

Table 1. Initial blog prompt

Initiator Prompt
Researchers The first blog should be about something that you would like to change. Write about why you think the “something” should be changed, and maybe with an alternative solution. Use images, links, videos etc. to support your “something” J. To get comments it is of course a good idea to point to something that is controversial and it could also be effective to end with questions. Remember that it is just as important that you give comments on the other blogs! Looking forward to interesting comments.

The request that they include open-ended questions and that they comment on other people’s postings was included to enhance the reciprocity of the blog. Once the blog was set up and the initial prompt was given, the students were left to their own devices to write their postings in the blog. Their classroom teacher was, however, present throughout the session. The speed with which the students started varied considerably depending on the individual group dynamics; some groups started writing a draft immediately while other students discussed and negotiated amongst themselves as to the topic and content of the posting. As the session progressed, some students asked the teacher for advice concerning possible topics. The teacher’s response was that they could possibly write something about Sweden or Swedish culture; this constituted a trigger from the teacher to stimulate the Swedish students, but the Thai students were obviously not privy to this trigger. Since the Swedish students posted culturally-related issues after their response to the first prompt, and since the design of Blogger displays the last postings first, the Thai students responded to the postings that related to Swedish culture by describing various Thai conditions in analogue ways.

To encourage more student participation, a second prompt was posted by the research team two weeks after the classroom session.  This prompt elicited seven comments, which are discussed in connection with screenshot 5 in the blog data.

Table 2. Second blog prompt

Initiator Prompt
Researchers Please write a short note on when you have holidays, what your plans are or about anything on your mind! If you are curious about the differences and similarities of being young in Sweden and Thailand ask each other questions! Cheers

This prompt elicited seven comments, which are discussed in connection with screenshot 5 in the blog data.

The blog data

An overview of the students’ topics as postings is given in Table 3. Six comments from the Thai students are included in this overview since they are direct responses to the second prompt and are considered comparable to postings; these are marked with *. The letter S in the table indicates that the posting is from a Swedish student and the letter T indicates that it is from a Thai student.

Table 3. Overview of students’ topics as postings

Initiator
Students’ topics as a response to prompt 1 Students’ topics in between prompts Students’ topics as a response to prompt 2
S More jobs for the youth S Just our class… S Mountain Hike :D
S Somethang T Our school T my next holidayyyy
S Xbox live gold S Cinnamon buns T* My next holiday will be in July.
S 2012: THE END OF THE WORLD S EY THAILAND! T* I’m curious that how was high school in Sweden was?
S Hola Thailand! S THIS IS OUR AWESOME SCHOOL (NOT!) : T* My next holiday is in June
S Vikings S What is it like in Taiwan? T* I think Asia and Europe have many differences about behavior.
S Waffles T That was my friend’s birthday party yesterday. Yummy!!!!… T* Hi! This is Katherine from Thailand.
S Hi everybody! My and Shekina here! S THIS IS LISEBERG (OUR PRIDE) T* *-/-*+/–/ -/-* My next holiday *-/-*/-/-/-*/-*
S Summer holiday – too short S Loreen. OMG S This Is How I Feel When I’m Having Fun (Made by XXXXl)
S The spring equinox S Greetings! S HEEEEEELLLOOOOOOO EVERYBODYYYYYYY!!!!!!
S #carpediem S What is it like in Taiwan? S Almost summer
S RONM! S Lorem ibi, audivi te FARCIMEN, ego S Just hate when this happends…
S I would like to change the attitude against the lyrics of the song Chacarron
S Crazy post!

Researchers

The overview of the activity in Blogger displays that the Swedish students were more active than the Thai students in posting. This could partly be due to the fact that during the introductory class in Sweden the students submitted 20 of the postings and the Thai students were not given opportunities to blog during school hours but merely encouraged to blog in their spare time. The in-class session in Sweden generated a lot of activity and a lively discussion amongst the students; some of the groups started immediately working at the keyboard going into various Internet sites such as Wikipedia, Youtube and Google and used their mobile phones, while others took time to negotiate what to write about. Below is a selection of the screenshots to illustrate, on the one hand, the variation of the framing of the textual postings and comments in terms of the chosen linguistic repertoires and, on the other hand, to address our research questions.

Results

Students’ framings as a response to prompt 1

Initially, the framing of the language-learning activities in Blogger does not challenge the prevailing framing of schooling (Goffman, 1974), which appears to be superior in relation to a framing more oriented to common language use in SNSs. The first screenshot of a posting and its comments that is selected serves as an illustration.

bowen1

Screenshot 1. The spring equinox

The posting illustrated in screenshot 1 and posted by one group of the Swedish students can be said to be representational of framing the blogging activity in line with solving a typical school task in language learning. It could, however, also be understood as framed with an awareness of the Thai students as addressees as, in a rather formal way, it explains the local conditions of the weather in Sweden. Furthermore, referring to the weather could be seen as a typical small talk topic with other young people that you do not know. The framing of the text in line with a school task rather than social media chat among friends is also seen in the way the writers adhere to traditional conventions such as complete grammatical sentences, use of brackets and paragraphing. The posting includes a scenic picture of the earth, which can be said to function as a decoration and interpreted as portraying a global voice, reaching out to the students in Thailand. Although the posting is framed as a school activity according to the first prompt of discussing a wish to change something, it is a very personal narrative, typically including an excessive use of 1st person singular ‘I’. The students try to portray something that they wish to change about the Swedish weather and climate. The posting ends with a direct question that triggers two short comments (as seen above) relating directly to the idea of “an impossible dream”. The hypothetical desire to change the weather is also taken up quite seriously by one Swedish classmate followed by a comment, a week later, from a Thai student who sympathizes with the desire.

As the interaction on Blogger continues, there are also some indications of reframing the activity, including a variation of linguistic repertoires (Androutsopoulos, 2014) to be more oriented to the languaging (cf. Normann Jörgensen, 2008) of social media. An example of this is the more humoristic framing in Screenshot 2 below.

bowen2

Screenshot 2. Summer holiday – too short

These conventionally written grammatical sentences constitute a rather informal posting that deals with a humoristic topic and includes a local joke about “sausages”. Analytically, this implies that the posting is aiming towards their classmates rather than the global audience (cf. Kern 2014). The framing is more in line with an out-of-school SNS-communication with already-known friends. This type of framing where the students make use of their digital vernacular (Thorne, 2011) becomes quite common after the initial phase in the class blog. This hybrid humoristic framing where the social media context intertwines with the performance of a school task becomes even more obvious by the uptake in the blog comments. Three of the four comments use a linguistic repertoire in which the framing is characterized by a playful use of exaggerations, exhibiting languaging (Normann Jörgensen, 2008) and chaining (cf. Gynne & Bagga-Gupta, 2013) to mirror an oral exaggeration.  These comments, embracing the convention of multiple capital letters, thus include the students’ linguistic choices that are common in social media chats and could be seen as norm-breaking from an educational language-learning perspective (cf. Davies & Merchant, 2007). The linguistic repertoires utilized constitute a style of mundane communication in social media, displaying a fairly simple written language that parallels talk (cf. Androutsopoulos, 2014; Black, 2009; Thorne, 2009). In the longer comment, the linguistic repertoire is more formal but the content of the message is very ironic, displaying a frame shift from a traditional school task (Goffman, 1974).

The third example below (Screenshot 3) also shows a humoristic and ironic framing which includes a particular cultural aspect by bringing in very local national food and the specific day when this food is traditionally eaten in Sweden.

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Screenshot 3.  Waffles

The posting with the Swedish waffles is an ironic response to the first prompt about discussing the fact that they want to change the tradition of eating waffles from once a year to once a week. The posting is directed towards the Thai students asking them if they know what waffles are. Furthermore, the authors explain what a waffle is and also add an illustrative photo. The language used in the posting is informal as if they were addressing the other students in a chat, thus displaying some sort of distance in framing the task as an ordinary school task. The first comment is from a Swedish classmate referring to another Swedish delicacy, cinnamon buns, which also have a special day where they are celebrated once a year. The other comments are from Thai students who can easily associate with this thanks to the photo. Simple cultural traditions such as eating a certain food on a certain day could be seen as initial small talk in intercultural exchanges (cf. Lee, 2012). In these continuing comments, the linguistic repertoire is characterized by casual short sentences, politely agreeing that they like or would like to taste waffles, but without playing with the spelling as in Screenshot 2.

Students’ topics in between prompts

The posting with the Waffles that was a response to the first prompt seemed to trigger the students to discuss food as a culturally specific issue and it is followed by another Swedish posting of a recipe for cinnamon buns. This posting is a done using Google Translate, which means that some of the words are still in Swedish since they were not part of the website translator tool. The recipe posting is ended by another cut and paste from Google Translate; Bon Appetite in Thai as is shown in the screenshot below (Screenshot 4)

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Screenshot 4Bon Appetite in Thai

The food topic was continued in the first posting from one of the Thai students. This posting consists of a series of 10 pictures of Thai food (Screenshot 5) with only a short explanatory caption at the bottom of the posting.

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Screenshot 5. That was my friend’s birthday party yesterday. Yummy!!!!…

This posting is framed to correspond with the interaction that is now common in the blog; thus, the Thai students frame the activity of blogging in line with how they understand the prevailing discourse on Blogger and do not consider the first prompt at all. Instead, they continue the food postings. The text is kept to a minimum; the pictures are not explained other than to say that they are different dishes served at the birthday party of one of the student’s friends. The post elicited five comments from four of the authors’ classmates and here the interaction is again framed in line with the living language and digital vernacular of young people that occurs in SNS (Thorne, 2011). The linguistic repertoire therefore includes spontaneous writing that resembles oral talk (cf. Gynne & Bagga-Gupta, 2013). Some of the comments referring to Screenshot 5 are probably hinting at a chain of restaurants in Thailand known as the Somboon restaurants that specialise in seafood. These comments are directed towards the Thai students, i.e. the local audience rather than the Swedish students. This is similar to much of the interaction in this blog and with previous research on communication in SNSs, namely, that the local audience consisting of the classmates is often considered the most important audience (Boyd, 2010; Davies, 2012; Lantz-Andersson, 2016; Vigmo & Lantz-Andersson, 2014).

Students’ topics as a response to prompt 2

The second prompt was also rather open in character, giving the students some suggestions such as writing about holidays but it also gave them the opportunity to post anything they wanted to present. The next screenshot below (Screenshot 6) is a response that is very close to the suggested topic in the prompt, as in the first example (Screenshot 1) implying a framing in line with solving a task in a language class.

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Screenshot 6. Mountain hike :D

This posting is framed in rather a school-oriented manner, comprising a narrative description of the planning of a holiday that may be seen as a typical educational language-learning task; furthermore, the posting adheres to written language conventions. The narrative is a personal story about the preparation of a hiking trip up to the north of Sweden, flavoured with personal experiences such as the taste of some dried food that the student’s mother is preparing for the trip. The author also includes a scenic picture of the area in question and a map including the Arctic Circle and Stockholm. The text almost resembles a diary and is full of personal pronouns when talking about her family, I, my, we, our, and us. Again, in the Swedish context, writing personal texts is often encouraged by language-learning teachers, which points to the educational framing of this blog posting.  There are two direct references to the audience; after having explained how eating dried yoghurt was not very tasty, the student writes: “I truly hope you will never have to experience that culinary speciality”, and the last sentence invites the audience to look at the pictures. This post received no comments or likes. Thus, as in Screenshot 1, the framing of this posting shows little of the online context, the linguistic repertoires of the digital vernacular of young people and code-mixing of SNSs (Androutsopoulos, 2013; Kern, 2014; Thorne, 2011). Thus, this more proper framing adheres to the prompt in line with the educational language-learning context.

Below, the next screenshot displays the Thai students’ responses to the third prompt; they are written as comments to the second prompt but are considered comparable to postings in Table 3, since they include a variation of topics.

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Screenshot 7. Six comments from the Thai students and a reply from a Swedish student

Four of the comments are closely framed in relation to the second prompt (whereas no Thai student framed a posting initially in relation to the first prompt). Three of the comments include direct questions to the Swedish students, about how hard it is to study English, about when the school holidays are in Sweden, and also a question about their plans about what to do on their vacation. One comment here directly involves habitual cultural differences. This posting discusses the differences in behaviour between Asia and Europe when greeting each other, writing about ”Wai”, the Thai way of greeting people rather than shaking hands. However, this discussion does not continue since the Swedish student who replies does not know what the greeting “Wai” means; it consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion, quite different from the hugging and kissing that are common in Europe. Thus, missing the chance to discuss such differences could be seen as a lost opportunity for intercultural exchange (cf. Lee, 2011, 2012; Schenker, 2012). Nor does the overall institutional framing here include linguistic repertoires of the chat-like SNS character as in one of the last postings in the blog, shown below (Screenshot 8).

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Screenshot 8. HEEEEEELLLOOOOOOO EVERYBODYYYYYYY!!!!!!

Screenshot 8 above includes a typical Swedish bus. In this short narrative, the students frame the activity in a playful manner by describing how they saw a young man on the bus and they continue by rating him on a scale of 1-10. This posting is an uptake of a previous post in which two Swedish students described themselves in a humoristic framing as being very smart, handsome, beautiful and good looking. They end their posting with a request for the others to rate a photo of them on a scale of 1-10 that they have uploaded (see Screenshot 9 below). The framing here can thus be seen as very local, overlooking the Thai student context. The linguistic repertoire adheres to the living language use of young people, i.e. a digital vernacular comparable to oral speech (Kern, 2014; Thorne, 2011). This is seen in the use of capital letters, repetitive use of letters, the playing with the language and the invention of new words by writing them together. The hybridity between written and oral language in the linguistic repertoire is illustrated by the use of written language characteristics e.g. the use of hyphens and commas, and by characteristics of spoken communication e.g. hello everybody, I got off the bus. The text appears to have been cut and paste from various Internet sites supplying synonyms (e.g. synonym.com). There is also a mix of American and British spelling conventions (well-favored vs well-favoured). Whether or not the text is theirs or an example of cut-and-paste is difficult to determine from the data available. The authors of this posting simply list a number of adjectives to describe a young man and finish off by grading him 9.45 out of 10; this is also a response to the previous posting (see Screenshot 9 below), which is also a very local joke in the Swedish context. This screenshot shows a complete shift of framing away from the educational perspective of practicing English as a second language. This kind of communication acts like a continuation of a friendly chat between people who already know each other (Selwyn, 2009). Here the students are using the Blogger space for a nonsense language use that is playful and norm-breaking from an educational language-learning perspective.

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Screenshot 9. Hola Thailand!

In summarising the overall findings of the framings and linguistic repertoires in this blog, it can be said to display a wide range of hybrid framings involving transformed frame shifts. The students’ linguistic repertoire draws on both the language that is taught in school with rather cultured formulations corresponding to their imagined expectations of fulfilling a school task, but also to their out-of-school code-mixing vernacular and jargon which are prevalent in SNSs.

Conclusion

This exploration into a specific shared blog as part of an international collaboration has investigated how the students framed the activity, i.e. the interplay between the school setting and the students’ performance on the SNS and the linguistic repertoires utilized by the students in the blog.

The findings show that the students continuously shift framings by using diverse linguistic repertoires in their textual representations of postings and comments in the blog. The overall institutional language-learning framing is represented in some postings but the linguistic repertoires are also framed more in line with the students’ out-of-school social media vernacular into a kind of language play with humorous overtones comparable to mundane chatting (cf. e.g. Boyd, 2010; Kern, 2014; Thorne, 2011). The blog data reveal that the shifting of framing was sometimes done by the use of other languages (Latin, Swedish and Thai), which could be seen as a linguistic awareness entailing a certain amount of code-mixing (cf. Androutsopoulos, 2013). The postings and comments, therefore, show a continuous reframing of the activity with fluctuating linguistic repertoires illustrated by a cline from very institutional text types at one end of the scale to informal chat-inspired texts at the other end. Some students created a type of hybridity containing oral, written and sms conventions in one and the same post.

The postings that are characterized by language play in line with the students SNSs digital vernacular seem, from a student perspective, to be more interesting, triggering more comments. What is seen in such postings is not a traditional language competence from a school perspective but a communicative competence where the students practice an interaction of their everyday vernacular in a second language that becomes diverse and vigorous (cf., Christison & Murrey, 2014; Baym & Boyd, 2012; Blattner & Lomicka, 2012; Yang, 2011). We argue that SNSs as spaces to communicate are perhaps one of the few contexts that as part of a regular language learning class, logically and naturally, lend itself to everyday communication in the targeted language. Currently, most students are used to social media communication in their native language (e.g., Erstad & Sefton-Green, 2013) and by implementing SNSs as spaces for practicing mundane communication in a second language, the students’ out-of-school language competence become regarded as a valuable asset in the evolving forms of online interaction. Implementing SNSs can also contribute to opportunities for language teachers to engage in authentic linguistic discussions about language uses in various contexts, based on their students’ digital vernacular.

In an international Blog as in this study it becomes natural and accepted to use English as a lingua franca even if the students’ own classmates are the priority audience (cf., Lantz-Andersson, 2016). Thus, even if the students frame their interaction with a focus on their classmates as audience they adhere to the English language use. In this study it is shown by the comments that are generally from students of the same class since they often include culturally specific or local issues verging on a framing in line with out-of-school, SNS interaction. This finding is consistent with previous general research on social media practices, concluding that despite the potential for a larger audience, the interaction in SNS that is driven by friendship practices rather that special interests is usually done with people whom the users already know, as a way of acknowledging one another in a public space (Boyd, 2010; Davies, 2012; Lantz-Andersson; 2016; Lantz-Andersson et al., 2015; Vigmo & Lantz-Andersson, 2014). Thus, in this blog, both the Swedish students and Thai students use ‘inside’ jokes in their posts; this immediately generates the questions: who is their audience and who are they writing to? In this study, it appears that the students considered their peers as their primary audience, the local took precedence over the global aspect of the blog but the global is implicitly important for their continued use of English. The students’ approaches to the local and contextual also led to some opportunities lost when it came to finding out more about each other. If this is one of the aims of connecting with other students in SNSs, the teacher has a role to play.

The playful languaging that takes place in the blog can be said to illustrate how the students see themselves as language brokers with both high stakes, as in an institutional context and low stakes where the non-educational use is where they are free to personalize their language. This living language use (Thorne, 2011) where the user employs fluctuating linguistic repertoires and vernacular challenge the traditional school language. This implies that the classroom use of English encounters the use of out-of-school English enabling the students to benefit from their digital vernacular and be more in charge of their learning (cf., Thomas, 2009). However, such language encounters are by no means seen as uncomplicated. Firstly, for students the tradition of schooling is strong and not easily challenged; students have learnt what is expected and act subsequently. Equally, it could not be taken for granted that students actually appreciate that their out-of-school contexts of SNSs move into schooling. Secondly, it is not easy for educators to keep up with the mutable, genre switching, code-mixing and fluctuating communicative repertoires on young people’s SNSs; the online interactions are more complex and different from traditional classroom communication. However, it is important to keep in mind that teachers do not need to understand the full picture of the students’ out-of-school digital vernacular but rather view such communication beyond traditional institutional language learning perspectives and appreciate the cultures-of-use in which certain repertoires are used for certain pragmatic goals; educators can embrace the possibilities of practicing mundane English (cf., Baym & Boyd, 2012; Blattner & Lomicka, 2012).

A further aspect is that the spontaneous and informal repertoires that the students use is often comparable to oral speech and by that quite linguistically simplistic from an educational language learning perspective. However, even though the language use might be informal including abbreviations, emoticons, links etc. it is often pragmatic and displays a genre-sensitivity, even in a second language. Furthermore, and as already pointed out, previous research on students’ out-of-school use of English in relation to their learning of English as a second language has shown that frequent out-of-school-users display an increased pragmatic awareness (e.g., Chun, 2011; Sundqvist & Sylvén, 2012, Ware & O’Dowd, 2008).

In sum, it can be said that the students framed the activity by using fluctuating communicative repertoires that were fluid and intertwined moving close to one another when engaging with the local, i.e. the peer audience and moving away to embrace the global. The challenges to the language educator concern on the one hand, not only questioning the pre-conceived notion that young people are interested in embracing social media in a school setting but also on the other hand, how this versatility can be used in a school setting and stimulated in ways that enhance their second language learning. In order to develop our understanding of what it means to be a learner of English as a second language and how education as an institution can relate to the powerful changes that the Internet and social media interaction imply, there is a need for further research that embraces the fact that the educational goals that are traditionally posed ​​in institutional language-learning practices are significantly different from students’ own activities on SNSs.

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Biographical information

Rhonwen Bowen, who has a PhD in English linguistics (2003), is an Associate Senior Lecturer and at present working at the Unit for Academic Language, Faculty of Education at the University of Gothenburg. Her background and previous research interests include English syntax, corpus linguistics, academic writing, language learning and English medium instruction. At present, Rhonwen is a member of the University of Gothenburg’s strength area of learning research (LETStudio). Her current research interests include young people’s learning and the implications of using social media in this process.

Contact: rhonwen.bowen@his.se

Annika Lantz-Andersson is Associate Professor in Education at the University of Gothenburg and a member of The Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS), as well as part of the University of Gothenburg’s strength area of learning research (LETStudio). Annika has a PhD in educational science (2009), and her research focuses on social interaction, the use of digital technologies and its implications for learning. She is currently involved in several research projects concerning young people’s participation and learning in contemporary media ecologies.

Sylvi Vigmo is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Gothenburg and a member of The Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS), as well as part of the University of Gothenburg’s strength area of learning research (LETStudio). Sylvi has a PhD in educational science (2010), and is interested in research that investigates people’s communication when digital technologies are part of interactions, and what questions these interactions raise concerning learning.


[1] The project is funded by Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation and includes several studies on Blogger and Facebook when implemented as language learning activities in the subject English as second language.

[2] Two of the postings are prompts posted by the researchers.

Amy Owen

Published Online: April 15, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: In this study tertiary level curriculum was redesigned to include online and digital components for engaging, motivating, involving and exciting students. An innovative approach is offered that involves students creatively in flexible, adaptable curriculum using cultural and instructional student preferences. Traditional lecture style cultural geography curriculum at the University of Guam (UOG) was redesigned with digital components with assistance from students. UOG students were surveyed for their digital technology preferences. Interviews provided detailed information regarding course delivery preferences.  This warranted a curricular shift from content to dynamic, adaptable processes that better fit the instructional needs and preferences of students.  Student culture pattern preferences highlighted the importance of connection and quality inter-relating. Undergraduate courses were restructured into living curriculum intended to adapt, including research and inquiry focused projects with highly interactive modular, short, mixed media and mode assignments. I argue the redevelopment of tertiary curriculum along the lines of cultural preferences involves and engages adult learners.

Keywords: Culture, curriculum, design, engagement, digital, participation, Guam

Introduction

Structured content-based curriculum no longer works in a globally connected world. It needs to become interactive, and it needs to connect the participants and the data of a big world. Currently, a pressing need for connecting people and technology is culture.

Culture is the way humans connect socially and varies by location. Culture is also intrinsically tied to tool use. Digital technologies are the current tools of this era of global connecting, and education in this era necessarily includes the use of digital technologies. This work offers the consideration of cultural aspects in redesigning curriculum that collaboratively involves participants – featuring student assistance in curriculum co-creation. It not only makes sense to recruit students into redesigning curriculum, it is motivation for involvement. When students become involved, they are made co-owners. Additionally, they are well equipped for this task. In fact, they were born for it. It is this generation that will inherit the world’s issues, and will need to resolve them globally. They will need all the world’s data, and they will need to collaborate in a connected way to co-design working solutions. Education must give them these tools, and curriculum design must reflect a collaborative, inclusive and creative use of digital technology.

The focus of this paper is the redesign of tertiary curriculum to include online and digital components with the goal of better engaging and interesting tertiary students. At the University of Guam (UOG) the lack of student engagement and desire to read coupled with the perspective that too much information was required to be learned within the time allotted, diminished student interest and motivation. There was an increasing demand for more content to be delivered to meet academic and industry standards. At the same time, the world is changing rapidly, and content quickly becomes obsolete or needs to change to keep up. Students have access to vast stores of information, and today it makes little sense to ask them to memorize content. They most need to learn to use the content.

The redesign of the cultural geography curriculum is a result of addressing these factors observed over 8 years of teaching at the university.  This study outlines how courses and curriculum were redesigned to increase student participation and engagement. It is hoped readers will find the results and approach useful and applicable at their locations, and in their content areas whether they teach online, hybrid or face-to-face.

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Figure 1. Boots Bonifacio Lambrecht and Jeff Lambrecht (married) cliff jump in Turtle Bay in southeastern Guam.  Photographer: Bobby Bonifacio, Jr.

Methods

The scope of the curriculum redesign was August 15 through December 31, 2015. Data on cultural preferences was obtained through surveys and interviews with the assistance of undergraduate students for class projects. The data was analyzed using simple summary statistics and non-parametric tests. Data summaries were analyzed for patterns of significance, with special attention paid toward repeating patterns and applied to curricular redesign for cultural geography coursework incorporating digital components and technology.

Surveys and interviews

A relationship preference survey was conducted spring of 2014 with the assistance of 7 undergraduate students for a special topics class project. The students assisted in developing the questions and surveying students. Student enrolment during the spring of 2014 was 3628 at UOG (Leon Guerrero, 2014). With a sample size of 401 students, results are reported with 95% confidence plus or minus 5%. See appendix for surveys and results summary tables. Survey sample was a good match for the student body. The average student participant was female, 18-24, from Guam and identifies as Roman Catholic. Survey instrument included 28 questions, with 4 independent variables age, sex, geographic origination and religion.  Remaining questions on relating and interpersonal relationships were independent variables in analysis. Summary statistics and nonparametric tests such as chi-square were used to analyze data using SPSS software. Data was analyzed for engagement preferences and themes.

The second survey obtained instructional preferences of UOG students. This survey was conducted spring of 2015, with 8 undergraduate special topics students assisting in developing questions and surveying students. Responses were analyzed for student preferences as they relate to educational technologies. The study sample was 390 UOG students, with enrolment of 3750 (Leon Guerrero, 2015) provided reporting confidence at 95% plus or minus 4.7%. The average student, female, 23, of Chamoru descent and undeclared/unreported major was a good fit for the student body.

Interviews were conducted fall of 2015, assisted by 7 economic geography students for their class project in developing questions and conducting interviews of students and faculty regarding instructional preferences.  Each interviewed 2 male and 2 female students and 1 male and 1 female faculty for a sample size of 42.  Students completed a training from the National Institute of Health (NIH), an online certification course on ethics in research (NIH 2015). Questions were open ended except the first question. Results were summarized and examined for patterns regarding preferences in course materials, intellectual property and instruction. Cultural preferences and themes derived from the surveys and interview were applied in curriculum redesign.

Curriculum redesign

Curricular redesign evolved throughout the project scope. Three cultural geography courses were redesigned – special topics in geography (400 level), economic geography (300 level) and world regional geography (200 level). For all courses the content and delivery structure, syllabi and curriculum were reorganized into a format better suiting student technological and engagement needs. Textbooks were all reassessed. Course shells were developed using the UOG online course platform (Moodle). Digital components were designed using cultural and instructional preferences for engagement.

Results

Student culture trends

The importance of connection

Unexpectedly, the most significant result was the importance of quality interpersonal connection to students. The vibration or chemistry of the connection between the students and with the instructor is of top importance.

The energy dynamic in relating is far more important than are institutions of culture such as language, religion, ethnicity, social class, etc.  The “vibration” quality in relationship is of the most importance (85%), followed by common interest (79%) and even greater than physical intimacy (74%), physical compatibility (66%) and physical attractiveness (62%).  How it works and feels is more important than how it looks.

This translates to the importance of building in and paying attention to the interactive components of digital and online coursework, fully utilizing the social media and using applications in ways that promote connection and communication. The results oppose the common assumption that generation next members time spent glued to electronic devices is indicative of a decreased desire for interaction.

When asked what would motivate students to take a course, online access topped the list at 39%.  Clearly, online access is of high practical importance to students. There is also strong support for incorporating social technologies, as 61% feel technology connects them and 76% would like to find ways to use technology to connect them better socially.

Results of interviews provided more detailed information regarding instructional preferences. Students reported that they prefer instruction to occur at brief interval activities, and that the media variety and type of task mixed and alternated with both online and in class instruction.  For instance, video-clips, searches, oral instruction, map and graph activities should be switched out at short intervals. Students favor games and competitive exercises, whether on an individual basis, in teams or with the entire class. They like projects and research that applies to life, but want assistance. Both students and faculty called for building flexibility into instruction, including flexible attitudes regarding intellectual property and that delivery from non-specialists and specialists are both needed.  Overall, results call for a highly flexible, dynamic approach to course delivery.

Course redesign

All courses were converted to hybrid courses, which allocate 50% or more delivery in class, and 50% or less delivery online, the requirement for hybrid courses at the university.

Upper level coursework

Special Topics in Geography, a 400 level course, was redesigned to deliver most of the content online, with students expected to access the material and complete the assignments. The syllabus was redesigned as a living, continually updated document that changes throughout each semester. It was accessible from Google docs, along with a link in Moodle. It contained course objectives, grading matrices, assessment procedure and instruments along with links and assignments.  No text was assigned.

Moodle, the university online course deliver platform, was used for development of the course shell.  The topic list, assignments, links, images, videos, academic articles, presentations and other materials were uploaded.  Online content delivery was designed for easy changes and update of materials.  The delivery format for the upper levels shifted completely from in class content delivery to online access to materials.  Assignments posted required students to access and to search for information on their own rather than be fed the material in lectures.  Students were involved in projects with topics of their choosing online, using Google Docs, Dropbox and other applications for sharing files, communicating and designing parts of their projects in creative ways.  For example, the spring 2014 economic geography class created and conducted a simple survey using Google Docs and social media for a feasibility study of bamboo for sustainable island economy (Owen, 2015).

In class, topics of further interest to students were allowed more time for exploration through discussion and activities, often augmented with short video clips and images.  Students responded favourably, according to the faculty evaluations, to the benefit of increased and intensified close interaction with each other and instructor.  Instruction time was freed up once the course shell was developed, and materials accessed online.  The extra time was used to “flex” on the spot with student interests and build on research lines of inquiry. Tasks were broken down into tailor made short activities, quizzes, games, video clips and images from travels as needed, and obtained as needed.  This format not only engaged the interest of the class, it engaged the instructor and kept the course interesting and always different.  Content explored in class remained new and always changing, with the base content swapped out and new links, assignments and materials added and updated.

Activities were planned in instruction modules of 20 to 30 minutes, then switched to another activity.  Each new module varied the media or application, switched between competition, presentation, inquiry and self-inquiry, and between individual, team and whole group orientation. The modules were not each new topic, but a series of short, mixed mode activities that provided increasing skill, confidence and familiarity with a single line of inquiry. The topic line was project oriented and developed by the class together, with individual tasks that contribute to the class findings. All projects were directly died to practical use that related directly to the students in some way.

Examples include field studies directly related to Guam, the community and the university.  The intrinsic nature of community pride and spirit in Guam students was elevated to unexpectedly high levels of excitement and motivation with topics related to something culturally meaningful to the students.  Four hundred level students did very well when challenged to creatively design their projects as a group, with close supervision and guidance. The standard of quality for the projects was set for publication quality results. At this university, undergraduates are not widely involved in research, though that is changing. Projects were successful under close supervision, through focus on one research skill at a time. The students are usually interested in data collection because it is more interactive.

Data for this paper was produced from upper level course projects.  Direction was provided throughout the semester in developing the research design, field instruments, and field study.  Examples were provided in class and online as needed.  While only one aspect of a full research design was required, and students usually select data collection, the other aspects of complete research design are gone over as a group in class, and through on-line assignments (when run as fully online class instruction videos and links can be used for each task). Included were writing a literature review (no enthusiasm there!), statistically analyzing a dataset from another class project, or writing a full research paper using pre-analyzed data.

Students wrote “mini” papers at project completion that summarized their research experience, written in a major publishing style that included all of the elements of a full research paper.  The allowance of a short paper alleviated the stress, length of time required, and pressure of a full-length research paper.  However, far more time was spent with the students going over how to create references and cite, write a thesis and other elements than had been spent previously when a full size term paper was required.

Each element addressed in interactive sessions was far more appealing to students than their doing each element on their own, in align with their cultural inclinations for group activity.  With each element of a research paper gone over in the group setting, and the research project providing the content and examples, many students reported later that their first research experience was exciting and enjoyable.  This contrasted greatly with reported experience of full term papers.  Yet, surprisingly, far more in the way of data and usable results came from the increased interaction with students and the decreased requirement of paper length, through applying their preferences.  The quality of connection, and the dynamic with class and instructor did prove to be the most important class element.  The undergraduate students did produce high quality and creative research with increased supervision and interaction.

For 300-level economic geography, a higher level of specific content and structure was delivered through an assigned text.  The text was carefully selected for global economics approach, it’s easy to read format, high quality colored images and graphics, and the availability of a variety of digital resources.  Text materials were made available online and included PowerPoint presentations, notes, outlines, study questions and study guides.

Economic geography, statistic and content rich, proposed a steep challenge to make it interesting and exciting.  University of Guam students frequently complained that their textbooks were dry and unappealing, and searched for ways to avoid reading.  The highly complicated tables and jargon presented in texts was daunting and time consuming to understand.  Using student preferences, the text was carefully selected for easily understood concepts that presented material visually and utilized color images and real life examples.  Students participated in selecting the text, through a competitive game that broke the class up into teams. The students did not choose the simplest, or easiest text. They chose the one that worked for them.

Text readings, assignments and activities were posted online to be completed outside the classroom.  Mixed modular class activities included quizzes, games and exercises directed toward understanding and exploring the text material, not go over it line by line.  A general outline for items to cover in class had built in flexibility. It would depend on the students how long or if they needed to cover something. Included were instructor led in-class searches on items the students had questions about and topics the class was interested in.

For instance, outsourcing labor was introduced in the text by an assignment that led students into their inquiry, and reinforced with online materials including PowerPoint presentation, class notes and study guide.  The class then discussed how that might affect the students’ families, future work, their community and Guam.  A Google search using the classroom laptop and TV supplied numbers of overseas workers in various countries, and how many overseas workers travel to Guam.  A YouTube video clip on production of the iPhone in China was played, followed by a discussion on the worker conditions there.  Students, with connections to their phones, island, communities and job prospects could easily relate to the many perspectives and issues involved with labor and outsourcing.  The discussion moved quickly and easily to a level where all perspectives were considered – far beyond understanding each of the concepts.  With the content and activities already supplied and completed online, it became far easier to create interactive activities to supplement the material that upped the interest of the class.  The mixing of instruction modes and flexible instruction that switched tracks as needed kept the class interesting, as students reported.

For upper level courses, online delivery of content and assignments freed up in-class time for interactive pursuit of themes of interest. Use of the online course shell for content and assignment delivery, coupled with modular, highly interactive mixed medias using digital technologies was a winning mix. The high level of output from the undergraduate level group class projects was unexpected.  The projects required students to participate in real research that produced real data, and gave them skills they can use in their lives.

Lower level coursework

Lower level (200) world regional geography presented the need for the most redesign from lecture style teaching to incorporate online and digital components.  The course covered only 6 of 12 regions because it was overly content rich to cover all twelve in a semester.  With the world and regions rapidly changing, textbooks changed editions frequently.  Texts were very expensive, much to the chagrin of students on budgets.  It was both challenging and time consuming to keep up with the rapidly changing editions and course content.  Most academic years the content, lectures and exams had to be rewritten.   Much of the preparation time was spent in rehashing the content, lectures and exam materials that stressed memorization of the content.

World Regional Geography is a required course at the institution for students with majors other than geography, serving as a general education course requiring industry content standards are met.  It is a key course for program assessment, needing benchmarks for student learning objectives met. In the past the vast amount of material was delivered in lectures covering text materials, with PowerPoint slides from the text, and exams based on text materials.  Student preferences clearly called for digital and online components for content delivery and interactive, inquiry based learning activities despite this being a lower level course with lots of required content.  Also apparent was how the instructor benefits along with the students with interactive, dynamic and flexible course design.

Guam students enjoy spoken delivery, so the content was flipped from in class lecture delivery to taped lectures accessible online, short research inquiries and direct interactive cultural experience.  Guam students prefer lectures to texts, and activities to lectures. For many students English can be an issue. Videotaping lectures offers students access on their own time, for as long as needed.

The video files were produced during regular lecture style presentations of the material, in a Ted talk style with camera on instructor, and students able to comment without being filmed.  Simple and inexpensive equipment was used. A Canon SX610HS and Monoprice portable video were used for filming, with a 32gb disk, extra battery and recorder for backup sound.

Video files were extremely large in file size, even at the lowest resolution, prohibitive of direct upload to Moodle. Video managing software, such as Wistia, stores files and provides student use statistics.  The software is expensive, and if using an institutional license should include documentation of intellectual property rights prior to publishing the material online.  Videos can be uploaded for free using public sites such as YouTube.  Intellectual property can easily be verified using this method, however, it may be more challenging to protect the files, assure their security, and determine student use patterns. Along with accessing the videos through links to wherever they are stored, textbook materials such as PowerPoint presentations, text notes and study guides were all made accessible to students with Moodle. The textbook is now optional, available in e-book, soft and hard cover editions.

With instructional videos and text materials accessible to students online, instructor and student time was repurposed to interactive pursuit of topics of interest. Instruction time can now be focused on inquiry and short project-oriented activities with them, rather than repeat the same lectures over and over.

Competition and games were employed often to engage students as it is a significant cultural incentive for Guam students. Engaging in friendly, light-hearted competition is far more successful than is calling out individuals. Competition, either individually or in groups, tested knowledge and explored and developed topics through lines of interest to the students. For example, one in class activity used in conjunction with online taping divided the room.  One side of the room was directed to ask the other side of the room a question about a lecture that was just delivered online.  The side with the most points won.   This works equally well online with students directed to use public social media or the course platform social media features.  Another activity involved students creating their own test and testing each other.  The students came up with excellent questions and enjoyed testing each other. This can be done either in class or online with exams made from their banked questions.

Research activities for lower level courses were focused on the introduction of elements of research in class and online.  Google docs, Dropbox, Google Earth and social media were all useful. For instance, students were introduced to intellectual property.  It soon became clear that there is a link between the lack of understanding of IP and the high level of plagiarism at the university.  When students understood IP basics and issues, they understood the need to do their own work.  It then became a matter of pride to turn in their own work.  Highly creative results came forth, done in less time than the creation of a cut and pasted work.

Meeting frequently in a group either in class or using social media to talk about progress and needs of the class energized and engaged the students. Amazingly, lethargic, uninterested and un-involved students rallied together when given a group task and instructor attention, often assisting those in the group to bring them up to speed with the group. While this worked best in groups of less than 20 students, larger classes of 36 were easily divided into teams.

Direct intercultural experience

Real time communication, experience, activities and projects with students of other cultures is in the process of being built into all cultural geography courses.  The use of simple online social media was integrated into online and in class activities in upper and lower level courses.  Projects and activities to connect geography students with students at a university in Japan and in China were initiated and are in the planning stages.  Implementation is planned for fall, 2016 and spring, 2017.  Universities were initially approached that share student exchange with UOG, to allow the development of relationships that encourage more exchange between the universities with the sharing of geographic and cultural information.  The students of this and the partner universities will decide together which topics interest them in guided group discussions, student partnering and small projects.  Time difference was a factor in selecting locations.  Japan and China are in the same hemisphere as Guam, and real time interactive sessions using FaceTime, Skype or other video call social media are possible and convenient with the one-hour time differences. Length of semester, language, permission of students, and institutions are considerations while plans continue.

Curriculum reorientation

Curriculum and content structure was reoriented to align with culture patterns and to better fit the connected and adapting state of the world and its peoples.  Flexible mental maps of the regions will be built through the semester, providing students with confidence to develop their own ideas and skills and experience in analyzing the patterns and making decisions for themselves. For instance, students were provided with new ways to see world regions that are based upon the flexible and changing connections between the peoples and places of the world.

This new orientation presents geography in an inquiry-based format in line with systems approach – with a focus on all participants and their interaction.  There is no hierarchy in systems, since nothing can really be outside of it.  Therefore, the instructor is another participant. With this process, understanding the way that places, cultures, nations, environments, politics and economies connect and interact is the goal, rather than memorizing set regions and boundaries. Modular players and places can be swapped out as change occurs. Regions were traditionally defined for physical and cultural attributes by dividing the world into sections.  These can be memorized, yet within the totality of the global system, including all timelines and histories, this is a snapshot rather than a rigid, indisputable and unchangeable fact as was the previous way of delivering content.  Allowing the students to discuss, create and recreate boundaries and regions provides the students with exercises in seeing the world from many perspectives.  This has the effect of making them feel more confident and at home in the world and provides them the real skills needed in discerning and navigating the vast stores of data that they access. A shift to process orientation allows for the flexing of relationship in a more realistic reflection of the state of the world and its people.

For instance, an exercise in creating regions shifted the focus from the nationally defined approach (i.e. Europe, Russia, etc.) to an oceans oriented approach.  Because oceans connect and surround, national boundaries were de-emphasized, which is more in line with what is occurring globally.  This set of rules for determining named the Pacific as a region, with Pacific rim a sub-region that includes Guam as well as west coast south and central America. The students can see the many connections, shared historic, cultural and economic themes.

Using flexible and inclusive definitions allows for historic as well as new and changing partnerships, economic activity and trade, environmental conditions and shifting national boundaries. A Dynamic systems format provides the content in a depolarized structure most appealing to students.

Geography was previously outlined in many western texts from an overly western-centric viewpoint.  The Middle East was common terminology for countries of southwest Asia.  However, these countries are only geographically east of the western hemisphere, including Europe and North America. To Guam students coming from an eastern hemispheric point of view, this locale lies to the west. From the perspective of the countries of this region they are at the center.

Curriculum shift into flexible mental map construction allowed students to examine the intercultural diversity of locations and people all over the world. This love of cultural diversity is indeed motivation for engagement for Guam youth. They were fascinated with other people and places, their food, how they raise their families, their creative pursuits and their problems. The direct cultural experience in class will provide a personal level connection to go along with their explorations and inquiries into how the world is connected.

The redesign is a flexible, adapting structure – a living curriculum. The following themes can be used as needed in adaptive curriculum redesign in geography and other content areas:

  1. Dynamic process orientation
  2. High level of inter-personal interaction
  3. Student culture and preference in adapting curriculum
  4. Accessible and interchangeable digital content
  5. Research, project and inquiry focus
  6. Modular instruction with mixed mode delivery
  7. Direct multicultural communication and experience

Discussion

In this curriculum redesign with digital components, Guam students were recruited to provide their cultural and involvement preferences, providing the means by which they want to connect. Students as well as faculty provided detailed information on how they wish to use technology, providing specific information that works at this location.

Results call for interpersonal connecting, the strongest and most prevalent pattern that repeats throughout both surveys and the faculty student interviews. The technology and the curriculum need to connect the students with each other, with faculty, and with people of other cultures and regions. The environment for engagement is interaction.

Cultural preferences reveal student boundaries dissolving along the lines of institution laid down through previous eras – for religion, language, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality and other previously erected socio-cultural walls. A depolarizing perspective is trending. It calls for curriculum that invokes their ability and desire to upset the status quo, and to debunk cultural biases of past eras. In many ways, the work of this era of education is to allow students to use their innate ability and desire to overcome social barriers. Other work in curriculum redesign shows multimodal use of technology can invoke the abilities students to take down the system stereotypes and biased perspectives (Walsh, 2007).

Instructional preferences of both students and of faculty call for a curriculum that uses digital technologies flexibly, switches between medias, offers the content in an accessible way, and uses instructional time for research and collaborative creative pursuit using the data. This aligns with multiliteracies and new learning (Cope and Kalantzis, 2009) in education. Multimodality utilizes meaning making that transcends cultural barriers and uses sound, video, audio, touch, gesture, speaking and spatial modalities in creative ways that keep evolving.

Guam students’ preferences specifically called for short, mixed mode modules that “changed up” frequently and “swapped out” medias and modes to keep the interest moving and use the talents in short bursts without attention loss and burnout. Projects, research and inquiry skills and experience were introduced early on in the lowest level undergraduate classes, building to larger, more intensive project work in the upper levels. It has been recommended that deceleration of curriculum in this era of ubiquitous computing allows for the spaces of creative interaction to happen (Mcrae, 2015).

Importantly, curriculum needs to be flexible in order to foster creative pursuit and to leave the window open for collaboration. Teachers and students need access to content and digital technology that provides it. In geography this is particularly essential, but in any area the curriculum and the content itself, rather than being the end result becomes the means. The curriculum provides a framing for the repetitive practice that needs to occur for skills to develop. Then, it adapts and evolves as needed.

Especially pertinent are development of critical thinking skills, since they provide each individual with familiarity and confidence to make the independent leaps it takes to be truly creative. Skills take time to develop, hence the students’ recognized desire for more structure as they learn how to conduct valid research and inquiry. Importantly, their research and inquiry projects need to be tied to real social issues in their lives. This way their practice moves from theoretical to real and practical implementation that they can see. They learn to ground their theoretical ideas with practice, and gain confidence in using their design skills in their lives.

Curriculum in the information age shouldn’t be static. It is best to not become overly attached to the curriculum and content itself, or to mistake it as a structure meant to last. It is soon outmoded and best designed with that in mind. Curriculum of this age, like other collaborative creations, must evolve with the participants, and reflect a co-designed effort that changes continually.

The students have an instinct for communal sharing of data and content. The emergence of big data and a growing creative commons make it possible to share content online from which to draw when redesigning curriculum.  Practice in discernment of quality and sourcing of data are needed skills. All good designers need skills.

Modularity of the data and modes allows for flexible pieces to be swapped out as needed. Another facet of the repeating modularity theme comes from the faculty themselves, in instruction. It is surprising that degreed specialists are recognizing and calling for non-specialization. Sometimes specialists are needed for instruction, yet non-specialists often have great communication and people skills. Online platforms and digital components, including pre-taped instructional videos make this possible.

It is again best not to become overly attached to the specialized role, as our roles necessarily need to change along with the flexible curriculum design. Specializing and non-specializing are both needed, often by the same faculty member. Successful co-design and co-creation in all content areas requires language and communication elements and opportunities for students to practice and to develop them.

For the geography curriculum redesign, a direct multicultural experience component connects faculty and students with other classrooms. The experience, using Skype or other social video-calling application, improves communication skill and also serves to engage students. Skill in multicultural communication is related to confidence. Experience both improves confidence and motivates students (Ockert, 2015) in multicultural communication.  Yet multiculturalism, along the lines of new learning, takes the position that there is no “other” culture in multiculturalism. The participants are already multicultural, and so multiculturalism is an inherent part of the whole system and its participants.

Guam students are openly motivated by and fascinated by multicultural encounters. They are eagerly anticipating direct exchange with partner universities, and the experience is designed to improve their already amazing multicultural language and communication skills. Most speak several languages in addition to English. In truth, they have much to offer students in other locations looking to boost confidence in multicultural communication.

Are these patterns local, or are they global? System-wise, cultural values are very important at local scale. Geography and environment, along with the intricate local connections continue to shape the values at each place, making it have a unique experience and perspective. Youth culture by generation often is a counterculture to the status quo, as it was in the 60’s. Yet, counterculture is not separate from the mainstream, nor is it anti-system. It is the system antidote to resolving entrenched problems from within. It is the matrix growing itself the means for its next evolution. The youth of the sixties introduced the changes needed in the social structure, generation next is tooled up to make it happen. It is not difficult to notice signs of youth demand for dissolution of constrictions of nationality and institution, and demands for technological access freedom as seen in the Arab spring, 1% and Anonymous movements. The question of larger system patterns is of interest, and will be addressed in future work, along with testing of the curriculum redesign.

In conclusion, the students want curriculum incorporating digital technologies that connects them, involves them as participants, increases their access and is flexible. They need it to sharpen their discernment and critical thinking skills and put them to use in real life problem solving. Direct multicultural experience will improve their communication skills, and connect them with the global community. Connection and relationship are cultural. Culture is not dissolving, it is adapting, especially as it becomes more global. Culture, not distinct and separate, is interdependent. Health of all the societies, the planet and resources now depend on how connected they are. An education and curriculum that incorporates their cultural values and connects them with the greater world, provides them skill and confidence, flexing and changing with them, makes them co-creators of their future. Culture does matter, in redesigning curriculum with digital components that involves and engages students.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to the contribution and participation of these students:

Relationship survey: Special Topics in Geography, Spring 2014 class: Tom Buckley, Geraldine Datuin, Blaine Dydasco, Alissa Paine, Katherine Parkinson, Mark San Juan and Edlyn Taimanao.

Instructional preferences survey: Special Topics in Geography, Spring 2015 class: Neri Blas, Alden Paul Cabero, Amy Chargualaf, Mark John Corcuera, Daniel Hanser, Sahar Hanser, Zihan (Cindy) Liang and Sunny Umlauf.

Instructional preferences interview: Economic Geography Fall 2015 class: Anjanette Dalida, Elvin De Leon, Natasha Francisco, Aguarin Iriarte, Precious Nagallo, Christine Nucum and Bingle Pizarro.

References

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2009). Mulitliteracies: New literacies, new Learning. Pedagogies: an International Journal, 4, 164-195.

Dixson, M.D. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1-13.

Inoue, Y. (2007). University students’ perceptions of computer technology experiences: Questionnaire results and analysis.  In Y. Inoue (ed.) Technology and diversity in higher education: New challenges (pp. 122-146). Hershey, Pennsylvania: Information Science Publishing.

Kerry, L. (2007). Developing technology based education for adult learners in Micronesia: A case study for learning engagement in diversity.  In Y. Inoue (ed.) Technology and diversity in higher education: New challenges (pp. 42-65). Hershey, Pennsylvania: Information Science Publishing.

Mcrae, L. (2015). Teaching in an age of ubiquitous computing: A decelerated curriculum. Digital Culture & Education 7(2), 130-145.

National Institute of Health. (2015). Protecting human research participants. Retrieved from: https://phrp.nihtraining.com/users/login.php

Ockert, D. (2015). Increases in Japanese learners EFL learners’ motivation, international posture, and interest in foreign language activities after Skype exchanges. Digital Culture & Education, 7(2), 206-226.

University of Guam. (2014). Student and course enrolment report 2014 spring semester. Mangilao, Guam: Dee Leon Guerrero.

University of Guam. (2015). Student and course enrolment report 2015 spring semester. Mangilao, Guam: Dee Leon Guerrero.

US Central Intelligence Agency. (2015). CIA factbook.  Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gq.html

Walsh, C. (2007). Creativity as capital in the literacy classroom: Youth as multimodal designers. Literacy, 41(2), 79-85. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9345.2007.00461.x/full

Biographical Statement

Amy Owen is a professor of human geography at the University of Guam Geography Department. She has a PhD. in geography from University of Idaho. Her teaching interests are world regional geography, global economics and special topics in geography. Her research interests include culture, technology and education and culture, food and health.

Email:

aowen@triton.uog.edu

alowen2@gmail.com

Website:

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Amy_Owen
https://uog.academia.edu/AmyOwen

Appendices

A. Relationship Survey

Participant information

Independent Variable Categories Percent in

Sample (n)

Percent in

Population (N)*

Sex Male 47 42
Female 53 58
Age Group 18-21 60 (19-21) 41
22-24 25 (22-25) 34
25-28 9 (26-29) 11
29-32 4 (30-39) 8
33 + 3 (39+) 3
Geographic Origin Guam/Marianas 63 39
Philippine Islands 14 37
Other islands 15 12
Other Asia 4 6
US/Europe 4 4
Religion Roman Catholic 58 **
Protestant 16 **
Jewish 1 **
Muslim 1 **
Other 24 **

*University of Guam 2014 Spring enrolment report

**Not documented by the University of Guam

Summary statistics multiple choice questions

QUESTION % %
Involved in romantic relationship 55% yes 45% no
Currently involved in more than one romantic relationship 9% yes 81% no
*IF involved in more than one romantic relationship, with how many people? 51% 2 people 49% more than 2
*IF multiple relationships, are they open or secret? 25% open 75% secret
Method of ending relationships 58% verbal 21% don’t ever break up
Number of love relations including family and friends 10% no love relations 70% 1-30 people

17% 30+ people

Time in courtship before marriage 50% spend years 48% less than a year
Time before physical intimacy 88% wait 0-2 months 11% report no intimacy

*only for those involved in multiple relationships (25% of participants)

Summary statistics Likert scale questions

QUESTION %

AGREE*

%

NEUTRAL

%

DISAGREE

Gender (masculine, feminine) is important when considering a partner 58 25 17
Sex (male, female) is important when considering a partner 67 16 16
Good financial standing is important 67 23 9
Physical attractiveness is important 62 27 10
Physical compatibility  is important 66 24 9
Having things in common is important 79 16 5
Vibration (energy) is important 85 9 6
Marriage is important 66 22 12
Having children is important 60 25 15
When having children it is important to be married 62 23 16
Mainstream society’s idea of relationship matches my idea of relationship 27 39 34
Family involved in marriage & relationship choices 51 29 20
Divorce is ok if not happy with marriage 41 28 30
Marriage & partnership ok outside  ethnic group 71 20 9
Must love someone before physical intimacy 63 21 15
Must be married before physical intimacy 29 32 39
Physical intimacy is important in relationship 74 17 9

*strongly agree and agree categories added, strongly disagree and disagree categories added for presentation purposes

B. Instructional Preference Survey

Participant Information

INDEPENDANT VARIABLE CATEGORIES % SAMPLE (n) % ENROLMENT

(N)*

SEX Male 42 43
Female 58 57
AGE GROUP 18-21 44 (19-21) 40
22-25 36 (22-25) 36
26-28 10 (26-29) 12
29-32 4 (30-39) 7
33 + 6 (39+) 5
ETHNIC ID Chamoru 63 39
Filipino 14 37
Other Pacific Islander 15 14
Other Asian 4 6
Caucasian. African, American 4 4
ACADEMIC MAJOR Education 11 13
Sciences, Health Sciences 15 25
Social Science, Language Arts, Humanities 23 13
Business & Math 18 25
Other, Undeclared 33 24

* University of Guam 2015 Spring enrolment report

Summary Statistic Results

QUESTION
What I want most from a course 13% Learn something new 32% Learn something interesting 7% Learn something helps for work 15% Learn something helps in life
How I learn best 13% Text 35% PowerPoint 5% Video 46% Interactive Activity
What motivates me to do well in a course 10% Grade 11% Friends & family approval 4% Occupation and money 74% Personal enjoyment
What best motivates me to take a course 14% No text 15% New fresh ideas 8% Social interaction 37% Online access
AGREE** NEUTRAL DISAGREE**
Want to access instruction videos online 57% 32% 12%
Prefer instruction videos to text 34% 35% 31%
Technology use connects socially 61% 25% 10%
Want technology to connect better socially 76% 21% 1%

*Strongly agree and agree categories added, strongly disagree and disagree categories added

**Percentages not adding up to 100 percent indicate omission or other

Instructional Preference Interview

  1. Have you taken an online course?
  2. What instruction methods on or offline could help you or your students learn best?
  3. What instruction methods, on or offline, are most enjoyable for you?
  4. What course materials, on or offline, could help you or your students learn best?
  5. What course materials, on or offline, are most enjoyable for you to use?
  6. What, if any, is your view regarding ownership of intellectual property at universities?
  7. What, if any, is your view regarding non-specialist instructors teaching courses instead of (degreed) specialists in the field?

Jennifer Jenson, Suzzane de Castell, Kurt Thumlert & Rachel Muehrer

Published Online: March 10, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: In this study, we examine what and how intermediate age students learned from playing in a health-focused game-based digital learning environment, Epidemic. Epidemic is a playful interactive environment designed to deliver factual knowledge, invite critical understanding, and encourage effective self-care practices in dealing with viral contagious diseases, using a social networking interface to integrate both serious games and game-like multimodal design projects. Epidemic invites a playful approach to its deadly serious core concern – communicable disease – in order to see what happens when students are encouraged to critically approach information from multiple or contradictory perspectives. To identify what participants learned while interacting within Epidemic, we deployed two instructional and assessment models, noting the differences each instructional approach could potentially make, and what approach to assessment might help us evaluate game-based learning. We found that each approach provided importantly different perspectives on what and how students learned, and on the very meaning of student success. Recognizing that traditional assessment tools based in print-cultural literacy may prove increasingly ill-suited for assessing emergent multimodal literacies in game-based learning environments, this study seeks to contribute to a growing body of work on the development of novel assessments for learning.

Keywords: educational assessment, educational media, interactive learning environments, game-based learning, multimodal literacies, serious play.

Introduction

In an era when proponents of 21st Century Learning are promoting immersive, multimodal, digitally-mediated learning environments supportive of ‘deep learning’ (Dede, 2014), near-universal mandates promulgating standardized assessment models continue to work, antagonistically, to undercut the very potential of these novel educational models. If assessment systems largely prefigure what significant learning looks like, what is measurable, and therefore what is pedagogically possible, then transformations in learning environments must arrive with equally innovative assessment tools. While Dede (2014) signals an urgent need to transform traditional assessment tools and systems, drawing our attention to the eventuality of ‘real-time diagnostic assessments…woven into immersive simulation[s]’ and learning sites (p. 19), his work does not explicitly address how we might, more presently, develop practical instruments that enable us to rethink and reassess the outcomes – and the creative expressions – of student learning that emerge through deep engagement in dynamic game-based, socially-networked learning environments.

To address the immediate, sociotechnical concern of designing assessment instruments adequate to transformed – and educationally transformative – learning environments, the study reported in this article examines what and how students learned from playing in a health-focused digital learning platform, Epidemic, and how their learning was expressed – and assessed – using novel tools and instruments. Epidemic is an interactive game-based platform designed to deliver contextualized knowledge, invite critical reflection on that knowledge, and encourage effective self-care practices in dealing with contagious diseases – a particularly timely intervention given the recent global Ebola and Zika pandemics. Using a social networking interface to bring together serious games and multimodal production projects (through which students creatively demonstrate understanding), we identify what and how participants learned while interacting within, and creating knowledge through, the Epidemic platform. For this study, we deployed two instructional and assessment models (standard and experimental), coding and analyzing the differences each instructional and assessment approach made and, further, evaluating which approaches might help us better understand and assess significant learning in multimodal and game-based environments.

The stakes of this particular research study transcend matters of ‘educational enhancement’ to make visible novel pedagogies, new modes of student engagement and creative action, and new assessment forms that might challenge the global drive toward the educational shallows of standardization and accountability. In our conclusion, we contend that it is only through transformed forms of assessment that formal education might connect with the changing worlds of knowledge, creative practice and critical agency outside of schools.

Background to study

Claims about the educational value of digital gameplay and immersive, playful virtual worlds are by now widely rehearsed, with proponents arguing for games as designed learning environments that can offer their players experiences different from, contextually richer than, and more engaging than those available in traditional schooling models (de Castell & Jenson, 2003; Gee, 2003; Prensky, 2006; Rieber, 1996; Squire, 2011, Wouters, van der Spek & van Oostendorp, 2009; Apperley & Beavis, 2011). However, hard proof of the learning potentials of games has been elusive (Linderoth, 2012; Mayer, 2014), with some education and gameplay studies showing no significant gains using standard testing measures (Sward, Richardson, Kendrick, & Maloney, 2008; Young et al., 2012), and others showing significant gains (Barab et al., 2008; Ke, 2008; Sitzmann, 2011; Wouters, et al., 2013) or indicating that informal learning is occurring, incidentally, by virtue of players engaging diverse challenges through games, situated play, and multimodal production activities (Steinkuehler, 2006; Salen, 2007; Alexander, Eaton & Egan, 2010). Beyond the classical “learning outcomes” question in its direct form, the position most often argued is that the real potential in games lies in their capacity to attract, capture, engage, and sustain student attention (Boyle et al., 2012; Connolly et al., 2012), in order to, indirectly, support other, more conventional, educational tasks and activities.

Research on game-based health education, specifically, has largely focused on: 1) increasing awareness of health-related issues, like food choice, obesity and exercise (Papastergiou, 2009; Partridge et al, 2007); 2) using games to promote changes in health-related behaviours, like appropriate post-operative care (Arnab et al., 2013; Baranowski et al., 2008; Thompson et al., 2010); and 3) developing games that can develop and/or support specialized populations struggling with particular diseases like diabetes or cancer (Beale et al., 2007; DeShazo, Harris, & Pratt, 2010; Knight et al., 2010; Kato et al., 2008). Generally speaking, it is probably fair to say that health games, and health education more broadly, have focused primarily on compliance and, secondarily, on factual knowledge, and research on health games, accordingly, reports outcomes, impact and effectiveness in these terms.

Studies by Lieberman (2001, 2012) in the area of diabetes and self-management, for example, asked diabetic youth to play a video game related to the disease and its management for six months. He found that those who played the game knew more about their disease and its management than those who did not. More recently, DeShazo et al. (2010) reviewed video games used in diabetes education and concluded that “video games hold great potential as an alternative modality for diabetes education” (p. 819). In addition, a growing number of studies in the area of exer-gaming (fitness games) has investigated whether and how fitness games successfully support physical activities for a wide range of different users (Papastergiou, 2009), although those studies tend to be much more focused on altering player behavior than on developing player knowledge and understanding.

While acknowledging that studying ways to alter behavior is very much an important (and arguably fundamental) dimension of game-based health education (Beale et al., 2007; Unnithan et al., 2006), behavioral change was not the primary intent of our own study. Rather, we sought to discover whether and how a designed playful environment might effectively support participants’ development of critical knowledge and understanding about contagious disease processes.

Few studies of games for health have examined how playing health games might help develop the kinds of knowledge and understanding that can cultivate a more critical, self-reflective and less compliant relationship to personal, community, and global health challenges, conditions and crises. In one small scale study, more exploratory than definitive, of learning about contagious disease and its management, Lennon and Coombs (2006) report on a single case of a child (aged 8) creating a dengue fever related board game, and they detail the kinds of learning demonstrated, including a “diagnostic of a child’s understanding of a topical knowledge (in this case dengue)” (p. 96). Lennon (2010) also studied a single player of immunity-based games and malaria games (Lennon 2006) designed as part of the Nobel Prize suite of web-based games. In both cases, the studies emphasized the player’s feedback about the games and the debriefing strategies used post-game, as well as providing some accounting of the content or topical knowledge players demonstrated.

Another important, and again small scale, study (Amory, 2010) of twelve Soweto, South African teenagers playing a health-related game shifts the focus of study from a game as a “stand in” instructor to the game as one tool (among others) to support learning. Armory argues that within the context of learning, games should be viewed not as “instructional media”, but instead as a “tool to mediate learning” (p. 825). The study demonstrates how these young players were better able to understand key concepts related to disease, including HIV/AIDS, than were a group of first year university students studying biology.

Illustrating the challenge of identifying learning gains from educational games is a large-scale study of users of a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE), River City, that was designed to support science learning through problem-based inquiry. The project has been documented in many different forms over a number of years (see for example: Dede, 2009; Ketelhut, 2007; Nelson & Ketelhut, 2008), and in general demonstrated that “a broader range of students gain substantial knowledge and skills in scientific inquiry through immersive simulation than through conventional instruction” (Dede, 2009). In one large scale study of 2000 middle school students using River City, Ketelhut, Dede & Clarke (2005) used both standard measures (pre- and post-test) as well as a more inquiry-driven measure in which students wrote a “Letter to the Mayor” of River City. Analysis of student letters revealed that the pre- and post-test did not necessarily adequately capture what students learned. They write: “… students who scored low on the science inquiry post-test wrote letters that were of similar quality to those written by students who scored higher on the post-test” (p. 8). In short, after applying non-standard evaluation and assessment models, the study demonstrated more gains in students’ understanding than the standardized test results had indicated (Ketelhut, 2007; Nelson & Ketelhut, 2008).

These findings resonate with the arguments of Dede (2014), Merchant (2010), Curwood (2012), and Bezemer and Kress (2008), who suggest that conventional, text-based assessment tools used to measure student learning of well-specified curricular knowledge are unable to measure, or even countenance, the forms of learning and the meaning-making performances being enabled and enacted within virtual worlds, digital games, and digitally-mediated multimodal learning environments, which draw upon equally important, if less familiar, semiotic resources and affordances. Bezemer and Kress (2008) conclude their discussion of emerging multimodal learning environments by signaling the “pressing issue” of developing “apt forms of assessment for representations in different modes, treated as signs of learning” (p. 193).

Keeping in mind these and similar arguments (Young et al., 2012; Ketelhut, 2007; Klopfer, 2011) about the limitations of standardized assessment models for measuring learning through games and digitally-mediated multimodal environments, we wanted to examine whether, what and how students (ages 11 to 14) learned about infectious diseases and their transmission after having played in a ludic online learning environment, Epidemic, and what kind of assessment was best able to make that learning evident.

Materials

Epidemic: A playful learning environment

Intended to teach adolescents (11-14) about contagious disease infection, self-care and prevention, Epidemic is a modular, Flash-based online environment that allows players to access text-based material on over 30 contagious diseases (“Virus Profiles”), create their own or edit other users’ disease-related “public health” posters and illustrated comics, and create and customize a fictitious disease avatar that gets stronger (more viral) as users complete more activities in the environment, playing – literally – with disease related images and information.

The initial impetus for developing Epidemic: Self-care for Crisis was the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the recognition that elementary and secondary school curricula in Ontario and elsewhere did not explicitly address issues around prevention and self-care in the face of new contagious disease strains, some of which have in recent years threatened to become global pandemics (SARS, avian influenza, H1N1 and, most recently, Ebola and Zika). As private and community health becomes, increasingly, not just a local public, but also global matter over which individuals have limited control, our focus on Epidemic began with helping users learn how to protect themselves and their communities from particularly prevalent viruses, from HIV to chicken pox to common influenza strains, and to enlarge the context for players’ understanding to include other historical and/or rare diseases such as Ebola, polio, and the hantavirus. For each of the 30 viruses featured in the environment, we include not only practical information for self-care (identifying and treating symptoms, managing contagion and prevention), but also scientific facts and discourse practices (epidemiology and virus morphology) and ethical and social-scientific understandings (i.e., relating to social, economic and material conditions, and/or ongoing misconceptions, as conveyed through public media channels).

The development of Epidemic is more fully described elsewhere (Authors redacted for review), so we touch here just on the aspects of its interactive environment most relevant to this study. The overall interface and functionality of Epidemic’s user home page is a Facebook-style social networking tool that allows users to “friend” each other and view one another’s disease-related stories and posters (see Figure 1). Unlike Facebook, however, users create alternate identities[i] – specifically, custom-designed viruses that become players’ avatars for the site. The avatar creation tool (see Figure 2) allows users to select their body, each physical structure representing a different family of viruses; this decision as to what kind of virus the player chooses subsequently informs what kinds of symptoms, transmission vectors, and weaknesses users can attribute to their virus – and herein resides much of the curricular content, as all of these avatar design options are based on epidemiological fact. Thus, in developing their own custom avatar for use in the Epidemic environment, users must apply and extend authentic epidemiological knowledge.

A significant and playful part of this interface is its procedural game dynamic: as users friend one another, post new content (e.g., stories made with the “FluTube” story and poster generator) or post high scores from a mini-game (that has players avoiding certain airborne and blood-borne viruses), users receive immediate visual feedback that shows an increase in the potency of their virus (avatar). As a form of a game-play, the more potent the virus, the more potent a user’s social network (much like Facebook), where the communicability of a virus is itself reflexively modeled by, and enacted through, the “going viral” of social media communication—a contagious digital-era trope originally contracted from the field epidemiology.

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Figure 1: Epidemic home page

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Figure 2: The avatar creation tool

The second aspect of Epidemic that participants in this study encountered was FluTube, the story-creation tool that drives Epidemic’s central multimodal activity (see Figure 3). Like dynamic adventure, non-linear narrative, and role-playing games, FluTube allows for ludic, hands-on experimentation with–and manipulation of–objects, characters, and narrative scenarios. This multimodal story-building tool is intentionally playful, even as it engages users with imagery and topical information related to the very serious matter of contagious diseases. When users compose and complete a multimodal document or Epidemic-related story, it is posted to their “wall”, and to the “walls” of their friends; posting new content increases viral potency and, thereby, social status within the game.

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Figure 3: FluTube

The third module of Epidemic that students in this exploratory study interacted with was the “Propaganda Maker” (see Figure 4). Its function was to enable users to create informative (to protect from an enemy disease) and dis-informative (to trick people in ways that would make them more vulnerable to one’s own disease-avatar) posters that might describe disease side effects, transmission vectors, and methods of treatment, as a way to actively engage students in critically understanding how health information can be accurately—or misleadingly—represented. The “Propaganda Maker” is essentially a digital remix tool (Knobel & Lankshear, 2008) that enables students to create propaganda posters by juxtaposing images and original text to informative and/or critical/parodic ends (see Figure 4). After composing a poster, students can directly save and post their document to their Epidemic home page, where it becomes visible to others in the network, inviting communicable interaction (“Likes”) which will in turn boost the poster designer’s viral potency.

The tool is designed to position students as producers and participants in the process of public health communication rather than simply asking them to reiterate and comply with purportedly value-neutral facts about diseases. This opportunity to rehearse, play with, and critically remediate PSA-style health communication was particularly relevant given that both schools we worked at featured public health posters prominently in hallways, bathrooms, and other high-traffic areas. As with the FluTube story-building module, completing a multimodal poster and updating it on a user’s wall increased viral potency and thereby social status. By “friending” other users, they could also view the propaganda posters other classmates had published to their walls.

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Figure 4: Propaganda Maker

Two features of the game were not used in the study, though they were available to the participants. The first was a mini-game called Host-Hop, a Frogger-like game that challenges the player to jump on droplets of fluid travelling between two hosts. If the virus can stay on the droplets long enough to cross the screen, it can reach the next host. The second feature was an in-game chat window where players could message their “friends” who were currently online.

Methods

Our exploratory mixed-methods study had four main components: 1) We used observations, audio-visual recordings of the play sessions, and daily fieldnotes to document incidental learning that occurred as participants interacted with Epidemic, its activities, the researchers, and the contagious-disease related content; 2) We used a set of pre- and post-test content-questions to see what fact-driven standardized assessment measures could capture of students’ learning from interacting with Epidemic; 3) We used a non-standard assessment framework (Beavis, 2004) designed to evaluate multimodal student work – in our case, posters and serious comics (in both traditional paper-and-pencil and digital forms). This multimodal assessment tool (described below) was designed to look for different kinds of evidence of what and how students learned; and 4) we used a questionnaire about participant’s demographic information (age, grade, sex, ethnicity), as well as media and videogame habits to contextualize this exploratory study’s participants and its preliminary findings.

Assisted by the principal and school staff at 2 comparable, mid-high SES large suburban schools in Ontario, we recruited a group of teachers to run the study over one week during their regularly scheduled class times, and students in these classes were invited to participate. In total, 178 students aged 11 to 14 participated in the study.

In total, across the two sites, both grade 6 and grade 8 students were assigned to a standard group, who were directly instructed in a pedagogically traditional class: a didactic, lecture-based knowledge-presentation of the same content knowledge that was situationally and multimodally embedded in Epidemic’s play-based environment (n = 66). Two classes, one grade 6 and one grade 8, were assigned to an experimental group who played Epidemic (n = 89), and 1 of the classes was assigned to the baseline group (n = 23) who took the pre- and post-tests without engaging in any of the health related activities until they had completed the post-test. All groups spent five 40-minute sessions with the researchers. In the first session, all were given the demographic questionnaire and a multiple choice pre-test to determine students’ prior content knowledge.[ii] The test questions were composed of images and text drawn directly from the “virus fact sheets” in Epidemic.

Standard Group: After completing the questionnaire and the pre-test in the first session, the participants in the standard group were given a conventional lecture (with PowerPoint) on five contagious diseases (HIV/AIDS, SARS, West Nile, smallpox, and influenza). The slide deck was developed and presented by the researchers, and composed of information and images drawn directly from the Epidemic website to ensure that the students in the standard group were presented with the same information that the students in the experimental group would encounter through play within Epidemic. In the second and third sessions the standard group was provided with the 5 virus fact sheets printed from Epidemic, and asked to create either two public service announcements in the form of posters (one accurate and one dis-informational) or a comic strip, using card stock, colored pencils, markers, glitter-glue, and printouts of art assets from Epidemic. At the beginning of the fourth session, the standard group was given a few minutes to finish that task, and then took the post-test. The remainder of the week, they played Epidemic. Ensuring all participants had an opportunity to play Epidemic was important because it was this opportunity that had motivated participants’ involvement in the study.

Baseline Group: After completing the questionnaire and pre-test, the baseline group (23) did not have instruction and did not play Epidemic, but was asked to play, instead, their favorite online game for that day. They took the post-test (which was identical to the pre-test) at the end of that play session. In the second and third sessions this group, too, was asked to produce either two public service announcements in the form of posters (one accurate and one dis-informational) or a comic using the same (non digital) materials as the standard group. At the beginning of the fourth session, they were also asked to finish their work and then invited to play Epidemic for the remainder of the week (the end of the 4th session and all of the 5th session).

Experimental Group: After completing their questionnaire and pre-test, participants in the experimental group were invited to play Epidemic. Beginning by creating and naming a virus to act as their public avatar for Epidemic, they explored the environment (see Figure 5). In subsequent sessions (2, 3 and 4), this group engaged and applied topical knowledge using the digital design tools in FluTube and Propaganda Maker to develop their own creative content. Like the standard group, they were asked to produce either two public service announcements in the form of posters (one accurate and one dis-informational) or a serious comic, but in this case they were explicitly requested to use Epidemic’s multimodal digital-design tools. As noted above, once Epidemic participants design an artifact (a serious comic or poster), they upload the image to the their user page (as you would on any social media site) where the other students/players may respond to or “like” the image. By serious comic, we refer to multimodal artifacts that take the aesthetic and communicative possibilities of graphic texts and comic genres seriously in conveying serious ideas through sophisticated digital narratives.

After participants in the experimental group completed and posted either posters or comic strips (and sometimes both), they moved on to use other features of the environment, spending time especially on its social networking capabilities and games, as well as engaging with the posters/comics created by other participants. The chat function in the social networking aspect of Epidemic was what these students appeared predominantly interested in, with most of their remaining time (having completed the activities) spent “friending” each other and having informal chats. At the beginning of the fifth session, they took the post-test and were then free to further explore the Epidemic website.

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Figure 5: Two examples of avatars created in the experimental group.

Data/Analysis

All of the data from the questionnaire, the pre/post tests, along with fieldnotes and video-data, as well as all data related to the creation of digital posters and serious comics, was compiled and stored on a server, and we took pictures of all non-digital artifacts that students created. We first explain more fully the way we analyzed students’ multimodal work using an innovative assessment instrument, and then report on the analysis of quantitative data.

To evaluate the posters and comics, we used Green’s 3D analytical model (1988), which has been adapted and further refined for multimodal and digital contexts (Durrant & Green, 2000; Beavis, 2004) as a framework for multiliteracy and technology curriculum assessment. “Three dimensions” frame Green’s model for multimodal literacy assessment: operational, cultural and critical. We use the framework here in keeping with Beavis’ (2004) adaption in which she uses the categories – operational (technical competence and “how to” applications), cultural (demonstrating general understanding of content knowledge and the broader contexts of the activity), and critical (linking content and context while demonstrating some self-reflective or critical perspective on what was created or enacted)—to analyze multimodal artifacts that students produced.

For the present project, we coded[iii] multimodal posters and serious comics, which required a translation of terms to apply across both textual and multimedia literacies. Applying Green’s (1988) model to the multimodal work students in all three groups produced, both digital and traditional (i.e. conventional paper-and-pencil), we coded student work as:  operational if the work demonstrated a literally correct and technically competent grasp of the assignment, reproducing factual disease related information in a technically capable way. We coded work as cultural if it demonstrated an understanding of the content in context, evidenced an ability to apply to the task information or understandings drawn from students’ wider social/cultural context (e.g. from posters in the school, or derived from other outside-the-project sources, other media models or examples), and any grasp of the wider implications of the information they used beyond its original presentational context.  Work was coded as critical if it showed analytical or deconstructive engagement with the ideas and information given, and evidence that students grasped wider significance (i.e. beyond its initial presentational context) and rhetorical purposes of their health-promotion project. And sometimes, appropriately enough for this play-based activity, students demonstrated that critical perspective through intertextual references, ironic humor and/or critical parody of health education messages and public service announcements.

Standard measures: Pre-test to post-test score comparisons.

Data from the baseline group of grade 6 students, who took the pre-test and the post-test before engaging in any of the activities related to the study, was used to detect a practice effect: how much improvement could we expect to occur simply because participants had taken the same quiz after a short period of time?  We needed to know that improvements we might see in experimental and standard groups were a function of specific instructional interventions, and not artifacts of repeated test-taking.

A paired-samples T-test revealed no significant change from pre- to post-test (p = .853) in the baseline group. No one improved by more than 1 point between pre- and post-test and 42.1% of the group got the same score on the pre and post-tests (see Table below). The average score of the baseline students on the pretest was quite high (10.63 correct items out of 14, or 75.9%), and, far from improving, the baseline group as a whole did marginally less well on the post-test, so we were confident the tests were not themselves a contributor to improved scores.

Table 1. Pre- to post- test score change for baseline group.

Group Status, Baseline group # of Students Percent change
Valid -3.00 2 10.5
-1.00 2 10.5
.00 8 42.1
1.00 7 36.8
Total 19 100.0
Missing 4
Total 23

We compared the relative improvement between our standard and experimental groups by running a General Linear Model analysis (Mixed-ANOVA) to include both the repeated measure variable of time and the between-measure variable of group status.

There was no significant difference (p=.072) between pre-test scores for the two groups (8.877 vs. 9.549) groups, when the scores of the experimental groups and the standard groups in both schools were combined.

However, when the schools were looked at separately, at School 2, the standard group scored significantly higher on their pre-test than did the experimental group (t(30)=-2.860, p = .008) – in other words, the standard group students at school 2 started off with a major and statistically significant advantage.

Table 2: School 2 Standard group’s initial higher scores than experimental group

Group Statistics
Group Status N Mean Std. Deviation
Pretest total answers correct Experimental Group 18 8.2778 2.16403
Standard Group 14 10.2857 1.68379
Posttest total answers correct Experimental Group 18 9.1111 1.96705
Standard Group 14 10.4286 2.20887

It is of interest to note that for participants in school 2, the learning gains were greater for the experimental group than for the standard group, even though the standard group ended up with higher post-test scores than the experimental group. This indicates that, given the greater post-test gains of the experimental group, the game worked better as a learning tool for students in school 2 than the standard/traditional lecture-based pedagogy did.  In any such small study (and classroom-based studies are mostly of this kind), we risk overlooking suggestive outcome differences if we dismiss all findings that are not statistically significant – a finer-grained analysis is often required to make educationally sound inferences from data of this kind. Schools and classrooms and student learning are, after all, very diverse and individual matters, and can be as much obscured as illuminated by basing educational decisions on large participant samples averaged across several potentially very different schools, teachers, and learners.

From a statistical standpoint, for example, experimental and standard groups, when both schools were taken together, did not show significantly differing average scores (t(90)=-.445, p = .658), and while both groups made positive gains in post-test scores, the Epidemic group showed a smaller increase than the Baseline group (0.79 points versus 1.549 points respectively) using the standard assessment tools (conventional tests).

Because the average post-test scores were significantly higher for the standard group when compared to the Experimental group (t(90)=-3.194, p = .002), it would be easy to conclude that the traditional pedagogy was more effective than the game-based approach, and thereby miss what a finer-grained analysis suggests: that as a learning tool, the game might actually help students learn better than traditional methods, even if traditional methods produce better results on standardized tests. In fact, when we look back at the measured (but non statistically significant) differences between experimental and standard group starting points (as indicated by the pretest), we see that, across the board, the standard group started off with higher scores in School 1 as well – it is just that this difference between the pre-test scores of both experimental and baseline groups at School 1 did not reach statistical significance (t(90)=-.445, p = .658). Interesting, too, at this school (1), standard group students made the largest gains over all groups at both schools. To repeat, in school-based research, it is often very useful to interrogate high-level and larger N-based findings at a more granular level (as it is to triangulate data types, something we have not done here) in order to better discern the differences schools and teachers might make to learning outcomes, even where (the same) pedagogical tools and activities are controlled for.

Table 3: Pre-and Post-test results by group, School 1.

Group Statistics
Group Status N Mean Std. Deviation
Pretest total answers correct Experimental Group 55 9.0727 2.18458
Standard Group 37 9.2703 1.93862
Posttest total answers correct Experimental Group 55 9.8545 2.41460
Standard Group 37 11.3514 1.84415

Table 4: Both groups improved their overall average scores on the test; but the standard group improved more than the experimental group.

Group Status Mean N Std. Deviation
Experimental Group Pre-test total answers correct 8.88 73 2.19
Post-test total answers correct 9.67 73 2.32
Standard Group Pre-test total answers correct 9.55 51 1.91
Post-test total answers correct 11.10 51 1.96

To see whether test outcome differences had to do with content knowledge or with representational medium, we grouped pre- and post-test questions into “text” and “image” categories, and then regrouped the questions in terms of the content-area knowledge they were testing. We had presumed we might see improvement in the standard group on the text-only questions because they had encountered the information in textual form through the PowerPoint lecture and then demonstrated their knowledge of contagious disease through paper and pencil activities. Similarly, we expected that the experimental group would improve their scores on the image-based questions, as they were interacting with content through an image-rich visual medium.

The standard group did significantly improve their scores on text-based questions: their average pre-test text-based score was 3.97 out of 7 in comparison to their average post-test score of 4.79 out of 7, but neither the experimental group nor the standard group showed a significant improvement on the image-based questions.

We expected that students who reported greater experience with technology might find it easier to play with and within Epidemic and might therefore gain more health-related knowledge than their peers, so we looked for relationships between gameplay experience and test score improvement, as well as between cell phone use and test score improvement. Participants in the experimental group who reported that they played games every day improved their scores more than non-gamers, however this difference was statistically non-significant, because of the small number of self-identified gamers.  Nevertheless it is worth mentioning that there was a one-point increase between gamers and non-gamers in both the pre- (9.94 vs. 8.88) and post-test scores (10.67 vs. 9.67), an indication, even if not statistically significant, that digital game-based learning may be more effective with students who have technological (digital game, in this case) experience. Students in the experimental group who had cell phones also had higher scores on both pre and post-tests than students who did not, with their average improvement between pre- and post-test scores being 0.72, a statistically significant difference (because cellphone users were a larger group than gamers, whose similar improvement did not, however, reach statistical significance).  It is also worth mentioning, though, that both gamer experience and cellphone use are correlated with higher SES, and higher SES is invariably correlated with greater school success, so we have no way to disambiguate technology use from higher SES in this study.

Non-standard measures: Posters and serious comics

The projects created by the standard group were almost all in the form of posters for PSA’s (public service announcements). This may have been a function of their work-group structure  – most students chose to work in pairs with one student completing the “true” PSA while the other completed the “false”, propaganda PSA. Most spent a considerable amount of time on their PSAs cutting out the characters provided for them, drawing images of their own, and decorating the posters. The standard group posters were, however, predominantly text, heavy on factual information, and often much of the text had been copied word-for-word from the fact sheets about the viruses provided to them. Most of the poster creation work by the standard group was coded as operational (81%).

Nearly as many (16) of the experimental group chose to produce serious comics as posters (20). In the serious comic projects created by the experimental group using FluTube, text did not predominate, but was integrated with the backgrounds, characters, and props to narrate and illustrate narrative scenarios in which people might become ill or transmit illness. The experimental group’s poster/public service announcement projects typically had no more than three to four phrases and, in contrast to the standard group’s projects, the experimental group used more graphics, and often creatively and humorously, to ironic or critical ends. We coded as incomplete work that was obviously not finished.

Using Green’s 3D model to analyze these multimodal projects gave us a different understanding of what students in each group had learned. It opened up a different assessment lens capable of evaluating a wider range of symbolic-semiotic action and meaning-making than had the conventional pre-post tests, enabling us to seek out and take account of student learning that was not discernible with, nor measurable by, traditional assessment instruments.

All students’ multimodal work was blind-coded by the first two authors of the article, who established the criteria together, coded approximately one third of the work together, and then coded separately all remaining work. We next compared our coding decisions for work done separately, and where we found a discrepancy (in fewer than 10 cases), we discussed why, explicating our respective reasons for the way we had each coded that artifact, and were able to reach consensus about the code that best reflected the quality of work initially coded discrepantly.

In total, 80 students (45% of the participants) produced incomplete work (36% of the standard group, 17% of the baseline group, and 59% of the experimental group[iv]). Of the 30 posters completed in the standard group, 27 were coded as operational and 3 were coded as cultural. Of the 12 standard group students who created complete comics, 7 were coded as operational and 5 as cultural. In the baseline group, 19 students completed posters (no comics) of which 16 were coded as operational and 3 as cultural. Of the experimental group’s 20 posters, 15 were coded as operational and 5 as cultural, and of its 16 completed comics, 8 were coded as operational, 5 as cultural, and 3 as critical.[v]

Table 5: Student artifacts grouped according to Green’s 3D Analytical Model (1988)

Standard Baseline Experimental
Total Students 66 23 88
Coded Work 42 19 36 [vi]
Posters total 30 19 20
Operational 27 (90%) 16 (84%) 15 (75%)
Cultural 3 (10%) 3 (16%) 5 (25%)
Critical 0 0 0
Comics total 12 0 16
Operational 7 (58%) 0 8 (50%)
Cultural 5 (42%) 0 5 (31%)
Critical 0 0 3 (19%)
Total Work 42 19 36

Across all 3 groups, the only work coded as critical were the digitally-created comic, whereas 81% of the complete work created by students who did not play Epidemic was coded as operational, 18% as cultural, and none as critical.

Discussion

This study was designed to engage all participants in learning activities related to contagious disease prevention for the week, in order to see what and how they learned through Epidemic’s playful digital environment, compared with a traditional pedagogical approach to the same subject-matter. We also wanted to see what, if any, differences became evident between work done using a computer-based multimodal interface to make posters and comics, and work done using non-digital, paper and pencil media/methods. And we wanted to see what perspectives on learning outcomes two different assessment models might provide.

Incidental learning and the building of a technical register

Across all groups, participants showed a high level of sustained engagement with Epidemic and its topical content, and appeared to be genuinely interested in, and excited to discuss with each other and the researchers, facts and misunderstandings related to contagious disease. Two of the classes enthusiastically recited to the researchers the importance of hand-washing as there was a poster campaign around their school to discourage the spread of cold and flu viruses. Other participants recounted facts about viral diseases, checking in with the researchers to ensure that their information was correct. Interestingly, what was clear overall, and particularly in relation to HIV, was that these students had rarely encountered curriculum that was as directly related to contagious disease, none that addressed contagious disease as a category of public interest and personal importance, and none of the students could, prior to engaging in this study, articulate the difference between a viral infection and a bacterial one. By the end of the week students were fluently applying professional vocabulary and using medical discourse associated with epidemiology and contagious disease, mobilizing terms like “transmission”, “infection”, “prevention”, and cognate terms in their conversations. For the experimental group, that vocabulary was implicit in and integral to their activities, projects, and communicative exchanges, and by playing with and within Epidemic, these students incidentally (Alexander, Eaton, & Eagan, 2010; Salen, 2007; Steinkuehler, 2006) acquired and made use of the vocabulary Epidemic employs to model and communicate disease-related information. Students situationally acquired an epidemiological “technical register” (Gee, 2003) to speak about, and multimodally represent, issues and facts surrounding contagious disease and health promotion, even though this vocabulary was not something that Epidemic or the researchers directly attempted to teach.

The picture we have from the two formal assessments we used is that whereas the standard group, who had received a lecture with slides, scored higher on the traditional post-test assessment, the experimental group who interacted with Epidemic produced more creative, critical digital artifacts through the course of the study and in their final projects— work grounded in a ludic production pedagogy (Thumlert, de Castell & Jenson, 2015; Toohey & Dagenais, 2015), displaying richer intertextual connections to social texts and meanings beyond prescribed lesson content, mobilizing multimodal and critical literacies, as well as relatively sophisticated design strategies when combining image and text. These results suggest that forms of evaluation better suited to apprehending the multimodality of digital media than oriented to literal correctness (as typifies conventional print-culture tests) might substantially enrich the ways educators can identify and evaluate learning outcomes, and the provision of such alternative assessment tools, models and methods might greatly assist teachers in comprehending the opportunities for critical engagement that digital technologies and ludic environments can provide in the classroom.

While no statistical significance was found when comparing score improvement between the experimental group and the baseline and standard groups, we did see statistically significant improvement in scores overall, with a higher average positive change in score in the standard group. More students in the standard group used the information found on the virus fact sheets to create true and false public service announcements that were richer in factual detail than those constructed in the Epidemic environment. Had we provided structured and explicit instruction to the experimental group, they may have mobilized and demonstrated greater factual knowledge and understanding, perhaps at least as much as their counterparts in the standard group, who were taught through more traditionally “school-like” health education activities. That is a question to address in future study design.

Our coding and analysis of the student work using Green’s 3D model further illuminates these findings. First, although we sought to make the production project (poster or comic) multimodal for the two non-digital media groups by providing images from Epidemic, encouraging the students to use them and/or draw around them, we still saw (as previously noted) the production of text-heavy posters from the standard group—and, importantly, it was those who produced these (text-heavy) posters who significantly improved their post-test scores. In other words, participants took up, used, and reused (through the poster) the literal information that was presented to them and applied it, as well, to the post-test. That participants in the standard group demonstrated the most understanding of propositional fact was no surprise given the traditional pedagogy used to prepare them for the activity (a formal lecture with PowerPoint). But they only demonstrated that understanding at operational and cultural levels: correctly reporting information and in some cases applying it beyond its original (given) context, and/or mobilizing knowledge drawn from outside their classroom activities. What this group did not demonstrate was an ability to challenge, question or contradict given information, deconstruct it, or adopt an ironic perspective toward it. In other words, the standard group was most successful at restating and applying literal knowledge, and adding (literal) outside knowledge relevant to the topic of their posters and comics. Using Green’s 3D model allowed us to re-evaluate success in the game-based learning achieved by the experimental group by using non-traditional criteria to assess multimodal work produced in non-traditional ways, making the quality of knowledge and critical understanding of that work measurably evident.

Conclusions: Leveling up

In hindsight, the quiz given to the participants was too easy, as evidenced by the high scores found on the pre-test in all groups. We found its multiple-choice test form ill suited to assess multimodal play-based activities—indeed, why should we be surprised if standardized individual assessment models rooted in print culture and propositional knowledge statements prove ill-suited for assessing learning activities that involve emerging media environments, game-based learning, social interaction and multimodal literacy practices. We echo Amory’s (2010) argument that emerging media environments supporting serious play, games, and multimodal student production (like Epidemic), “must be part of a socially collaborative learning experience and should act as tools, and not as tutors, to mediate learning objectives” (p. 825). Notwithstanding our participants’ rather unspectacular showing in terms of test results, it appeared through the projects (digital and otherwise) that the students completed, the questions they asked, and the conversations students had with each other throughout their activities, that there was learning taking place in both groups across both schools.

Recall that the only material coded as critical were the serious comics created by the experimental group: theirs was the most impressive work accomplished, suggesting that this kind of playful, multimodal, and immersive game-like environment can help students “level up” from the compliant (re)production, and literal (re)application, of propositional information that has come to characterize—and to limit—the depth and criticality of traditional (print-literacy driven) classroom tasks and tests. Thus we may, with evidence, begin to challenge, critically reconsider and recast the kinds of statements of fact and claims about values that have for generations been handed on to students more as fodder for memorization than as food for thought.

Our preliminary conclusions echo those of Merchant (2010) and Curwood (2012), suggesting that standard assessment models prefigure and routinize a systemic myopia with regard to the forms of learning transpiring in multimodal and ludic contexts and sites. As Merchant (2010) agues, in the context of learning in virtual worlds, “the current emphasis on standards, derived from measures of individual performance on a rather narrow range of literacy practices coupled with pervasive and powerful discourses of what constitutes literacy instruction, limits our capacity for innovation” (p. 148).

Having seen what using the 3D multimodal assessment tool can reveal, we would second Yancey’s (2004) warning against applying the assessment frameworks “of one medium [print-culture] to assign value and interpret work in a different medium, because by doing so we lose the chance to see new values emerging in the new medium” (Yancey, cited in Sorapure, 2012, p. 431). Indeed, we are only now beginning to find new ways to evaluate students’ capacity to learn, apply and make new meanings in the kinds of multimodal, digital-literacy environments that characterize the world outside of schools today. As Curwood (2012) insists, “if we recognize that learning and knowing within a virtual culture occur within and through multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted textual representations, our approaches to design and evaluation must change” (p. 242).

There is, we contend, an excitingly rich, imaginative, and critical band of experience, learning, and creative/critical action that our standard instruments are not even equipped to sound or detect. It is perhaps more evident today as technologies change, but this failure in the school’s standard forms of learning assessment goes back to Gradgrind, and is very likely implicated in the public system’s inability, from its inception to the present moment, to decouple parental income from educational outcome. Much that students, past as well as present, aspire to think, do and express has been rendered silent and invisible through the public system’s “textual preferences” for a superficial correctness, an easily assessable correctness which passes off in education’s name that kind of literal and uncritical replication of prescribed curricular knowledge most susceptible to near-immediate forgetting, whose significance is largely contained within school buildings and classroom walls.

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Biographical Information

Jennifer Jenson is Director of the Institute for Digital Learning and Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of Education at York University, Canada. She has published on gender and gameplay, technology and education, and games and learning.

Contact: jjenson@edu.yorku.ca

Suzanne de Castell is Professor Emeriti in the Faculty of Education Simon Fraser University. Her considerable work includes publications on digital games and education, gender and technology, literacy and school, and queer pedagogies.

Kurt Thumlert is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at York University, Canada. His published work includes art-based research and technology and pedagogy.

Rachel Muehrer is a Research Associate in the Play:CES Lab at York University, Canada. She has published on games and learning, and music education.

Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the GRAND NCE network and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We also gratefully acknowledge the considerable design work and research support provided by Dr. Nicholas Taylor, as well as are grateful for the students and their teachers who agreed to participate in the study.


[i] Learning ways to engage online without disclosing private information is a major concern, as we have discovered from prior work with children playing in virtual environments In fact, in one extensive study of online gameplay, we discovered that use of ones own name was a reliable indicator of the player’s being underage (Author names redacted for review).

[ii] For example, the pre-test tested knowledge about the symptoms and means of prevention, transmission, and treatment for a range of contagious diseases including HIV/AIDS, SARS, West Nile, smallpox, and influenza

[iii] In order to achieve consistency, two researchers initially coded each student artifact together using the 3D model

[iv] Although completion data suggests that the students in the experimental group may have done a lot more “playing around” than the Standard group students, technical glitches in the Epidemic environment meant that many experimental group students were simply not able to complete their work, or, if they completed it, may have been unable to save it on the server: we needed (but did not have) a way our completion data could discriminate between non-completion due to technical problems, and non-completion due to substantive difficulties with the task or non-engagement with it.

[v] That only serious comics were coded as critical has by no means escaped our attention. This may of course indicate some insufficiency in our coding. It is also possible, however, that different media privilege different cognitive functions. In that case, the ways knowledge is understood, applied, and represented cannot be divorced from the specific media forms used: for example, public information posters might just be less conducive to criticality than the more graphically complex medium of the comic panel (which only the experimental group elected to use to demonstrate knowledge). This is a far larger question than can be tackled here, but it is interesting – and worthy of further investigation­ – that across all students in all 3 groups, notwithstanding other variations in performance, work in only one media form was judged to be critical. Although this was not something we anticipated prior to seeing the results of student efforts, it is something we will take into account in this study’s next iteration.

[vi] For an explanation of why the experimental group has two-thirds of the participants but only one-fourth of the completed work, refer to note 4.

Ty Hollett

Published Online: January 27, 2016
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Much of the literature related to connected learning approaches youth interests as fixed on specific disciplines or activities (e.g. STEM, music production, or game design). As such, mentors design youth-focused programs to serve those interests. Through a micro-ethnographic analysis of two youth’s Minecraft-centered gameplay in a public library, this article makes two primary contributions to research on learning within, and the design of, informal, media-rich settings. First, rather than approach youth interests as fixed on specific disciplines or activities (e.g. STEM, music production, or video games), this article traces youth interests as they spark and emerge among individuals and groups. Then, it follows those interests as they subsequently spread over time, becoming interests-in-motion. Second, recognition of these interests-in-motion can lead mentors to develop program designs that enable learners to work with artifacts (digital and physical) that learners can progressively configure and re-configure over time. Mentors, then, design-in-time as they harness the energy surrounding those emergent interests, creating extending learning opportunities in response.

Keywords: Interest, mobility, mutable mobiles, temporality, Minecraft

Introduction

Together, teachers, librarians, researchers and other youth-serving coordinators continue to design and implement connected learning opportunities for youth that stretch across informal, media-rich settings like libraries, museums, and schools (Ito et al., 2013). Motivated by the Young Adult Library Services Association’s promotion of connected learning, libraries are rapidly shifting from “transaction-based” entities—where reference questions are asked and answered, “books sought and found”—to digital media centers “where library staff and teens work together to learn and create and make meaning” (Wittig, Martin & Strock, p. 4). In undergoing this transformation, many libraries foster learning opportunities for youth that are “socially-embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity” (Ito et al., 2013, p. 4). As a result, designed programs embedded within settings like libraries, especially, have become hubs for connected learning, enabling youth to pursue their interests in order to refine professional skills and dispositions affiliated with digital culture and tools (Valdivia and Subramaniam, 2014). Often designed and led by adult mentors, these programs harness participants’ interests in order to create learning opportunities that enable widespread participation and continuously challenge participants through their production of both digital and physical artifacts.

In order to help youth thrive across such connected learning ecosystems, educators, mentors, and program leads have turned their attention to explicit interventions by mentors within—and across— designed programs (Ching, Santo, Hoadley & Peppler, 2015). Ching and colleagues (2015), for instance, call for mentors to “broker” future learning opportunities for youth, to connect youth to meaningful events, people, or institutions. Brokering, they argue, demands mentors’ attention to “critical time points” such as when a program concludes, or the weeks following the end of the program. These critical time points (re)direct youth toward complementary learning opportunities, resources, and people.

This intervention at “critical time points” necessitates acute attunement by mentors to the emergence of youth interests over time. But those “critical time points” do not only exist at the culmination of programs, especially in programming that often vary in terms of time and duration, with some participants dropping in for minutes or hours, while others engage for months, or even years (Ahn et al., 2014). As a result of these temporal variations, there are two important, overlapping areas of inquiry for those researchers studying connected learning: (1) How youth return to and reflect on interest-driven experiences, especially regarding the transformation of those experiences “in other time frames” (Kumpulainen & Sefton Green, 2014, p. 12) and (2) How mentors attune themselves to the moment-by-moment transformation of those experiences and subsequently alter their pedagogy in response.

Through a micro-ethnographic analysis of two youth’s Minecraft-centered gameplay in a public library, this article makes two primary contributions to research on learning within—and the design of—informal, media-rich settings. First, it argues that interests—especially those nurtured within informal, media-rich settings—are not stable, solidified. Rather than approach youth interests as fixed on specific disciplines or activities (e.g. STEM, music production, or video games), this article traces youth interests as they spark and emerge among individuals and groups (Lemke, Lecusay, Cole & Michalchik, 2015); then, it follows those interests as they subsequently spread, becoming interests-in-motion. Second, this article asserts that recognition of these interests-in-motion should lead mentors to enable learners to work with digital and physical artifacts that they can progressively configure and re-configure over time. In response, mentors should attune themselves to the emergence of these flexible artifacts, orienting pedagogy—and thus designing-in-time—in response, which I further elaborate upon in the discussion.

Related Literature and Theoretic Orientation

Mobilizing Interest

Youth interest constitutes the core of connected learning. As such, connected learning is “interest-driven,” or “interest-powered.” At its most general, connected learning is “realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults” (Ito et al., p. 4). Peers and adults within institutions like libraries and museums facilitate important dialogs and practices that can extend these pursuits. This process of “building connections to other areas of expertise from the base of an area of deep interest is core to the connected learning model” (p. 57).

The interests advanced by connected learning and its practitioners, however, while robust, are often static (Martin, 2014; Larson, Bradley, Leslie, Rosenberg, Reimer, 2014). Designed programs, both within and beyond libraries, tend to anchor designs on participants’ interests. When youth have numerous pathways into participation, however, those pathways do not necessarily converge under the auspices of one, solidified interest (e.g. Minecraft, Harry Potter, Starcraft); rather, those pathways peel off in multiple directions as youth encounter critical moments, materials, and collaborators. Thus, in this paper, I work to mobilize interest, to follow interests-in-motion as they emerge through participation in a library setting that sought to, initially, harness local teen’s interest in Minecraft.

Mobilizing interest necessitates following the contours of interest rather than plotting it along individual phases (i.e. Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Recent explorations of interest and engagement in formal settings have begun to tease out the processes supporting the progression of student interests (Azevedo et al., 2012). For instance, Azevedo and colleagues argue that educational research has been unable to capture the realities—and complexities—of interest and engagement in learning settings, both formal and informal. As such, the literature has been unable to provide answers for questions such as: How do interest and engagement

develop over periods typical of lessons or whole units (e.g., days or weeks)? How does engagement emerge from the interactions among participants in a classroom? How does the material infrastructure available to students, analyzed in a moment-by-moment fashion, affect their ability to engage classroom material? (p. 59)

While Azevedo and colleagues’ questions suggest a direction toward understanding the emergence of interests, these questions continue to promote an approach to interest that is bound, contained by the temporal containers affiliated with formal learning settings: lessons and units, for example, as well as the spatial confines of classrooms.  In loosening those confines of when—and where—learning occurs, it is critical to open up the container, to recognize how dynamic, moving elements of social systems (e.g. people, resources) are “configured and reconfigured across space and time to create opportunities to learn” (Leander, Phillips & Taylor, 2010, p. 331). The questions posed by Azevedo and colleagues hint at how interests and engagement become infused within these dynamically moving elements. They wonder, for instance, how those engagements spread among “participants in a classroom,” how the very materiality of infrastructure and tools (“interest objects”) impacts engagement and interest. Importantly, Azevedo and colleagues call attention to the emergent qualities of interest and engagement, how interests and engagement can develop in a “moment-by-moment” fashion.

To follow interests as they develop, moment-by-moment, I draw on theoretic perspectives from the new mobilities paradigm (Hannam et al., 2006). For educational research, a mobilities perspective offers a means to explore the dynamic, moving elements within (and beyond) a setting, therefore expanding educational research from an overt focus on learning environments and toward “geographies of learning” or “mobilities of learning” (Leander, Phillips & Taylor, 2010, p. 331). In the following, I first link mobilities perspectives to literature of spatiality and learning, before underscoring the relationship between mobility, materiality, and, finally, mutability.

Mobilities

Educational research has primarily focused on mobility through its relationship to spatiality (Burnett, 2011 Comber, Nixon, Ashmore, Loo, & Cook, 2006; Kostogriz, 2006; Leander & Sheehy, 2004; Vadeboncoeur, Hirst, & Kostogriz, 2006). Spatial approaches assert that educational spaces are not bound systems; rather, they are multi-layered, complex. Nespor (1997), for example, suggests that a nuanced exploration of educational spaces will “peel back its walls and inspect the strings…linking it to the outside world (which is no longer outside)” (p. xi). Mobilities, according to spatial perspectives, then, consider what is moving in-and-out of a given setting, from students, materials, and policies to the “circulation of paper in classrooms and media practices” (Leander & Sheehy, 2004, p. 3)

Mobilities perspectives feel out the textures of those “strings” that link disparate settings. Naive approaches to mobilities assert that everything is on the move, that contemporary culture is one of rapidity, speed. But this mobility occurs at different paces and intensities for different people, having varying impacts and consequences. Moreover, mobility is “acknowledged as part of the energetic buzz of the everyday (even while banal, or humdrum, or even stilled) and seen as a set of highly meaningful social practices that make up social, cultural, and political life” (Adey, Bissell, Hannam, Merriman, Sheller, 2013, p. 3). As a result, geographers, historians, and anthropologist have shifted from fixing their work on “the field” to following “routes,” tracing sets of relations across sites. Thus, the new mobilities paradigm challenges social science research that is a-mobile—both theoretically and methodologically. It seeks out fluidity as opposed to fixed, contained, territories.

Materialities—both human and non-human— are also a dominant component of these new mobilities. Humans and non-humans produce hybrid geographies. The social, as Law (1994) writes, is materially heterogeneous: “talk, bodies, texts, machines, architectures, all of these and many more are implicated in and perform the social” (p. 2). In fact, Law’s depiction of a Portuguese man-o’-war ship has become the exemplar of a human-nonhuman assemblage: more than simply people working together to sail the ship, men and women, ropes and masts, timber and rigging become a unified, pulsing assemblage. The ship-human assemblage is what Latour (1986) would call an immutable mobile: despite its mobility, it still maintains its essential configuration (e.g. it does not become a submarine) as it moves across space-time.

de Laet and Mol (2000) contrast the immutable mobile with the mutable mobile. Mutable mobiles are fluid. Their boundaries are vague and moving. There are “many grades and shades of working,” they write. “[T]here are adaptations and variants” (p. 225). Mutable mobiles are strong because of their adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness. Furthermore, mutable mobiles challenge what it means to be an actor, allowing that category to “include non-human, and non-rational entities” (p. 227). de Laet and Mol pursue the notion of a mutable mobile through their description of a Zimbabawean bush pump, how it not only acts as water-producing device but also as sanitation and hydraulic device. It takes on a new state depending on the actors using it, the materials with which it combines, and the needs of a particular setting. This is not to say that the pump is “everywhere and anything,” they write. Rather, its “various boundaries define a limited set of configurations” (p. 237).  In the ensuing section, I focus my analysis with the following research question driven by this mobile perspective: How do learners move and circulate mutable mobiles in service of their interest-driven learning? Addressing this overarching research question, I focus particularly on how participants configured and re-configured specific objects, over time. In other words, I follow along with the mutable mobiles that participants installed and then circulated throughout their participation in the program.

Methods

Metro: Building Blocks

Data are drawn from a six-month study of Minecraft gameplay in a program called Metro: Building Blocks (MBB). Designed and facilitated by the author, MBB was the initial connected learning program operating out of the Metro Public Library’s new digital media learning lab, The Foundry. Adopting the principles of connected learning, the program was intentionally production-centered and openly-networked, and joined participants through a shared purpose. More specifically, with the goal of developing participants’ commitment to socially-just urban planning, MBB challenged teen participants to build authentic areas in the city of Metro within the video game Minecraft—a video game that, at its most basic, is about placing and breaking blocks, much like a version of digital Lego. The author facilitated all sessions, regularly playing alongside participants and introducing them to current urban planning initiatives throughout the city of Metro. In response, participants became budding city planners as they imagined, designed, and built components of Metro’s neighborhoods—including parks, urban gardens, single-family homes, and more.

Participants

Thirteen teenagers participated in MBB for at least one month. Others (approximately 10) dropped in on sessions over time, playing anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours. Long-term participants ranged in age from 12-16 and were predominantly male, much like the overall demographic of teen center patrons. The number of participants in any given session varied: some days, teens filled all available computers; other days, one youth would log-on to the server while others trickled in over time.

This article analyzes mutable mobiles produced by two participants, Martin and Arthur. Other participants—like Artie, Ricky, Eddy, Tom, and Doug—often played alongside Martin and Arthur: they appear in the background of the ensuing narratives revolving around Martin and Arthur. Martin was a fifteen year-old Caucasian student at Rosa Parks, a local magnet school. He was one of the longest-tenured participants, coming to MBB nearly every Tuesday and Wednesday throughout the program’s six-month duration. Upon learning about the program, Martin cautioned the author that he “might get obsessed with playing” and was worried that it would “distract from [his] homework.” Like Martin, Arthur, a fifteen year-old African-American student at Liberty Charter, entered the program because of his initial interest in Minecraft. Arthur, however, began to attend the final two months of MBB, having heard about it from a friend who frequently hung out after school at the teen center. Arthur often participated in MBB from home when he could not come to the library, joining the server throughout the week to add to and complete his builds, including statues, transit systems, and a school. For the purposes of this article, I focus on Martin and Arthur because of how they continually returned to their projects—a lighting system and a transit station, respectively—over time.

Redstone

Martin and Arthur’s respective projects each feature a particular aspect of Minecraft called redstone. Briefly, redstone—a specific block in Minecraft, just like cobblestone or sandstone—is the only block that can carry the equivalent of an electric charge. For instance, when redstone lamps are linked with redstone dust and a redstone torch an electric charge can travel, lighting up lamps, for example (Figure 1). Beyond lighting lamps, however, redstone can also operate specific objects, like doors, automatically opening them at the press of a button, or rails, sending carts up a hill, for instance, once they have run out of momentum.

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Figure 1. Redstone demonstration. Redstone torches activate circuit and illuminate lamps (center and right). Lamp on left is thus not illuminated.

Data Collection and Analysis: Moving Alongside Interests-in-Motion

MBB sessions typically lasted three hours, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and ran from January to June. As a result, data includes nearly 90 hours of gameplay, including video capture of both in-room and in-game play, field notes, and semi-structured interviews conducted with participants throughout the program. Given the imbricated digital-physical setting of MBB, analysis was particularly targeted toward how participants’ interests were emergent and mutually constituted amongst agentive human, (im)material, and environmental actors (Barad, 2007; Burnett, 2013; Hollett & Ehret, 2014). Thus, data collection and analysis were guided by advances in mobile methods (Hannam, Sheller & Urry, 2006) that moved alongside participants’ interests-in-motion—specifically the configuration and re-configuration of mutable mobiles—over time. Such an approach challenges existing methods that “slow down and freeze experiences (the interview, the focus group, the survey)” (Fincham, McGuinness and Murray 2010, p. 2). To do so, mobile methods aim to develop new ways to “capture, track, simulate, mimic, parallel and ‘go along’ with the kinds of moving systems and experiences that seem to characterize the contemporary world” (Büscher et al., 2011) To move alongside participants’ gameplay, I employed the analytical software ChronoViz. ChronoViz was important because of its ability to sync—and then watch—multiple videos at once, including in-room and in-game. Thus, if Eddy, Tom, and Arthur were playing together on one day, I would sync all of their videos to watch them simultaneously, working to re-experience the data as authentically as possible. Within ChronoViz, I first logged the content of each group of synced videos, noting particular strips of activity— participants’ synchronous, if not collaborative, activity around a particular set of materials (physical maps, in-game blocks, etc.). Within the software, I described each strip briefly. These strips were “categorized” according to color. General strips of activity (e.g. broadly what was happening at each moment) were blue (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Initial strips of activity in ChronoViz while experiencing two separate players’ synced videos.

In addition, because of my initial interest in how I, as a mentor, attuned myself to activity within and beyond our setting, I also used another categorization (red) for my own pedagogical moves. Depending on the number of other participants on a given day, I would use other categorizations (e.g. orange, green) accordingly, especially to follow surprising, interesting, or aberrant developments. I then exported all of these strips into a spreadsheet. Within my expanded spreadsheet, I not only summarized the general activity from the day, but also noted timestamps of other strips, questions, aberrations for further analysis. Additionally, I would hone in on individual videos as necessary, transcribing them more fully in Inqscribe.

This analytical experience of my data through ChronozViz, led me to trace and follow the configuration and re-configuration of specific projects by participants. Thus, to analyze mutable mobiles, I attuned myself to, and thereby reduced my data to, returns. That is, upon re-experiencing my data, I targeted participants’ returns to specific, self-generated, projects that persisted over time. Oftentimes, these projects were participants’ own individual endeavors, personal projects that spun-off from—and thus related to—overarching group projects. For example, Martin’s lighting system spun-off from the group’s production of a riverside park; Arthur’s transit system spun-off from the group’s production of a mixed-use neighborhood.

This reduction of data is essential to addressing my research question related to the movement and circulation of mutable mobiles over time. Participants often shuttled between collaborating with others on a group project and their own personal builds. Not all builds, however, persisted over time; participants frequently completed them quickly, moving from one large group-build to the next (e.g. Bridges, downtown apartments). An emphasis on individual returns contributes an examination of the nuances of interest, the ways in which interests emerge given various socio-material engagements. Thus, I recognize that returns—and the mutable mobiles produced through those returns—were always embedded in the real virtual, sociocultural milieu of MBB as opposed to isolated, alienated experiences for Martin and Arthur.

Following Interests-In-Motion: Mutable Mobiles

In the ensuing analysis, I follow two mutable mobiles. The first focuses on Martin’s production of, what he called, a “lighting schematic,” a mechanism to produce different lighting effects. Specifically, I describe Martin as he configures and reconfigures the schematic across space-time. In other words, I illustrate the mutability of this lighting schematic. The second focuses on Arthur’s production of a transit system. In contrast to Martin’s individual development of a lighting schematic, Arthur’s transit system became a collective effort, taking shape and expanding its boundaries as new participants joined alongside Arthur to build it. Each analysis begins with an initial narration to contextualize participants’ production. Then, I analyze each entity as a mutable mobile, noting, in particular, how Martin and Arthur infuse their projects with a fluidity they incorporate themselves, which subsequently fuels their interest (de Laet & Mol, 2000, p. 252).

Martin’s Mutable Lighting Schematic

Narration. Our initial production of Metro began on the Columbia Riverfront Park—a large family-friendly greenspace that the city recently developed next to Corporate Stadium. The park includes a play area for youth, including climbing walls and waterspouts, as well as a nearby walking trail. A small stage sits in the middle of the park, a flat green space in front providing seating for an audience. The pedestrian bridge looms over the park, making travel to the other side of the river easily accessible. Next to the Pedestrian Bridge sits the Bridge Building, a small structure often used for celebratory events because of its proximity to the riverfront, large windows, and rooftop view. An elevator stands along the southern side of the building, making the Pedestrian Bridge easily accessible from the park.

The group spent its first two weeks together working on the riverfront. Artie and Ricky carved out the area for the park; Eddy and Tom built the bridge; Doug developed the elevator. Because of the persistence of the virtual world, and the (a)synchronous nature of our activity, new builds emerged while some participants were not physically present. Notably, the elevator came about while Martin was not in attendance. Upon his return to the group, and the server, the following week, Martin, made his way toward the park, saying, “I had an idea of what I could build today. I was thinking about building the building across from the elevator. The Bridge Building.”

Later that day, while Martin was working on the building, Tom entered the room/game, remembering to himself out loud: “Last time I was working on lights.” To effectively work on lights, he needed the gaming environment to be dark, so he typed the in-game command “/time set 40000” to change the game mode from day to night. Inspired by the sudden change in lighting, Martin called out: “Oh, I just had a brand new idea!” He then readied himself to develop a lighting system for the elevator that would move a current of energy up the elevator one block at a time, signifying the elevator moving upward.

In the following, I analyze the mutability of this intricate lighting system that Martin will make—and return to—multiple times throughout the program. Importantly, that initial encounter stretched across space (in-game locations) and time (three weeks) each instance in which Martin reconfigured his lighting system.

Martin’s lighting system—in which he used redstone—was intricate. As he initially described it:

I had the idea for a redstone schematic that would be lights and the redstone would move up the light strand, because it would have a red stone torch on top of each redstone lamp. The redstone torch below that, on the lamp, on the next lamp down, would activate the one above it, turning it off, so you would kind of have this endless stream of lights moving up the elevator, and I was going to check like the first thing that I need to do is kinda build a redstone clock…

To develop his schematic, Martin employed what are called redstone repeaters to propel a greater amount of energy through the system. For aesthetic purposes, he designed this redstone schematic underground, out of sight, below the elevator (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Martin’s initial redstone schematic (top) sending light up alongside elevator (bottom).

Martin’s redstone schematic was mutable. It moved and changed form over time. Throughout the next week, Martin re-created this particular schematic at two other locations. As the group continued to work on Riverfront Park they eventually created a large stage for concerts and other public presentations. Martin recognized that the stage needed a lighting system, so he dug underground once again, planted his redstone schematic and then linked it to glowing blocks that he placed on the stage (Figure 4).

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Figure 4. Martin’s second schematic (top) lights up glowstone embedded in the stage (bottom).

Martin not only flexibly used his schematic in different locations, but also consistently re-created a version of it based on the underground landscape. In another instance, Martin built a small restaurant that overlooked the Columbia River inside of the Bridge Building. Once again, he reconfigured his redstone schematic to produce a stream of lights rising upward from the base of the restaurant (Figure 5).

Analysis. Martin’s redstone schematic is a mutable mobile (de Laet & Mol, 2000).  It travels to new locations; it “doesn’t try to impose itself, but tries to serve;” it is “adaptable, flexible, and responsive” (p. 226). In this spirit, each schematic took shape alongside other builds by other participants, serving the illumination needs of each location. Furthermore, much like the Zimbabwean Bush Pump of which de Laet and Mol write, when new “models [came] into being, the old ones [did] not necessarily disappear” (p. 228). As such, each schematic also signaled gradual progress, improvement, and development of Martin’s circuit-building skill-sets. Rather than being erased and forgotten, the schematics became  embedded in the existing landscape, acting as models for others to follow as well as prototypes for other participants, including Martin, to improve upon.

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Figure 5. Martin’s final schematic (top) illuminates lights alongside the restaurant (bottom).

As a mutable mobile, the schematic not only allowed Martin to work with it in three discrete locations but it also allowed him to test out his continually burgeoning expertise in the development of simple circuits—and interest—each time. Martin generated learning opportunities for himself, gradually increasing his own level of difficulty, as he repeatedly encountered a new problem set consisting of new materials within a new setting—i.e. the material configuration of the elevator was much different than that of the stage; the material configuration of the stage was much different than that of the restaurant. His interest in circuitry—embedded within the schematic—spread, moving across time and space through his consistent re-production of the schematic.

Martin did not consistently re-configure his lighting schematic in a vacuum, though. That schematic existed in social milieu that blended together our MBB community with the overarching affinity space of Minecraft. Moreover, his lighting system lingered and provoked, it drew other participants towards it. When the avatars of other participants were nearby the elevator, for instance, Martin had the opportunity to describe how he “rigged up the elevator.” That is, Martin’s interest not only emerged through the mutability of idea of the schematic in-and-of-itself, it also emerged—or even took on a new form—when he could share that idea with others.

Showcasing his work in situ to other participants also enabled Martin to reflect upon and question the design decisions that he had made. When describing to Ricky how the elevator-lights worked, for example, Martin began to reconsider its design: “Now that I think about it, I should have made the lights actually part of the elevator. Just like destroy the corners and then move them, like one block in,” he told Ricky. These reflections were spurred, in part, by the schematics’ persistence—the very fact that they were not erased, or deleted, at the end of the day, but rather that they became lasting, steadfast objects embedded in the digital landscape.

Martin’s redstone schematic, like the bush pump, had its own limited set of configurations, however. It was meant to produce light—yet Martin was able to re-arrange how the schematic emitted light each in each location based on both the underground layout upon which he built the schematic, and the aboveground layout of the lighting system. Thus, not only did the non-human schematic move Martin towards additional learning opportunities, but those learning opportunities were also dependent upon other non-human components of the game (e.g. the ground, the elevator, the stage, the restaurant).

Arthur’s Mutable Transit Station

Narration. Production for the entire group eventually moved east, away from the Columbia River, as the group began to re-imagine the nearby Lutece community. At the time, Lutece was currently in the early stages of redevelopment by the local housing authority. As the housing authority elaborated, “the neighborhood is considered a food desert, and the only retail opportunity in the neighborhood is a recently opened Family Dollar…The plan seeks to create over 200,000 square feet of commercial and institutional space, including a new health center” (p. 5). As a group, participants in MBB began to think alongside the housing authority. Arthur, especially, led the charge to imagine new forms of transportation that could connect residents to other parts of the city. Thus, in the following section, I focus particularly on how Arthur continually adapted a redstone-powered transit station according to both the emerging ideas of MBB group members, as well as the needs of the Lutece community. Like Martin’s lighting schematic, I analyze the transit station as a mutable mobile, as a fluid entity in which that fluidity was “built into the [system] itself” (de Laet & Mol, p. 226).

Arthur initially began production in the Lutece community by building a large, spiraling statue. When asked why he chose to build it, he replied: “No reason. I just wanted to try it out.” As Arthur became more acquainted with the program, however, and the kinds of projects that other participants were taking on—parks, urban farms, health centers—Arthur segued toward building something that could, as he said, help the community: a transit station.

Inspiration for Arthur’s transit station was born from a Youtube video that he “hadn’t watched in forever.” In the video, the builder creates a redstone-operated system which enables an avatar to press a button that sends a minecart—Minecraft’s swiftest form of transportation—down a chute, arriving at the avatar’s feet. The avatar can then climb in the cart and press another button to dictate which track the cart will travel, thereby taking the avatar in one of multiple possible directions. Arthur also installed a mechanism (a pressure plate in Minecraft terms) to recognize if the avatar failed to enter the cart, subsequently sending the cart back into storage. Figure 6 illustrates Arthur’s system and his description of it. The production of the transit station became a hotbed of activity over a three-day period. As a result, the transit station became a “changeable object,” one that “altered over time and [was] under constant review” (de Laet & Mol, 2001), especially as new participants entered the scene.

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Figure 6. Arthur’s description the inner-workings of his transit system.

Analysis. The station’s fluidity resulted from its interaction with other participants. Just as the Zimbabwaen bush pump, as described by de Laet and Mol, “includes the villagers that put it together,” it is “nothing without the community it will serve” (p. 235-4). As de Laet and Mol further detail:

In order to be a pump that (pre)serves a community, it notably needs to look attractive, have properly fixed levers and well-made concrete aprons, it must also be capable of gathering people together…it must seduce people into taking care of it. Thus the boundaries around a community pump may be widely drawn. Indeed, they embrace the community. (p. 235)

Just like the bush pump, Arthur’s transit station seduced and embraced the community of MBB participants. Prior to Arthur’s second day of work on the station, for instance, all participants—including Eddy, Tom, Neil, and Jerome—worked on their own, separate initiatives. As Arthur began to work, the transit station lured participants toward it and collaboration, seducing them “into taking care of it.” Arthur and Eddy, for instance, became highly engaged in the production of a fully-functional system that could cut across the entire city of Metro; Tom turned his attention to the entrance to the station; Neil flew his avatar in to check in on the action and help others as needed; Jerome tested out how well the rails actually worked by placing his avatar in a rail cart (Figure 7).

In luring participants towards it—and in providing numerous pathways into participation—the boundaries of the transit station began to re-shape. What was once an isolated, individual project by Arthur, relegated to a limited geographic area, became a collaborative, emergent entity for all participants that began to stretch far beyond its original location. Eddy, for example, developed an interest in connecting the above-ground transit station to a nearby, underground Metro stop from previous efforts (by the author) that had been left unfinished. As a result, the transit station—once focused on above-ground tracks—now included a subterranean component, which extended to other areas of the Lutece neighborhood. Similarly, while Eddy extended the station underground, Tom extended it outward, adding an entrance to the station, in which an non-player character could distribute tickets. The “boundaries” of the transit station were never fixed, static. Rather, they were protean, taking on new shape as new participants entered into collaborative production together. While Martin reconfigured his lighting system multiple times according to contextual factors, like the location (e.g. restaurant, stage) and underground layout, Arthur’s transit station fluidly expanded as new participants entered and collaborated alongside him.

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Figure 7. Previously working on individual projects throughout the open-world, all participants are lured toward Arthur’s transit station.

Importantly, it was not only the transit station itself that drew participants toward it, but also the affective energy that resonated from it. In this case, participants worked together “symbiotically,” thriving not only on mutually beneficial partnerships, but also on their mutual energy (Engeström, 2009, p. 6). This mutual energy, then, signaled a felt-response to collective intensities. It enabled playful, individual-collective participation: the opportunity to be a part of something, working—and feeling—alongside others incrementally. Moreover, that energy did not arise from neat, pre-planned pathways; rather, it propagated through pulsations, excitable bursts, the desire to contribute to the collective, while also testing out one’s own developing expertise. As such, the stakes for participants were relatively low as no individual took complete control of the ongoing project.

Discussion: Designing-in-time

As libraries, museums, and other informal, media-rich settings continue to design and implement learning opportunities for youth (Ito et al., 2013) there is an increasing need to understand the relationship between interest and time, including how interests ebb-and-flow, how they accrue, how they transform and even dissolve. Therefore, in this article, I have focused particularly on mutable mobiles by specifically attending to how youth return to, and reflect upon, interest-driven experiences over time. I have avoided emphasizing Minecraft itself as overt interest. Rather, through analyses of both Matthew’s lighting schematic and Arthur’s transit station, I called attention to the mutability within this Minecraft-based connected learning setting, or the ability for participants to re-visit, and then re-configure, in-game productions over time.

In the following, I expound upon mutability to draw out implications for designing-in-time. To explore designing in time, I play with the language of the phrase itself, making two passes through it. In the first pass, I question what it means for time to be a critical component of the design of a given program and its respective sessions. In the second pass, I emphasize how mentors can attune themselves to the emergence of mutable mobiles, altering their own pedagogy in response to that emergence.

Designing-In-Time (1): From Shared Purpose to Shared History

Toward the end of MBB, I asked Arthur why he returned, again and again, to his transit station: “Because I could,” he said, before following up with: “There was no time limit.” Arthur was most proud of his work when it “took its time,” when he could continue to think and work over days, and even weeks, at home and during MBB. This capability was in stark contrast to, as he noted, the twenty minutes he often had to complete worksheets in math class, which he often rushed through and rarely completed. This is not to say that Arthur only worked on his transit station through the duration of his MBB experience; rather, he came back to it over time, making additions and tweaks, re-watching YouTube videos and honing specific skills to make the system more efficient. Because of the open-world nature of Minecraft, participants, like Martin and Arthur, often returned to previous builds. As a result, the passage of time was evident—old builds, left unfinished, remained, residue from collaborative work over previous days, weeks, and months (Grimes & Fields, 2012). Unlike social media networks, for instance, in which that residue (i.e. likes, tags, comments) is buried, only accessible through variations of deep, digital scraping, virtual worlds—and the objects and artifacts within—are persistent. Residue is accessible rather than submerged.

In MBB, time—instantiated in this residue—began to factor into the design of regular programming. As new participants joined, they were often lured toward the objects and artifacts built by previous participants. These new participants, who had a general interest in Minecraft, developed more refined interests as they interacted with this temporally-laden residue. One participant, Tom, for instance, tested out the redstone circuitry in Arthur’s transit system, using the model Arthur had left behind in order to, as he said, “get inside and see how it works” so he could build something similar.

As a group, our activities became less about moving onward to new territory in the Metro area, with new objectives, and more about re-imagining old territory. Unlike a school classroom, which might be considered a site of erasure (e.g. whiteboard wiped clean after each period, markers re-writing the same notes, over previous etchings, each class period), the server that MBB operated on was a site of duration. As such, it enabled new participants to entangle their emerging present with the program’s past, fostering not only a shared purpose, but also a shared history, as participants dialogued with previous (and current) participants by engaging with their residual builds.

Designing-in-Time (2): Attunement to Interests-in-Motion

Learning settings that hold, steadfast, to arbitrary temporal units, jettison opportunities for learners to feel, sense, their way toward interests-in-motion. Interests, in other words, are sparked—by objects, or things, as well as by other participants. As a mentor, however, to attune one’s self to sparks of interest necessitates loosening what mentors/adults/researchers consider a so-called interest. For example, as mentor, I designed MBB with the open-world video game Minecraft at its core. While I was drawn to a number of Minecraft’s attributes—including its world-building potential, multiplayer capabilities, and educator- friendly community—I was primarily drawn to it because I knew that my participants were interested in it, having spoken with many of them about it at length over the previous year.

By moving with interest as it emerged in my analysis, I sought to avoid an overt emphasis on Minecraft-as-interest. Rather, I began to attune myself to related interests that sparked, those that lured learners toward them and then enabled participants, as Tom said, to “get in and see how that works.” While in Arthur’s case this included a burgeoning interest in transportation, for others, like Doug, it included a refined focus on housing development, or, as for Artie, a focus on using modifications to the game to learn coding. As a result of these initial sparks, participants began to shuttle across a number of participatory competencies (Kafai & Peppler, 2011), including debugging and decoding; critical practices, like critiquing and reworking media; creative practices, like multimodal composition; and ethical practices, like providing insider information and crediting ownership.

Tom’s desire to “see how that works” exemplifies an interest-spark. Curious about how Arthur’s transit system operated, Tom “open[ed] it up,” quite literally, by breaking blocks to peer inside. Tom’s curiosity led to a back-and-forth with Arthur that enabled Arthur to reflect on the process of the system’s creation, narrating out-loud how it worked. This moment pushed beyond Tom merely observing others’ work and commenting on it; it provided both the opportunity for Tom to see, feel, pull apart, and put back together again, before adopting similar tactics to produce his own system in another location.

Tom’s “get[ting] in to see how that works” could be considered a pop-up learning opportunity that resulted from this interest-in-motion. It emerged, in-the-moment, resulting from the energetic, amplified scene surrounding Arthur’s transit system. While it is worthy to note the ways in which pop-up learning opportunities emerge in informal, media- rich settings, more pressing questions might be: What happens afterwards? How do mentors alter their pedagogy and, perhaps, even the direction of an ongoing program as interests take form?

Once attuned to participants’ interests-in-motion, mentors not only recognize “pop-up” learning, but can also implement learning opportunities that “pop-out” and, later, “pop-in.”  That is, mentors can harness the energy surrounding those emergent interests and create subsequent learning opportunities around them (pop-out). And further, those opportunities can enter back into circulation (pop-in), enabling greater opportunity for refinement, or even mutability, by learners over time. Attunement to interests-in-motion can lead mentors to facilitate diverse learning arrangements for participants that cut across size and scale, solo projects, mini-demonstrations, and deliberate forums (Sheridan et al., 2015). In short, pop-in/-out learning integrates the mentor into this emergent scene. It calls for the mentor to design-in-time, responding to energies reverberating from participants and their work, recognizing the affective spikes surrounding specific components of the program and integrating potential learning opportunities as a result.

Conclusion

Designing-in-time necessitates being-in-time with participants. When mentors—and their program designs—are in-time with participants, activities become unbound, resulting in emergent activities-in-process instead (Boldt, Lewis & Leander, p. 436). Time, in this, case is not pre-ordained, predicted well in-advance with, for example, twenty minutes set aside for worksheets, as they are in Arthur’s math class. Being-in-time enables mentors and facilitators to adapt to the affective sparks that fuel participants’ interests, setting those interests-in-motion in unpredictable routes. Moreover, being-in-time recognizes the role of (im)material objects—avatars, redstone, elevators, and more, in this case. Tools, in turn, are not pre-ordained, but emerge alongside those mobilized interests.

Designing-in-time does not dismiss preparation. Instead, it promotes the circulation of (im)material objects that prompt opportunities to learn across digital and physical, synchronous and asynchronous settings. Because of these circulations, MBB was a constantly growing program—both in terms of its literal expansion across the digital cityscape of Metro over time, as well as its integration of new participants, who increasingly found new trajectories into participation. Some participants, for instance, reported seeing their home city in a different way, recognizing details that had previously gone unnoticed—those details then made their way into our virtual space; some participants reported a need to have models to build specific living units—those models were then installed into our virtual space, residue from earlier affective sparks. By designing-in-time, then, these affective circulations promoted—and sustained—interest over time, enabling it to return rather than dissolve at the end of each session.

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Biographical Statement

Ty Hollett is an Assistant Professor at The Pennsylvania State University in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems. His research explores the design and implementation of interest-driven, technology-enhanced learning opportunities that move across formal and informal learning settings.

Email: tsh164@psu.edu

Website: www.tyhollett.com

Lisa Kervin, Irina Verenikina & Maria Clara Rivera

Published Online: December 23, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Playing with toys has been an established part of early childhood education for many years. Educators and theorists agree that opportunities to engage in make-believe play provide a wide range of avenues for enhancing literacy practices in the early years as children make meaning of their surrounding contexts. The increased availability and accessibility of mobile digital technologies has seen children more frequently engage in screen-based or “digital” play, sometimes leaving behind traditional forms of make-believe play with physical objects in physical spaces.  However, when combined traditional make-believe and digital play complement each other in providing a rich texture for making meaning. An instance of onscreen and offscreen play is deconstructed to show the meaning-making complexities for child participants. This paper examines four propositions associated with meaning making – space, mediation, materiality and embodiment (Burnett, Merchant, Pahl & Rowsell, 2014) to discuss the complex and diverse relationships between the immaterial and material experience in a literacy episode which combines onscreen and offscreen play. Reported herein are the ways that imaginative play and literacy practices are enriched in the environments which blend physical toys and digital experiences.

Keywords: Digital play, imaginative play, meaning making, literacy, Minecraft

The central role of play in the lives of young children has long been valued (Singer & Singer, 1990).  Imaginative play enables children to advance their cognitive and socio-emotional development as they operate at their “highest level” of development (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102). As children play, they take control of their actions which are meaningful in the context of their play, within the environment within which they are situated.

Spontaneous make-believe play, taken up by children who play together, enables them to use many cognitive processes. These processes include making plans and finding ways to carry these out to transform activities from their real objective and objects to imagined scenarios (Farver, 1992). The imaginary worlds that children create enable them to manipulate place, time, symbols and roles (Dunn, 2008) as they take the initiative and make choices about the activities in which they engage. This in turn, fosters meaning-making opportunities. Whenever play partners communicate, they do so from their own personal context but in collaboration they scaffold each other to move into new possibilities (Cazden, 2003).

A range of complex social and literacy skills are activated during play to support meaning-making processes. Literacy is concerned with social acts of meaning and the practices that occur within these (Barton & Hamilton, 1998). Davies (2009) identifies some of the necessary social and literacy skills as including, planning and preparation skills, teamwork, linguistic expertise to communicate purposes and processes. Marsh (2006) describes ‘communicative practices’ (p. 19) of children in reference to the range of multimodal meaning-making opportunities that children navigate as they operate in different spaces, places and times. As children use language to share their meaning to cast and recast ideas, they create social realities (Daniels, 2014).

Genishi and Dyson (2009) assert that language is central to children’s play. Through language children activate their metacommunicative talk (Verenikina, Harris & Lysaght, 2003) as they take on new roles, interact with others and articulate their understandings. Children develop their collaborative skills as they reciprocally negotiate roles in the play scenario. While there might be some modeling from adults or peers, children attempt to communicate and integrate their everyday conventional or reconstructed knowledge of the social world with that of their partners (Farver, 1992; Garvey, 1990). The ability to “stand outside their play and talk about it” (Verenikina, Harris & Lysaght, 2003, p. 3) provides important foundational development for self-reflection, self-awareness and communicative strategies. This then raises the question, what does play look like when digital mediums enter the scenario?

Digital technologies have become common and easily accessed materials in many children’s homes. Technology use in the home context has been the focus of research (for example, Pahl, 2010; Marsh, 2006) with strong argument for the need to continue to examine children’s literacy practices in these contexts. As Johnson and Christie (2009) argued, “The important issue is how to maximize the positive consequences of these new media so that they enrich rather than hinder children’s play experiences.” (p. 285). Indeed, digital play is, perhaps, “the first qualitatively different form of play that has been introduced in at least several hundred years” (Salonius-Pasternak & Gelfond, 2005, p. 6) which merits an examination of its role in enriching children’s imaginative play.

This paper is interested in the playful transitions that emerge between offscreen and onscreen play contexts and the subsequent meaning-making complexities presented to children. We differentiate between physical and digital play contexts and the literacy event that emerges from such play, and our focus on offscreen and onscreen highlights the important interactions that exist when an app and physical toys are used simultaneously (Burnett et al., 2014). In taking this approach, we are able to explicate these transitions further as we also consider the more general issues of textuality, figured worlds, identity and power (Street, 2003) that also emerge.

Meaning-making occurs through the varied and multiple immaterial ways that materials are used. Fenwick and Edwards (2014) argue the assemblage of materials, ideas, practices and pedagogies that are always active and interrelated. It is in understanding how things “come together, and manage to hold together” (Fenwick & Edwards, 2011, p. 721) that we approach the analysis of onscreen and offscreen play.

A moment on Minecraft

Minecraft allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D procedurally generated world. It was developed by Markus “Notch” Persson, a Swedish programmer, and published and distributed for PC use in 2009 by Mojang, a Swedish company. Since this time, versions of Minecraft have been released for PlayStation, Xbox and tablets. It is the iPad app version of Minecraft that is the focus of this paper.

While building is the central remit of the program, the capabilities to produce, explore, gather resources, network with others and engage in combat are also offered. In its creative mode, the user is able to take control of what they engage with within the game. There are no specific goals for the player to achieve. The design interface is quite simple and the user is able to intuitively work out what it is they need to do. There are frequent opportunities for problem solving as the user makes decisions about how to best construct their world by manipulating the tools within the app. There are other modes where the player engages in protecting their world. Level of difficulty can also be set for the play. Further, there are opportunities to network with others to collaboratively engage with the app.

Minecraft is five years old, and has attracted significant attention. Representation of Minecraft in the research space is at this time still developing. There has been some research focused on application of the game to mathematical learning including manipulation of 3D computer graphics (Repenning, Webb, Brand, Gluck, Grover, Miller, Nickerson & Song, 2014) and application of mathematical concepts (Bos, Wilder, Cook & O’Donnell, 2014). Other research agendas have focused on more interpersonal development including identity development (Dezuanni, Beavis & O’Mara, 2014), social skills (Frank & Tarshis, 2013), creativity (Duncan, 2011) and the community created amongst players of Minecraft (Kopecky, Kusa, Hejsek, Polak & Maresova, 2014).

In our own research where we have interviewed parents of pre-schoolers (children aged 3-5 years) about digital play with tablet technologies (Verenikina, Kervin & Murphy, 2013), we have several examples where conversation has turned to Minecraft. Minecraft was identified as a favourite app amongst many children. Interestingly, for most of these families, the push to have access to and engage with Minecraft came from the children. One parent described, “they said they wanted to play it”, another acknowledged, “everyone seemed to be playing” and the connection to peers was described as a mother explained, “socially we mix with friends and Minecraft is very popular”. While the parents identified that it was older children (6 -8 year olds) in their homes that mostly engaged with Minecraft, they did identify that their pre-schoolers were certainly aware of the game, if not already interacting with it. One father identified that his 5 year old son “like[d] to create imaginary worlds” in Minecraft and a mother shared that her three children often worked on the one device where “one of them will be doing it but then they’re all inputting into what they are doing”.

While this is interesting contextual information about the lives of these families with young children, the need to examine the meaning-making complexities for children as they engage in digital play came to the forefront. Acknowledging the home as an important setting for digital play, we encouraged families who consented to participate in the research to make and record observations of their children when they noticed interactions with their children and digital technologies. Parents were encouraged to record their observations through video recordings and/or written reflections. These observations gave us important insights to our research objective focused on exploring families’ perspectives on the role and place of digital technologies in the lives of their children in relation to children’s play. This paper presents a vignette of a literacy event captured by a parent and reported to the researchers. While it is understood that a single vignette has limitations, it is used in this paper to provide “…a single point of reference for a complex set of ideas” (Burnett et al., 2014, p. 92). In this paper discussion of the vignette enables us to ask the questions: what happens when constructive play meets make-believe play in a blend of onscreen and offscreen forums in a home context? What literacy opportunities do these collaborative play experiences offer for children?

Using Burnett et al.’s (2014) four propositions that highlight the complex and diverse relationships between the immaterial and material, this paper provides an example of a literacy event which we have analysed to further explore how relationships between space, mediation, materiality (object) and embodiment to literacy practices are activated. We acknowledge the enmeshment between the material and immaterial and the interconnections that exist between and among the propositions.

A vignette: The LEGO / Minecraft playdate

The following vignette originated from an observation made by Deanna, Natalie’s mother, which was further explicated through interviews with Deanna and the researchers. The children had been involved in an earlier stage of the larger research project and the researchers had observed these children in instances of digital play. The researchers also had opportunity to talk with the children about this literacy event, which helped in the development of this vignette.

Natalie, a seven year old girl invited her friend Zack (also seven years old) to her house for a LEGO playdate to create a city. There was a lot of new residential building in the area where the families lived, and both children had shown considerable interest in the process of construction. There had been some public unrest about this new residential area and at school the children had been involved with learning experiences where they focused on concerns about the increased population in the area and the demands this might have on infrastructure such as road congestion, access to basic services and school enrolments. The children were set up with the LEGO in a room in the house where they could spread out and create their city, undisturbed from siblings. Deanna envisaged that the LEGO play would take space and a cleared floor area was important in her preparation for the playdate.

When later Deanna went to check on Natalie and Zack, she found Zack playing with the LEGO and Natalie playing with the Minecraft app on the iPad. Expressing her disappointment that they didn’t seem to be playing together, Zack clarified the situation to Deanna by explaining that they were building their city with LEGO and in Minecraft at the same time. He explained, while he was building with LEGO, Natalie was creating that structure using Minecraft and later they would compare and contrast the two representations to look for similarities and differences. As they did this they were looking for the ‘best way’ to create the structure to support its environment and the needs of the people that lived there. And then they would switch. This building role-play enabled them to explore a similar task from two different contexts.

Deanna stood back and watched the play for some time. She saw periods of silence as Natalie and Zack were engaged in their “building”. She heard them ask questions of each other (such as, ‘why did you …?’ and ‘how will this work..?’) and listened as technique, purpose and intricacies were described. She noticed that the process of construction on the iPad was faster and saw the iPad user help the LEGO builder catch up to where the game was at. As Natalie and Zack took moments to compare and contrast their structures she heard some disagreement as they debated specific features but also saw them move between the real and the virtual as they demonstrated skills and intricacies of the constructions to each other. A discussion followed as the children negotiated their next construction ‘challenge’ as the play continued. Deanna was amazed how much the children were drawn into their play.

Focus on Space: The relationships between the material and immaterial

Interactions with and use of space is central to play. Designated areas, with resources and time for children to interact with this, has been a long standing feature of many learning environments for children. However, while creating opportunities for play through space, it is acknowledged that space and resources alone may not stimulate all children to engage in play (Dunn, 2008).

The social and material constitution of spaces helps us to understand the practices, institutional forces, and material complexity of how humans interact with the spaces they are located within. If we understand that spaces are undergoing constant construction (Leander & Sheehy, 2004) we then acknowledge that the boundaries and qualities of space are shaped by what people do and have done, as well as how they and others see their significance and future possibilities (Burnett et al., 2014).

If we transfer these understandings of space into onscreen and offscreen contexts as described in the vignette, it is important to consider the hybridity that emerges as interactions between spaces become fluid. Natalie and Zack moved between their offscreen LEGO play and their onscreen Minecraft play. Literacy practices span real and virtual networks, therefore we need to consider how space is conceived and used in both the onscreen and offscreen context, and the similarities and differences that emerge.  These children created a make-believe scenario where they negotiated a structure and took turns at creating it using both onscreen and offscreen materials.

It becomes important to consider the qualities and boundaries of onscreen and offscreen spaces and how each is operationalized. The vignette presented shows that the value in the experience for these two children was not just in what was created in the onscreen or offscreen context, but rather how the children negotiated their activities in their ‘shared imaginary space’ as they moved between the worlds through their interactions with each other. Both children were working with materials they were familiar with (LEGO blocks and the Minecraft app), however the shared imaginary space allowed for a discussion through their comparison of their creations in the onscreen and offscreen spaces that provided opportunity for the children to shift their focus and status as they moved from being an expert, to critic, to instructor, and to mentor. The children demonstrated relationships with their onscreen and offscreen creations but also with each other as they moved between the creation and the critique.

The LEGO constructions and the visual representations of these created in Minecraft can be considered multimodal texts (Siegel, 2006). The compositional elements (Kress, 2010) manipulated by the children resulted in physical and digital textual assemblies to meet the social and affective needs of their imaginative play. As the children created the physical and digital texts in the onscreen and offscreen environments they negotiated the materials as they engaged with the necessary physical actions. Each child demonstrated they were able to sort, push, drag and click to create their structures.  These children were able to examine the physical and virtual structures (their created texts) as they demonstrated their meaning-making through their verbal interactions.

This example of imaginative play reframes the possibilities for play as the children combined and moved between onscreen and offscreen contexts. Their interactions between these contexts create textual assemblies that are both a physical artifact and a digital representation and in turn blurs the boundaries between onscreen and offscreen reality (Kress, 2010). The different semiotic representations that they created from a shared experience seemed to motivate continued play. Further, the ability to retain these representations and extend upon these through further play may be considered a developmental benefit as the ideas of the ‘game’ are transferred between the onscreen and offscreen play contexts.

Focus on mediation: The shifting relationships between material and immaterial

The relationship between the virtual and the material is one that needs to be further investigated. To understand this relationship we need to carefully examine the visual and how these represent the semiotic representations between onscreen and offscreen practices.

The relationship is no doubt complex and quite sophisticated. Bolter and Grusin (2000) claim that technological sophistication leads us towards the “logic of transparent immediacy” (p. 21). In this vignette we look at the complex visuals that are created through the offscreen LEGO building and the onscreen Minecraft creation, developed together and with mutual representational qualities. Each draws upon a range of different semiotic resources (Kress, 2010) as the children look across these texts to replicate in the first instance and then to compare and contrast the constructions. The use of this experience to then set goals for the next ‘level’ of play provides further example of the complexity.

The movement of the children between onscreen and offscreen play, and the representations of this, brings to our attention a range of rules, routines, expectations and semiotic resources (Kress 2003, 2010). However, we need to also consider what these might look like as the play unfolds. What is it that changes and what stays the same? For example, the turn-taking structure the children devised to determine who is onscreen and offscreen requires navigation of technology (Minecraft) and equipment (LEGO) and the associated rules of play with each and for the comparative exercises. These children do ‘… appear to believe in both worlds’ (Burnett et al., 2014, p. 96). This does beg the question: how do the two spaces interrelate and overlap?

While the children appeared to move seamlessly between the material and the immaterial, it is important to consider possible interruptions and the impact of these. For example, the disappointment that Deanna referred to when she checked on the children that they didn’t seem to be playing together would have interrupted the children’s play. It is interesting that it was the visiting child (Zack) that clarified the situation to Deanna and explained the rules of their play. This suggests that Zack was quite familiar and comfortable within the home context and with Deanna. However, the interruption still serves as an interruption to the logic of transparency within the onscreen and offscreen play.

The onscreen and offscreen interactions in this vignette seem to motivate learning. This motivation is partly triggered by the opportunity to collaborate and interact with a peer as tools of interest are manipulated.

Focus on Object: Literacies are materialised

There is a reflexive relationship between the material and immaterial as the children construct meaning in this vignette. The perspective of what has been created with LEGO is represented in the Minecraft creation. The discussion that occurs between the children encapsulates experiences throughout the process and the critique reveals their feelings and perspectives of the created artifacts.

Holland and colleagues (2001) described the notion of ‘figured worlds’ as imagined spaces of practice (pp. 52-53) (not dissimilar to our previous discussion on ‘joint imaginary space’). These worlds are those spaces where events and practices take place. The physical making of texts (the LEGO or Minecraft creations) in this home context can be considered meaning-making activities. The Minecraft creations are in fact a representation of the LEGO creation (and vice versa), but also a representation that is captured from the perspective and ability of the creators as they operate within the home context. The opportunity for these children to re-create the space (home context) and transform the materials within (LEGO and Minecraft) enabled them to create text (the physical and digital constructions) to create a different figured world (Pahl, 2008).

In this sense, texts are traces of social practice. They are objects that carry identities, of their creators and revisers and of those who interact (Pahl & Rowsell, 2006). The use of material artefacts and manipulation of these within digital and physical spaces enables substantive and creative play, enhanced literacy learning and substantive meaning-making opportunities. Through the digital arena the children were able to look at regular play objects (the LEGO) in new ways.

The children’s personal abilities and perspectives materialized in the physical and virtual constructions they made. These constructions became texts as they materialized from the play experience. The experience itself was authentic as the children determined to goal, assumed roles and set the parameters around what was to be done, therefore making it a practice-based and action-oriented example of situatedness (Fenwick, 2014). As a literacy event, it was the result of the conditions in which the experience materialized.

Focus on Embodiment: Meaning-making is personified

The experience of these children in this play encounter provides insight into how the onscreen and offscreen experiences shaped how they made meaning throughout the experience. The children were connected to the home context within which they played, their play experience was connected to their interaction with the onscreen and offscreen spaces and their actions were physically and spatially situated (Ciolfi, 2013). The home context was augmented by the play that linked physical and digital spaces in a joint imaginary space; the ‘figured world’ of their play.

The play experience these children created provides example of the potential relationship between onscreen and offscreen interactions. There was clear relationship between created texts and their felt experience. At all times, the children chose to participate; they took turns at working onscreen and offscreen, they both assisted with the LEGO and Minecraft constructions, and in leading the discussion critiquing the two versions of the one construction. Their engagement with the experience as a whole enabled meaning to be made.

Their created texts demonstrated the children’s meaning-making throughout the play process (Kress, 2010). The imaginative play determined the process for text construction and the creations each represented the understandings the children made of the experience. The ‘semiotic work’ (Kress, 2010) completed by the children was indeed representative of the visible and internal meaning-making processes activated by the play and represented by the children in the physical and virtual texts. The meanings were translated across the virtual and physical modes.

While it is said that digital play can be constrained through the technology itself, or a child’s own technological skills (Burnett et al., 2014), in this example, the children were able to work together to support each other to see the possibilities available within a fairly ill-defined digital space. Through this process, they were able to support each other with the necessary skills as they moved from the concrete to the virtual with social interaction and collaborative support. The relationship that existed between the two children did much to promote agency. Through play, they were able to discover the possibilities for different semiotic resources – represent, question, discuss, critique, challenge, and so on – and through this process they were positioned as active participants within the context. These resources enabled their different perspectives to be interwoven as onscreen and offscreen interactions were mediated as they explored their physical and virtual creations.

Concluding comments

Examination of the vignette with Burnett et al.’s (2014) four propositions highlights the complex and diverse relationships between onscreen and offscreen experiences in children’s play. In doing so, much is revealed about the careful interplay between the physical, temporal and spatial elements in this instance of onscreen and offscreen play. These children demonstrated they were able to use the tools and technologies in their context for meaning-making purposes.

Engaging in play is a meaning-making experience. Minecraft is often perceived to be a more solitary space for creative play as the user builds a world within the digital environment and continues to operate in an onscreen capacity. However, analysis of this vignette shows how these children embedded elements of simultaneous play in onscreen and offscreen contexts (as they created the same world side by side using concrete and virtual materials) and were able to move into co-creation of a play episode as they took control over the materials, time and space to engage with high levels of shared understanding. In this example, the children demonstrated high levels of cooperation and collaboration (Daniels, 2014) as they fluidly moved between the onscreen and offscreen contexts in their play. Both the physical and digital resources played central roles in the play episode created, facilitated and pursued by the children.

This example shows how play can look when digital mediums are included. We acknowledge that this is one case, however, we believe it offers insights that are the beginning of what could be an important contribution to the field with observations of more participants to generate data that could be quantified. However, this case does point to both the onscreen and offscreen experiences as being valuable and the devised literacy event of critiquing the constructions made provided for powerful language use. The children were able to interact with the meaningful texts they had each created and demonstrated their understanding of language features associated with the play they had created. Through their interactions, the children were able to draw upon their own experiences with the Minecraft App and LEGO blocks to introduce and consolidate the language of the onscreen/offscreen game they had created. As such, these peers become a resource for new learning for each other as their interactions enriched the play experience for each other. The children demonstrated their understanding of the literacy event by being provided with the space, materials and time to explore the intricacies of their game.

Davies (2009) identified “many new technologies provide routes to playful activities” (p. 31). This example has shown how two seven year old children were able to integrate their traditional and digital play resources to create their own joint aims and goals for their play. These children were able to assume playful roles and their actions were recognized and respected by their playmate. The texts they created, using both LEGO and Minecraft, and the conversation that surrounded the development and critique of these were creative and rich as they activated their explorative and improvised literacy practices (Lambirth, 2005). There is reciprocity in sharing peer relations, manipulating artifacts and being an object other to oneself and increasingly acknowledging other perspectives. Both the physical and digital play objects provided valuable opportunities for meaning-making for each participant.

Playfulness can lead to productive outcomes in terms of learning and development. These children chose to participate in the event and customized their rules of play, which led to opportunities for learning (Gee, 2003). Participation in onscreen and offscreen spaces provide opportunity for children to communicate their ideas and understandings in new, interesting and different ways (Vasquez & Felderman, 2013). The vignette emerges from a play scenario that was spontaneous with rules that came from the players themselves. The children were ‘playful social learners’ (Kerin, 2009 p. 133) who engaged with technologies in social and pleasurable ways, which in turn demonstrated their confidence and mastery of the onscreen and offscreen play experience.

Examination of this vignette requires us to reconsider an either/or attitude to physical toys and digital opportunities. It is time to reconsider, remap and reinvent opportunities for play as we consider the relationships that exist between the material and immaterial and the ways children choose to interact with onscreen and offscreen encounters. Both onscreen and offscreen play opportunities have much to offer to children as they collaboratively engage with imagined play scenarios.

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Acknowledgement

This work was supported by the Australian Research Council under Discovery Grant DP140100328 (Conceptualising digital play: The role of tablet technologies in the development of imaginative play of young children)

Author biographies

A/Prof Lisa Kervin leads Language and Literacy teaching and research in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Lisa is an experienced educator, consultant and researcher. Lisa is an active member of the Early Start Research Institute and her current research interests are focused on young children and how they engage with literate practices. She is involved in research projects funded by the Australian Research Council focused on Digital Play, children’s writing, and the development and implementation of the Australian English Curriculum.  She has researched her own teaching and has collaborative research partnerships in tertiary and primary classrooms and prior-to-school settings.  Lisa has received research awards including the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research in 2011 and the International Literacy Research Fellowship for work in multiliteracies from the International Reading Association in 2006. Lisa is currently the NSW Director for the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.

Contact: lkervin@uow.edu.au

A/Prof Irina Verenikina is an educational psychologist in the School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong. She holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology from Russian Academy of Education and Masters of Science (Honors) in Educational and Developmental Psychology from the Faculty of Psychology, Moscow State University, Russia. Her research interests relate to the application of Sociocultural Psychology and Activity Theory to the study of the effective use of digital technologies in teaching and learning in various educational contexts such as early childhood education, special education, literacy and music education. Irina is an author of over one hundred publications. In 2014 she chaired the Triennial International Congress of the International Society for Cultural Research and Activity Theory (ISCAR) held in Sydney, Australia.

Maria Clara Rivera, a qualified teacher, is Project Officer for the ARC funded project on Digital Play (of which Verenikina and Kervin are Chief Investigators). Clara holds a Masters of Multimedia Design (with Honours) from the Sydney College of Arts, University of Sydney. With previous experience working with children in disadvantaged communities in Ireland, Clara has engaged young people in developing creative thinking skills through digital media.

David Ockert

Published Online: December 18, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This paper reports the survey results of a group of students at an elementary school in Japan, who engaged in a computer mediated communication exchange with native speaker of English elementary school students in Australia. The schools collaborated to provide the students an opportunity to introduce each other and conduct various activities using Skype. The self-report measure was administered to an experimental and control group before and after the Skype exchange. The results show that the experimental group had statistically significant increases in their desire to engage in foreign language activities (p < .01); international posture (p < .01), motivation (p < .01), and desire to visit foreign countries (p < .05). In addition, the Glass’ Δ effect size measures for the experimental group are: Foreign language activities = .83; International Posture =1.06; Motivation = .80; and Desire to visit foreign countries = .54. These results are very encouraging. The efficacy of including multimodal computer mediated communication exchanges in foreign language learning contexts is discussed.

Keywords: Affect; CALL; computer mediated communication; international posture; motivation; multimodal; willingness to communicate

Introduction

In the Japanese EFL (JEFL) context, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) strives to improve students’ communication skills, including listening, speaking, reading and writing. At the level of primary school education, MEXT also hopes to deepen their understanding of FL and foreign cultures in order to develop a positive attitude toward communication through FL activities (MEXT, 2003). This paper begins with a review the shift in EFL education from an integrative motivational orientation for English learning to an international posture regarding English as a part of learners’ global outlook. Next, previous research studies on student affect are examined. These include: computer mediated communication (CMC) based foreign language activities (FLAs), student international posture (IP; Yashima, 2002), willingness to communicate (WTC; McCroskey & Baer, 1985), self-perceived communicative competence, students’ motivation toward EFL, and student desire to travel overseas. As affect is crucial to L2 learning (see Richards, 2012), the changes of these six variables are explored. In order to do so, the students (N = 58) reported via a self-report instrument. This paper concludes by appealing to curriculum designers and teachers in general to consider the results with the understanding that this research project has a variety of purposes. One of the most important of which is the broadening of our students’ horizons via English language learning and thereby help them become global citizens (Lamb, 2004; Ushioda, 2006; Ushioda & Dörnyei, 2012; Yashima, 2002). The use of available technologies to communicate with students in another country is an enjoyable and low-cost means to attain this goal.

More specifically, this paper reports on an examination of the effects of multimodal CMC (MCMC) use in a Japanese elementary school English as a foreign language environment. The results of a class of Japanese school students (n = 29) who used the Skype video software to communicate with a group of elementary school students in Australia on three separate occasions. These results are presented in comparison with a control group, the members of which had no Skype intervention (n = 29). In doing so, this paper builds on previously reported research ( Ockert, 2014, 2015; Ockert & Tagami, 2014; Tagami, 2011a, 2011b). MCMC allows classroom teachers to bring the real world into the classroom, which broadens the students’ horizons by exposing them to native speakers of English (NSEs) from another country – promoting an IP in the students. Furthermore, this method authentically involves the students themselves in the learning process, increasing autonomy and intrinsic motivation (Reeve & Halusic, 2009). The research results presented herein show high correlations between motivation, IP, and the WTC of elementary Japanese students studying English. Educators benefit by realizing that this group of students really enjoyed the language exchange experience using Skype, which resulted in an increase of several affective variables when compared with a control group. It is hypothesized that live language exchanges via Skype create a valid replication of a real-world, face-to-face language exchange, resulting in a heightened L2 self-image (Dörnyei, 2009), and an increase in student affect toward EFL learning.

Affective variables in the JEFL context

The introduction of international posture in EFL research

In the field of L2 motivation, the integrative orientation is by far the most researched theoretical concept to date (Crookes & Schmidt, 1991). As defined by Gardner and Lambert (1972), the integrative orientation reflects “a sincere and personal interest in the people and culture represented by the other group” (p. 132). Gardner and Lambert (1972; Gardner, 1985) explained that the integrative concept derives from a parallel they drew with processes of social identification underpinning first language acquisition (in Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009). Recently, the debate surrounding the integrative concept has grown larger. For example, in an EFL setting, there is no immediate group of L2 speakers into which a learner can integrate. Therefore, is the notion of integrativeness applicable any longer? Many researchers are beginning to investigate this very question (e.g. Ushioda, 2006). As a result, the concept has been re-thought, mainly prompted by the growing discussions of its applicability in applied linguistics due to the spread of English as a global language. Especially given the recent curricular inclusion of English as a basic skill to be taught from the primary school level in Japan (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009; MEXT, 2003), can the concept of integrative orientation be applied in situations where there is no specific target reference group of speakers? Does the idea of an integrative motivational orientation for learning English have real meaning anymore?

For EFL learners, the English language often symbolizes the world around them, something that connects them to foreign countries and foreigners with whom they can communicate by using English (Gudykunst & Kim, 1984). Since the JEFL context is such that daily contact with native speakers of English remains infrequent if at all, learners are not likely to have a clear affective reaction to the specific L2 language group (Ushioda, 2006). For example, as Ushioda (2006) noted, since English is spoken by members of a global community, the question arises whether it is appropriate to conceptualize its members as an external reference group, or as part of one’s internal representation of oneself as a de facto member of that global community. It is this theoretical shift of focus to the “internal domain of self and identity that marks the most radical rethinking of the integrative concept” (p. 150).

Within the JEFL context, for example, Yashima (2000) found that English seems to represent something broader than people from the US or Britain in the minds of young Japanese learners. As a result of her research, she expanded on the definition of ‘integrativeness’ (Gardner, 1985) to refer to a generalized international outlook or posture (IP). She defines IP as an “interest in foreign or international affairs, willingness to go overseas to stay or work, readiness to interact with intercultural partners, and…openness or a non-ethnocentric attitude toward different cultures” (p. 57). As an expansion of the integrative concept, IP tries to catch the learner’s attitude toward the world and interest(s) toward the world outside Japan. Working with colleagues (see Yashima et al, 2004), she has been able to define IP operationally. Therefore, this identity with ‘foreignness’ possesses an international outlook and the attendant attitudes to different cultures and foreigners that are non-Japanese (Yashima et al., 2004). Within the JEFL context, this work has been the basis for examining the relationships among IP, L2 learning motivation, L2 proficiency, and L2 communication confidence in an L2.        Thus, the IP concept broadens the idea of integrativeness into a more global framework. Within this framework, L2 learners develop a desire to communicate with speakers of English, yet not necessarily integrate with them. Instead, they have a ‘cross-cultural intention’. Adachi (2009) defines ‘cross-cultural intention’ as the concept of the community in countries that used English and sympathy and understanding toward the culture of English speakers. In her research, she found a relationship between motivation and the cross-cultural intention of students.

Motivation and young L2 learners

Regarding children, Amibile (1989) believes that intrinsic motivation has four parts: 1) having love for and even an obsession with the task at hand, 2) a sense of dedication to the work over time, 3) a view of the project as combining work and play, and 4) concentration on the activity itself. Her research gives us an even deeper understanding of how persons who are intrinsically motivated feel when engaged in a task. They see the activity as both work and play, and they have a love for the task at hand.

Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) has been used in a variety of fields over the past twenty five years with consistent results. Within the field of education, much of the research has consistently pointed to the importance of motivation from within (Deci & Flaste, 1996; Jang, Reeve & Deci, 2010; Reeve & Halusic, 2009), whether defined in terms of intrinsic or integrative motivation (as opposed to an extrinsic or instrumental motivation). This ‘motivation from within’ is believed to sustain the learning process more effectively than motivation that is externally regulated or controlled by the teacher and the research evidence thus far supports this view (e.g. Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000; 2002), and the message for educators clearly shows that in order to help our students, we need to find ways of finding, supporting and maintaining students’ own motivation to learn (Ushioda, 2006).

Motivation is certainly one of the main dimensions on which research in CMC has focused since its origins (for an overview, see Stockwell, 2013). Researchers have reported on increased motivation as a result of CMC in several studies (e.g. Wu, Marek & Yen, 2012). There are various reasons, including the result of exposure to stimulating and authentic learning contexts (Kern, 1996; Thorne, 2008), of collaborative work in a less-threatening environment (Beauvois, 1998; Friermouth & Jarrell, 2006), and of learners’ perceived feeling of having control over their own learning (Warschauer, 1996). Within the JEFL context, utilizing activities that get young students physically active in the learning process are encouraged (MEXT, 2003;Ockert, 2010). This aspect of CMC motivation will be explored in more detail below and are the basis for the exchange activities used in this study.

L2 self-confidence and self-perceived communicative competence

MacIntyre and his associates (Donovan & MacIntyre, 2005; MacIntyre, 1994; MacIntyre & MacDonald, 1998; MacIntyre & Charos, 1996; MacIntyre, Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1998) identified a concept which they have labeled ‘perceived communicative competence’. This competency influences the communicative process of how people influence each other verbally / aurally and / or with symbols (such as writing systems) and therefore, visually through the interpretation of those symbols or words. How a learner perceives their ability to communicate will be influenced by how well they have mastered each of the above skills.

In EFL studies, Yashima (2002) found a positive, causal relationship between motivation (which was comprised of two indicator variables, desire and intensity) and communication confidence (comprised of two indicator variables – communication anxiety, aka nervousness, and perceived communication competence) in the L2, which led to WTC. In addition, Yashima et al. (2004) found that “self-confidence in communication in an L2 is crucial for a person to be willing to communicate in that L2” (p. 141). The role of confidence as a predictor variable for WTC has also been found by Hashimoto (2002). In addition, Matsuoka’s (2005) results indicate that while WTC and proficiency are not correlated, confidence may predict English proficiency amongst Japanese college students. As mentioned above, research has shown that tech-based interventions can have a positive impact on WTC, via confidence (Ockert, 2013, 2014).

The research presented in this section supports the idea that student confidence toward language use and proficiency are intimately related. Therefore, researchers have hypothesized “that anxiety and, by extension, self-confidence in the L2 classroom are intimately linked to classroom processes” (Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1994, p. 423). What, specifically, can educators do in the classroom to actively involve their students in the classroom processes to improve self-confidence? Guarda (2012) wrote how telecollaboration between learners of different backgrounds includes “the specific goal of helping participants develop and manifest intercultural communicative competence” (p. 20). An MCMC study by Wu, Marek, and Yen (2012), in which the participants interacted “live” via the Internet with a native English speaker, found that student confidence and performance improved as a result of the exchange. The research presented in this paper explores to what extent in-class language exchanges via Skype have on student affective variables, including self-perceived communicative competence in EFL.

Willingness to communicate

An issue that can affect students’ classroom participation is their willingness to attempt to use English in the classroom (i.e. WTC; McCroskey & Baer, 1985). In L1 studies, McCroskey and his associates have researched and reported extensively on this construct (McCroskey, 1992; McCroskey & Richmond, 1987; 1991). WTC captures the major implications that affective variables such as anomie, communication apprehension, introversion, reticence, self-esteem and shyness have in regards to their influence on communicative behavior (McCroskey & Richmond, 1991).

In L2 studies on WTC, MacIntyre (1994) developed a path model speculating that in L2 communication, WTC is based on a combination of perceived communicative competence and a low level of communication anxiety. As L2 communication contexts contain several “inter-group issues, social and political implications” (MacIntyre & MacDonald, 1998, p. 546), WTC in the L2 is not regarded as a simple manifestation of L1 WTC, which is believed to be more of a personality trait. Therefore, MacIntyre’s (1994) model proposes that perceived competence and anxiety affect WTC separately. MacIntyre and Clément (1996) showed that motivation influenced WTC in the L2, which, in turn, resulted in increased frequency of L2 communication. In studies conducted in other contexts, WTC was a predictor of frequency of communication in the L2, while motivation was a predictor of WTC and/or frequency of communication (MacIntyre & Charos, 1996; MacIntyre & Clément, 1996). Furthermore, Clément, Baker and MacIntyre (2003) have shown that WTC in an L2 is influenced by the learning situation and social norms of the learners.

In later L2 studies, MacIntyre (2007) and Peng and Woodrow (2010), revealed that WTC is linked to variables such as personality, self-confidence, attitudes, and motivation, and is linked to anxiety as well as learners’ views of their own communicative competence. According to Peng and Woodrow (2010), it is “learners who have higher perceptions of their communication competence and experience a lower level of communication anxiety tend to be more willing to initiate communication” (p.836). However other situational factors are also involved, such as topic, task, group size, and cultural background (Cao, 2011). For example, in some cultures, students may be more willing to communicate in front of their peers in the classroom than in other cultures. Wen and Clément (2003) suggest that in China, group cohesiveness and attachment to group members influence Chinese students’ WTC in the classroom. A student may believe that if he or she speaks up in class this may not be valued by other students since it is judged as ‘showing off’ and an attempt to make other students look weak. Teachers in Japan frequently express the difficulty of getting students to communicate in English in front of their peers (see Dwyer & Heller-Murphy, 1996; Jones, 1999).

Yashima and her associates (Yashima, 2000, 2002; Yashima et al., 2004; Yashima et al., 2009) have conducted research on WTC in the JEFL context in relation to several affective variables. For example, language learning orientations and motivations of Japanese college students (Yashima, 2000), student willingness to communicate (Yashima, 2002), the influence of attitudes and affect on willingness to communicate and second language communication (Yashima et al., 2004) and the interplay of classroom anxiety, intrinsic motivation, and gender (Yashima et al., 2009). Yashima et al. (2004) demonstrated that by combining the two models of Clément and Kruidenier (1985) and MacIntyre and Clément (1996) that L2 self-confidence leads to L2 WTC. They concluded that “self-confidence in communication in an L2 is crucial for a person to be willing to communicate in that L2” (p. 141).

Additional research on WTC in the JEFL environment by Matsuoka (2005) confirms several of the above results. Her study used structural equation modeling (SEM) and multiple regression analysis which showed that motivational intensity, communication apprehension and IP were significant predictors of L2 WTC. This led to the conclusion that perceived competence and L2 WTC were both predictors of L2 proficiency. Therefore, foreign language activities (FLAs) that promote perceived competence (aka self-confidence) in an L2 would almost certainly increase both WTC and L2 proficiency. Recent research results support this theory. For example, Ockert (2013, 2014) and Tagami (2011a, 2011b) reported that tech-based interventions positively influence student confidence toward EFL communication.

Desire to travel overseas

The desire to travel overseas and the desire to make friends with members of an L2 target community have been reported by Clément and his associates (see Clément & Krudenier, 1985; Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1994; Noels, Pelletier, Clément, & Vallerand, 2000). Clément and Kruidenier (1985) investigated the endorsement of reasons for learning second and foreign languages by various groups of learners differing in the degree of multiculturalism of their environments. Most of the groups studied with Clément and Kruidenier’s (1985) approach had at least a minimal amount of extracurricular contact with members of the target language group. Expanding on Clément and Kruidenier’s work, Dörnyei (1990) contended that L2 learning in a classroom situation could not actually involve attitudes toward an L2 community, as the learners have little or no contact with members of an L2 community. Furthermore, students’ desire to spend time abroad has been shown to be related to instrumental motives (e.g. future employment) and socio-cultural motives – such as a desire to make friends (Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1994).

Kramsch and Andersen (1999) commented that com­puters and the Internet seem to realize the dream of every language teacher–to bring the language and culture as close and as authentically as possible to students in the classroom. Furthermore, Guarda (2012) stated that CMC collaboration between members of different cultures includes intercultural learning. She reported that researchers and classroom practitioners point out that CMC fosters authenticity as it brings the students into contact with an authentic audience, which, in turn, empowers them to introduce and communicate on personally relevant topics. Particularly relevant to the present study, Tagami’s (2010) research demonstrated that EFL ESSs, too, have a strong desire to travel overseas. Furthermore, after these students were exposed to EFL via a video exchange, the students expressed a strong desire to go abroad in order to make friends (Tagami, 2011b).

MCMC cross-cultural EFL studies

Kress and van Leeuwen (2001) have defined multimodality as “the use of several semiotic modes in the design of a semiotic product or event, together with the particular way in which these modes are combined” (p. 20). In other words, the use of signs, symbols, facial expressions, words, body language, etc. are combined to produce comprehension in an interlocutor. For example, Meskill (1999) has reported that the use of multiple modalities (sight, sound, tactile, aural) contributes positively to language learning. In CALL research, MCMC L2 and EFL activities have received the attention of theorists and researchers (Felix; 2005; Hoven, 2006; Hsu, 2005; Lamy, 2012; Lamy & Flewitt, 2011). More specifically, research has demonstrated the positive effects of CMC on affective variables such as anxiety (see de los Arcos, Coleman & Hempel, 2009). In addition, in their small-scale study on WTC in EFL in an online game, Reinders and Wattana (2011) found that student WTC increased over time. In other words, exposure to EFL in a virtual environment was shown to have a positive influence on student FL WTC.

Hsu (2005) has reported on how the building of language-learning environments to help technological university students develop more independent attitudes toward learning English, Lan, Sung, and Chang (2006) have shown how collaborative early EFL reading among distributed learners benefits both groups of learners. Hampel and Hauck (2006) conducted research on multimodal virtual learning spaces which has contributed greatly to our understanding of how to incorporate CALL / CMC-based communication media into the classroom (see also Hoven, 2006; Lamy, 2012). Hampel and Hauck (2006) explored how persons communicate in order to construct meaning in MCMC contexts. Their research on (M)CMC-base language teaching and learning using multimodal communication via Internet-based audio-graphic conferencing confirmed what Meskill (1999) previously reported: “the engagement of multiple modalities (sight, sound, tactile, aural) is …a highly positive contributing factor for the language learning process” (p. 145).

There are several positive reasons for using computers in the classroom for CMC that are related to positively influencing student affect. Walther (2011) has outlined numerous theories related to (M)CMC and user affect. The social information processing (SIP) theory (Walther, 1992) has recently had its scope expanded to include multimedia forms of online communication (e.g. Skype). The theory “seeks to explain how, with time, CMC users are able to accrue impressions of and relations with others online, and these relations achieve the level of development that is expected through off-line communication (Walther, 2011, p. 458). Can multiple Skype exchanges enable participants to develop a relationship – or at least feel as comfortable communicating with others online the same as in a face-to-face situation? Can these exchanges benefit FL learners or at the least, positively influence their attitudes and affect toward FL learning?

Toward this end, Guarda (2012, reported on the benefits of utilizing CMC in FL education. Amongst the reasons she has listed are authenticity, motivation, and autonomy. In addition, several reports state that “electronic communication seems to bring about more equality in student participation than face-to-face classroom interaction” (p. 21). Furthermore, Hampel (2014) reported that learners often state that they feel more able to experiment and practice the target language in online conversations vs. in front of their peers or in face-to-face communication situations. For example,

…being online can have a positive impact on a learner’s identity and self-image and increase motivation (Dörnyei, 2005). If body language is available in online environments, it is mediated by an additional level of digital tools (webcam, video image, software), rather than through the body alone (gestures etc.). (p. 104)

This positive impact is believed to be due to the often reported fact that learners often feel more comfortable, relaxed, and free to experiment or make mistakes in an online environment compared to in class (Hampel, 2014).

In the JEFL learning situation, Kikuchi and Otsuka (2008), have reported on the use of social networking services (SNS) in the classroom and Takase (2009) has shown how scaffolding and network learning in CMC English classes using blogs improved performance. Also, studies involving computer-mediated communication in foreign language learning have been shown to benefit students of Japanese and English (Ramzan & Saito, 1998; Saito & Ishizuka, 2003). Furthermore, Freiermuth and Jarrell’s (2006) research on WTC and online chat has shown that a computer–mediated environment did, in fact, provide a more comfortable environment compared with a classroom learning setting. This resulted in the improvement of student WTC. In a more recent study to promote student EFL motivation, confidence, and satisfaction, Wu, Marek and Yen (2012) used Internet-based MCMC. In their study, EFL students in Taiwan interacted “live” with a NES in America. As mentioned above, student motivation, satisfaction, confidence, and performance improved as a result. The authors believe this is because CMC expands the engagement of students due to the interactive nature of the CMC methodology compared to traditional instruction methods (Wu, Marek & Yen, 2012).

CMC: Situational and task-based motivation

Foreign language activities

Motivation research demonstrates that young people – and especially children – are inherently motivated to be active in almost any situation and enjoy hands on activities (see Amibile, 1989). In addition, previous research results demonstrated that JEFL students are more interested in living the language via pragmatic task-based language learning activities compared with more traditional, teacher-fronted lessons (Ockert, 2006). These results are in line with Willis, who describes task-based activities as those in which the learners use language communicatively with the goal of achieving a desired outcome (1996). Using MCMC via Skype in order to allow EFL students to introduce themselves and communicate with NS peers is a great way to achieve this goal.

Furthermore, recognizing the significance of tasks in shaping learners’ interest and enthusiasm coincides with teachers’ perceptions: the quality of the activities used and the way they are presented makes a difference in students’ attitudes toward learning. Noels, Clément, and Pelletier (1999) noted that educators can develop and improve student motivation, since motivation can be developed and maintained by the social (classroom) environment. The social environment of the foreign language classroom can be developed to enhance motivation by including MCMC FLAs and, therefore, improve self-confidence (Clément, Dörnyei, & Noels, 1994).

Research conducted in EFL environments has shown that a combination of a learner’s personality (trait motivation) and situation specific (state) motivation contribute to EFL motivation (Julkenen, 2001). These in turn influence the learner’s perception of a specific task. In other words, task motivation depends on the general motivation of the learner combined with how they perceive the task. Julkunen (2001) has written that four factors influence task motivation: interest, relevance, expectancy, and outcome. Furthermore, Robinson and Gilabert (2007) have reported on the cognitive underpinnings of task-based learning. Their survey of the research shows that the psychology of the learner and the perceived complexity of the task influence the cognitive demands placed on the learner. Therefore, tasks that do not exceed learner ability are ideal.

In a study of JEFL students, Nose (2006) asked three questions regarding English language learning and use before and after an intervention. The intervention included communicating with a native speaker of English (NSE). The three questions were: Do you like English? Do you want to be able to speak English? And What is the most interesting (activity) during English time? His research revealed that 65% of the students responded to the third question ‘most favorably’. Those students who reported that ‘games’ was the most interesting activity for the third question gave three reasons as to why the games garnered their interest. The reasons given were: 1) an increase of interest as a result of talking with an NSE; 2) listening to a foreign language; and 3) the increase of awareness towards communication (the necessity of English).

In a summary of research to date on technology and motivation, Stockwell (2013) observed that it is often the case that students are motivated by the bells & whistles effect of utilizing a new technology in the learning process. In other words, the technology itself was motivating – not necessarily the learning process itself. However, Altun and Yildiz (2013) did find that task-type in CMC did influence student communication strategies (CSs). Their research found that interactive, jigsaw task types resulted in more use of CSs, and therefore, more communication. The CMC environment did, in fact, positively influence student communication. Therefore, since CMC can influence the different methods of communication between interlocutors, it would be reasonable to assume that MCMC would do the same. EFL educators in Japan are encouraged to teach English via physical activities (MEXT, 2003). Furthermore, previous research in elementary CMC learning conditions has demonstrated this to be a positive method of EFL learning (Tagami, 2011a, 2011b). Therefore, the research conducted for this study set out to examine the results of an EFL MCMC exchange via Skype.

MCMC studies, some involving Skype

Several studies have been published on the motivating aspects of CMC (see Stockwell, 2013). However, the majority focus on asynchronous CMC (Polat, Mancilla & Mahalingappa, 2013). Examples include blogging (Normand-Marconnet & Cordella, 2012), email exchanges (Bourques, 2006), virtual worlds (Felix, 2005; Peterson, 2008), writing coursework (Fageeh & Mekheimer, 2013; Rubesch & McNeil, 2010; Warschauer, 1996), and video use (Collins & Hunt, 2011). However, there have been relatively few research papers written on synchronous CMC exchanges, particularly multimodal CMC (MCMC) studies. Godwin-Jones (2005) suggested that the voice over internet protocol (VoIP) emerging technologies such as Skype may be disruptive technologies to traditional classrooms; there have been few reported studies on the changes in affective variables of students who engage in real-time MCMC. Basically, do these ‘disruptions’ have a positive or negative impact on student affect toward language learning?

One research project testing for changes in affective variables of Japanese students was carried out by Takiguchi (2002). His results show that real-time, in-class communication with students in foreign countries using an audiovisual teleconferencing system (e.g. Skype or Gizmo) improved student interest, concern, and desire.  The use of Skype has been reported on as enabling students at schools in various regions around the world to communicate (see Takaguchi, 2002). When students engage EFL via Skype, it is used as a means for authentic communication with tangible results. Studies have shown that doing so helped introduce JEFL students to many different cultures and English uses, with positive results on student affect (see Tagami, 2011a). Additionally, studies with elementary students have shown that strong correlations between Skype-based FLAs, motivation, IP, confidence, WTC, and interest in foreign cultures / desire to travel overseas are strong (see Ockert & Tagami, 2014; Tagami, 2011a, 2011b).

According to experts in the field, intercultural communication is the sharing and construction of meaning through interaction with dissimilar others. WTC in an L2 involves readiness to start this process, which will hopefully lead to mutual understanding and trust. As a result, Yashima et al. (2004) have called for “Studies…to be carried out with programs that offer students increased opportunities in L2 communication” (p. 126). The research project results presented in this paper are of just such a program.

The study

Based on the various studies reported above on student affect, and those using CMC in language learning, the author proposes the following research questions: Can CMC-based interventions increase student EFL confidence? To what extent can the use of CMC in the classroom enhance student perception of themselves as global citizens? How will real-time CMC influence student affective variables such as motivation, IP, and confidence?

Hypotheses

The use of the multimodal software Skype to communicate with students in Australia will increase the affective variables of the experimental group toward English language learning. The affective variables examined in this study are: desire to engage in foreign language activities, IP, motivation, communicative confidence, WTC, and desire to visit foreign countries.

Method

Participants

All of the students who participated in the study were in the 5th grade of elementary school and were 10-11 years old (N = 58). They were all native Japanese in the same school in Nagano prefecture, Japan. The experimental group (n = 29) participated in the Skype exchanges, while the control group (n = 29) did not participate. The curriculum, course objectives, and the native English speaking assistant language teacher (ALT) and the Japanese teacher of English (JTE) were the same for both groups of students.

Materials

The survey was in paper form and in Japanese. The data was put to a correlation analysis and principal component analysis (PCA) using statistical software (SPSS 18). The significance level was set to .05 for all of the items. Significance levels of p < .05 and p < .01 are indicated in the tables.

Reliability.

The research project used a self-report measure administered in Japanese using a six-point Likert-type scale from1 (Completely Disagree) to 6 (Completely Agree). There were six questions, one each on foreign language activities; foreign countries / different cultures; desire to communicate in English; confidence to communicate in English; desire to communicate with foreigners in English; and, traveling abroad (see Appendix). The Cronbach alpha reliability estimate is .88 for the instrument. This is an acceptable figure in the social sciences for an instrument of only six items (Dörnyei, 2006).

Validity.

In order to test the construct validity of the instrument, a principal components analysis (PCA) was conducted using Varimax rotation. In order to determine the factorability of the data collected during the first iteration of the surveys, the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin (KMO) measure of sampling adequacy and Bartlett’s test of Sphericity were conducted. For the KMO, “values between 0.5 and 0.7 are mediocre, values between 0.7 and 0.8 are good, values between 0.8 and 0.9 are great and values above 0.9 are superb” (Hutcheson & Sofroniou, 1999, in Field 2009, p. 647). The results for Bartlett’s test should be significant at the p < 0.05 level. As can be seen in Table 1, the KMO result of .818 is sufficient and the level of statistical significance is less than p < .001, indicating the data set is suitable for PCA.

Table 1. The KMO and Bartlett’s test of Sphericity for the instrument

Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin Measure of Sampling Adequacy

.818

Bartlett’s Test of Sphericity Approx. Chi-Square

203.049

df

15

Sig.

.000

The results are six factors, indicating that each item measures a single construct. So it was concluded that the results of each of the variables are, in fact, representative of distinct constructs. The six factors, Eigenvalues, and the total variance explained by the factors are presented in Table 2. The PCA results show that the individual items measure unique constructs and therefore indicate six separate factors, one for each survey item.

Table 2. The PCA results of the six affective variables for the first iteration (N = 58)

Factor 1

Factor 2

Factor 3

Factor 4

Factor 5

Factor 6

0.82

0.86

0.94

0.66

0.89

0.56

Eigenvalue

3.82

0.77

0.64

0.40

0.27

0.10

Note. The % of total variance explained is 63.656%.

While the Eigenvalues are below “1” for factors two through six, the purpose of conducting a PCA on so few items was determine if each is measuring a different construct. As none of the items grouped to form a single factor (with possible cross-loading[s]), the items are in fact measuring the different constructs as determined by the wording of the individual items.

Procedures

The survey was administered in class to students at the beginning of the school year (April) and again in December, after the final Skype exchange. During the intervening months, the students participated in several technology-based FLAs with students living abroad. Prior to the exchanges, the students used Google Maps and Google Earth to find the other schools exact location.

Table 3. The Skype-exchange schedule

Exchange Date

Activities

Duration

July 21st

Line test

Approx. 5 minutes

November 1st

Games and sports explanations

Approx. 30 minutes

November 2nd

Whole class & individual student greetings

Approx. 30 minutes

December 2nd

Songs and Q&A in L2

Approx. 30 minutes

The November 1st exchange was for approximately 30 minutes. Activities included the “Hokey-Pokey” “Duck, Duck, Goose” and “Indian and Tipi”. The students used photos and video to explain that Cricket became the basis of baseball. Also, the Australian students explained Australian football, food such as meat pies, and the different names of the Pokemon series characters. The November 2 exchange also lasted about 30 minutes. After an initial greeting by the entire class greeting of the students, the students introduced themselves individually. Then the students sang songs together.

A final thirty minute exchange took place on December 2nd for about 30 minutes. From the Australian side this time, there was a presentation of a Japanese greeting song to the tune of “Are you sleeping?” This time, there was also a simple Yes / No Q&A session in the target languages. Example questions such as “Do you like school?” were answered immediately, “Yes, I do.” “Do you have pets?” And answered, “No, I do not.” Also, “Do you have pets?” received the answer “Yes, I have a dog” by the Japanese students.

Results

The six items’ descriptive statistics and correlations for the first iteration of the survey are provided in Table 4. As can be seen, all of the correlations are statistically significant.

Table 4. The first survey iteration descriptive statistics and correlation matrix (N = 58)

M

SD

FLAs

IP

Motiv.

CC

WTC

FL Activities

3.53

1.70

International Posture

3.48

1.75

0.55**

Motivation

3.31

1.70

0.78**

0.81**

Comm. Confidence

3.05

1.56

0.50**

0.37**

0.49**

WTC

3.31

1.80

0.68**

0.66**

0.83**

0.50**

Desire to Travel

4.60

1.81

0.31*

0.43**

0.51**

0.30*

0.48**

Note. **p < .01; *p < .05

The results of the differences for the control groups’ M and SD for the six items before and after the intervention are presented in Table 5. The only statistically significant difference is for Motivation. The effect size was calculated for the statistically significant difference in Motivation for the control group.

Table 5. The control groups’ M and SD before and after the intervention (n = 29)

Control group

April

December

Difference

M

SD

M

SD

FL Activities

3.93

1.62

3.97

1.69

0.04
International Posture

3.66

1.61

3.97

1.32

0.31
Motivation

3.45

1.72

4.38

1.42

0.93*
Comm. Confidence

2.67

1.62

3.30

1.51

0.63
WTC

3.07

1.60

3.52

1.74

0.45
Desire to travel overseas

4.62

1.83

4.41

1.91

-0.21

Note. *p < .01

Since this study involved an experiment to test the influence of the Skype exchanges on the experimental group, Glass’ Δ was used to determine the effect size for the statistically significant differences for both groups of students. The ‘rules of thumb’ for effect size measures for independent means are: 0.2 indicates a small effect; 0.4, a medium effect; and 0.8 indicates a large effect size (Cohen, 1992). The effect size measure for Motivation for the control group is .66, which indicates an effect size mid-way between medium and large.

Table 6. The experimental groups’ M and SD before and after the intervention (n = 29)

Experimental group

April

December

Difference

M

SD

M

SD

FL Activities

3.14

1.70

4.10

1.18

0.96**
International Posture

3.31

1.84

4.48

1.10

1.17**
Motivation

3.17

1.70

4.10

1.18

0.93**
Comm. Confidence

3.45

1.40

3.41

1.38

- 0.04
WTC

3.34

1.86

3.90

1.24

0.56
Desire to travel overseas

4.45

1.77

5.07

1.14

0.62*

Note. **p < .01; *p < .05

The results of the differences for the experimental groups’ M and SD before and after the intervention are presented in Table 6. The effect sizes were calculated for the variables with a statistically significant difference for the experimental group as reported in Table 6. The effect size measures are: FL Activities = .83; International Posture = 1.06; Motivation = .80; and Desire to travel overseas = .54.

Discussion

The subjects for this study were 10 and 11-year-old elementary school students who engaged in a live Internet based audio-visual language exchange with students from Tasmania, Australia. Therefore, the two confounding variables of age and the impact of technology offer further areas of investigation.

How are we to judge the effectiveness of the Skype exchanges? First, the statistically significant increase of .96 in the FLA results (p < .01, Glass’ Δ effect size of .83) is similar to that found by previous researchers in the JEFL learning context (e.g. Tagami, 2010). This supports the theoretical basis for the use of Skype as an intervention to improve student interest in English-language based FLAs. In addition, the notably large increase in IP after the intervention is possibly the most outstanding result. The increase of 1.17 points on a six point scale, and statistically significant at the p < .01 level with a Glass’ Δ effect size of 1.06 – an extraordinarily high level. This clearly indicates a meaningful increase that requires further research to verify. If it can be shown that a similar intervention can provide positive results, the research results presented herein will be supported. The statistically significant increase (p < .01) for motivation of .93 is very good news. In addition the Glass’ Δ for Motivation is .80 – another solid large effect. One of the goals of this experiment was to improve the students’ interest in EFL, and this result confirms that the students’ interest increased as a result of the intervention.

On the other hand, the students did show an increase in their reported Desire to travel overseas. The increase of .62 was also statistically significant at the p < .05 level, indicating that while this is not as large an increase as some of the other variables; it is, however, not due to chance alone. Perhaps more interventions over a longer period of time would alleviate this issue. Future studies could be conducted to help answer this question.

Oddly, the level of Self-perceived Communicative Competence went down for the experimental group, albeit only .04%. Since the pre-intervention mean was 3.45, this indicates that the students perceive a slightly lower than average amount of communicative confidence (3.50 on a scale of 1-6). Why would this be the case? There may be a simple explanation since the use of Skype was a first for the students, the exchange did not have a strong negative impact on the EFL confidence. Similarly, there was no positive effect either. Further research involving more exchanges and open-ended follow-up questions specifically asking about their impressions of the exchange would help answer this question. In addition, there was an increase of .56 for the affective variable WTC. While this is good news, the increase was not statistically significant. However, an increase is certainly desirable.

The control group did show an increase of .96 for Motivation, and this was statistically significant at the p < .01 level with a Glass’ Δ of .66. This group of students originally reported higher Motivation, yet also reports this rather high increase. Perhaps this was due to the influence of the curriculum, which was the same for both groups. Of particular interest for this study is that fact that there was absolutely no change for either the FL Activities or the Desire to Travel Overseas for the control group. In other words, the experimental group shows positive improvements for all of the affective variables except Self-perceived Communicative Confidence, while the control group remained basically unchanged.

Regarding the survey instrument itself, the percentage of the total variance explained is well over 60% and this indicates a strong analytical accounting for so few questions. In motivation studies, “explaining more than 40% of the variance…is an exceptionally high figure” according to Dörnyei (2014, p. 521). Furthermore, the effect size measures for the experimental groups statistically significant differences are: FL Activities = .83; International Posture = 1.06; Motivation = .80; and Desire to travel overseas = .54. Based on the above mentioned method for interpreting their value(s), these effect sizes are very desirable and support the efficacy of the study.

What are some of the benefits of introducing live, video MCMC exchange experiences for young EFL Japanese learners? It is possible to use video communications as a means to enjoy English activities by using such exchanges as a foreign language activity to motivate students of any age or learning context. Also, MCMC makes it possible to easily connect with schools in various regions around the world, thereby introducing students to many different cultures and varieties of English (Tagami, 2010).

According to Tagami (2010), there are several benefits and challenges of using a video phone for Japanese students of English. First, the use of real-time exchanges gives the children both fun and high tension. Seeing the other person’s behavior and facial expressions provides the necessary realism for real communication. In addition, their reaction is transmitted immediately, and because of that the participants could exchange information and emotions. As a result, there was the possibility for communication as a dialogue, which was aimed at sharing both feelings and meaning during the interaction (Tagami, 2010). This result supports Meskill’s (1999) observation that the use of multiple modalities has a positive influence on L2 learning. The Skype exchanges offered not only the engagement of multiple modalities sufficient to keep students involved, but enough to positively influence their affect toward EFL as measured by the survey instrument, too. It may also be argued that these students are simply so young that they perceive the activity as ‘play’ rather than learning. Therefore, they do not as yet have a fully developed sense of ’self’ about which they can feel self-conscious.

There are limitations to the present study. First, the survey for this paper consisted of six simple statements. However, because the students are so young, it was believed that a more complicated survey would have been inappropriate. Future research using a similar instrument which replicates the present study will help verify the desirability of using the instrument. Studies utilizing a more sophisticated instrument, provided it can be proven reliable and valid, would be useful to help researchers in choosing an appropriate instrument, too.

Conclusions

Technology continues to have a positive impact both within and on the field of education. By actively engaging learners in the learning process, technology provides a means to capture interest and foster learning. There are several reasons why learners may lose interest in learning another language: time pressure; the fact that their friends do not use the language; boredom; they see no future use for it; and other interests, to name a few. However, the use of recent technological advances such as the Internet provides an interesting alternative to traditional educational approaches. The use of an in-class Skype exchange with NESs of a target language provides several positive outcomes for the students involved. As this study shows, the Japanese students report an increase in five of the six affective variables surveyed. They report an increase in interest in foreign language (English) activities and foreign countries (different cultures), a desire to study more in order to communicate in English, a desire to communicate with foreigners in English, and a greater desire to go overseas at some time. These results are too strong to ignore and further studies to investigate the use of Skype or similar technologies to increase student affective variables would be most welcome.

An examination of the correlation matrix results in this paper show strong and positive relationships between FL Activities, International Posture, Motivation, Self-perceived Communicative Confidence, and WTC. Therefore, it is reasonable to hypothesize that increased interest in MCMC FLAs would positively influence the other affective variables. Further studies to test this hypothesis would be of interest. Additionally, post-intervention open-ended qualitative questions aimed at finding out why students are influenced by the Skype exchanges would also be of benefit.

Finally, this technology enables educators to create ‘live’ communication opportunities in the classroom. The advantages of such events include: authentic speech, including, but not limited to: auto-corrections; natural pauses; facial expressions; pragmatic speech acts; interruptions, and the required handling of them; background noise, and the various ways to overcome this interference. The classroom uses are both innovative and original ways that educators can use to take advantage of the most up-to-date technologies to help their students learn language. In addition, students and teachers could make a video of the event, thereby creating a unique recording of a special time in their lives forever. The author believe that future, longitudinal studies which track student progress based on gender, future goals, and the intensity to learn English would of great benefit for teachers, students, and educational systems around the world.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the students and teachers who helped with this research project; Tatsuto Tagami for the data collection; and the editor and reviewers for their assistance in bringing this paper to press. Any errors are the author’s.

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Appendix

The student survey

English translation of the questionnaire items using a six-point Likert-type scale from1 (Completely Disagree) to 6 (Completely Agree).

1. I like foreign language (English) activities.

2. I want to know more about foreign countries (different cultures).

3. To communicate in English, I want to study more.

4. I have confidence to communicate using simple English.

5. For myself, I want to communicate with foreigners in English.

6. I want to go overseas at some time.

Biographical Statement

David Ockert is a lecturer in the Department of International Economics at Toyo University, Japan. He has an Med from Temple University and a Level 2 JLPT certificate. His teaching interests are in communication, academic writing, and presentation courses. His research interests are in motivation, motives / orientations, affect, classroom activities (traditional vs. task-based), CALL, and educational system development.

Email: ockert@toyo.jp

Website:

http://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Ockert2

http://toyo.academia.edu/DavidOckert

Robbie Fordyce, Luke Heemsbergen, Paul Mignone & Bjorn Nansen

Published Online: November 24, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This article reports on an investigation into two experimental “Digismith” workshops held at an Australian university’s School of Engineering that aimed to provide open source education in 3D printing to university students and the general public. The research employed semi-structured interviews and surveys of participants that mirrored previous work on 3D printing communities, while our discussion develops assessments of the political economy of the course curriculum and practice. We suggest the social practice of 3D printing arises from a twin tradition of industrial design and countercultural garage-workshops. As 3D printing becomes a more common subject for tertiary and secondary schooling, educators can take lessons from these histories to flesh out curricula. The Digismith workshops were informed by both classical lecture-discussion-application based models of learning as well as problem-based learning and more radical forms of peer-to-peer learning. We found the tensions between these sometime competing pedagogies to illustrate a peripheral, but fluid space interstitial to the teaching philosophy common to tertiary institutions and the more radical hacker maker spaces that the course attempted to emulate.

Keywords: 3D printing, counterculture education, open source learning, participatory workshops

Introduction

Like many technologies, 3D printing has been propelled by a mix of radical countercultural movements and institutional support. Hacker cultures were fostered in the same computer laboratories at MIT that were funded by the US government to develop ARPANET. Similarly, the Homebrew Computer Club, which was integral in the development of Apple Computers (Wozniack, 2006), would now be recognised as both a space for connected learning (Ito et al., 2013), and a type of Maker Space: a dedicated, community focused space for interested locals to become involved in making and sharing technology. These divisions were catagorised as ‘Ronald Regan vs the Hippies’ in debates regarding the ‘Californian Ideology’ (Barbrook and Cameron, 1996). Barbrook and Cameron advocate for revolting against market freedom towards an ‘impeccably libertarian form of politics [where information technologies are] used to create a new ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ where all individuals will be able to express themselves freely within cyberspace’ (Barbrook and Cameron, 1996). 3D printing followed a comparable trajectory in that as patents for Stereolithography and Fused Deposition Modelling expired, processes of additive manufacture moved away from large industrial firms such as 3D Systems and Stratasys, to disruptive communities-turned-companies such as Makerbot. At the same time, so called ‘DIY making’ (Williams et al, 2012) communities and ‘maker subcultures’ (Ratto and Ree, 2012) that hacked various technologies embraced additive manufacturing in terms of both its direct utility and the ethos of digitally-converged self-sustained autonomous making.

This article locates this countercultural history and ethics in a current attempt by a large teaching and research university in Australia (subsequently referred to as the University) to foster the development of a 3D printing cultural space. 3D printing may currently be on the periphery of higher education curriculum, yet given the ways computing and digital technologies are bound up with the changing structure, organisation and politics of higher education (Selwyn, 2014, pp.125-141), it remains unclear how the potential value of 3D printing in research and teaching may be sustained, or impact upon the countercultural ethics of knowledge sharing.

The university’s School of Engineering has held a number of open-access workshops aimed at educating and upskilling participants in 3D printing tools and software, and provides space for interested users. Drawing on data from participation, interviews and surveys, we consider this attempt at kick-starting a Maker culture, noting how other courses may learn from the pedagogical decisions in the 3D printing workshops, and some of the pedagogical assumptions within the course itself. The scope of research covers two series of open-access workshops held on campus as the Digital Blacksmith Summer and Winter Schools (Digismith, 2014). The Digismith workshops were open to all members of the public and provided no course credits, and thus sat at the margins of the curriculum and institution, but ostensibly were designed to more equitably engage a wider community. This article will first address the subcultural/countercultural divide that informs creative 3D printing, it will then explore the pedagogical structure of the workshop, before concluding with reports on participant experiences and speculations on the efficacy of developing countercultural practices and attitudes in institutional settings.

Chief tension: institutional uptake of countercultures

The chief paradox within our research was the tension inherent in the development of an institutional education in 3D printing which was based in practices founded in non- or anti-institutional settings. This paradox has both counter cultural and radical pedagogical elements. As we have defined elsewhere, 3D printing is the social use of an industrial process (Fordyce, 2015). We can build on this, by noting that an education in 3D printing will be involved as much in a cultural practice as in a practical skills training. The concept of a social form of computer-based making emerges out of the countercultural and subcultural spaces of the Hacker and Maker spaces, which hijacked technologies for rapid industrial prototyping as a part of their hobbyist practices. As Sutherland (2014) notes, this claim flies against certain types of rhetoric around counterculture – specifically those informed by the work of Timothy Leary – that perceive institutional structures to be largely stagnant, inflexible, and creatively desolate, while simultaneously legitimating countercultural spaces as supposedly the source of all manner of cultural potentials, the like of which the world has never seen. Sutherland also notes that while a divide does exist between hegemonic culture and counterculture, framing the divide in terms of production or novelty tends to be a relatively weak distinction, and discounts a more complex relation with political economy. We go into more detail on the nature of the divide between the institutional patterns of production and countercultural practices of making in the context of 3D printing below, but in sum, distinctions between the institutional and countercultural uses of 3D printing reflect a difference in political economy not only of education but also productive practices. While hacker cultures seek to reconfigure extent objects (that are themselves dependent on industrial supply chains and their related forms of institutionalised labour), 3D printing as practice promises to reconfigure extant supply chains with potentially increasingly distributed ones with their own institutionalisations (Birtchnell et al, 2013). We approached the setting of the two Digismith workshops with an eye to making an initial framing of how these concerns appear in an educational setting. We posed our thoughts around what aspects of countercultural practices we could perceive as extant, those that developed in participants, and particularly how an informal workshop setting based in Hacker and Maker spaces would take on the attributes of the institution that it emerged from.

Gelder’s (2007, pp.2-4) work on subculture is informative in marking out a conceptual distinction with countercultures, informing makerspaces. Firstly, he describes how subculture is often defined by its idleness, having no productive aspects; subcultures have little relationship to labour or property, and much more of a relationship to territory and modes of dress and social behaviour. Secondly – and here Gelder riffs on Dick Hebdige’s work from the 1970s – subculture is opposed to mass culture. Subcultures are not interested in having their agendas and interests distributed throughout society, and subcultural practitioners seek to remain separate and independent of mass cultural forms. Building on the work of John Robert Howard, Gelder notes that, in contrast, countercultures, “imagine that society’s values ought somehow to reflect or absorb their own” (2007, p.22). Countercultures are as much about producing alternatives to mass culture as they are about changing the existing one. Within Gelder’s definition this article argues that the Digismith workshops fashioned a space that engaged in countercultural practices of 3D printing.

The Digismith workshops took up many of the attributes of Hacker and Maker spaces in its design: workshop setting, populated with experts, minimal cost attendance, and a non-linear learning trajectory. Equally, the workshops made use of institutional university systems: hierarchical ‘sage on the stage’ teaching methods based around lecture/seminar style delivery, uniform software and machinery for all attendees, and group authority was at least partially determined by the university’s stratified employment system (separating out by both tertiary qualification, and technical role within the institution). However, there were also aspects of the learning environment that suggest the space, and the community that grew within it, existed in opposition to traditional pedagogies of the university.

The design of the Digismith course explicitly brought together diverse spheres of interests, culture, and academic life in a space for learning 3D printing. Separate to the institutional background, this space was then able to incubate a community of makers in a fashion similar to what Ito (2013) describes as a method for connected learning. Specifically, the course design reflected Ito’s hope to “build shared purpose [and] opportunities for production” (Ito et al., 2013 5) through and with the openly networked resources and infrastructure provided by the university and contributors to the course. Production in Digismith was literal as well as fulfilling more normative productive aspirations of connected learning: course material was posted on Github to equitably share openly with future learners, interest driven learning defined what students decided to create with the printers, and curriculum integrated academic subjects that would fuel these interests through 3D Printing (such as tensile strength of plastics and intellectual property law).

The varied approaches to learning sessions within the curriculum of the Digismith workshops suggest instead of lecture-discussion-test based scenarios, problem based learning (Barrows, 1986) made up some of the experience. Reflecting the University’s institutional culture, some taught content was compartmentalized by discipline or field. Software literacy was taught separate from intellectual property, which was taught separate from the design constraints of the ABS materials used to print objects. However, the design of the curriculum included a final project that centred on learners applying their varied sets of skills and new learning to develop a product or solution to problem, where they were, using Savery’s (2006, p.9) understanding of problem-based learning (or PBL), empowered to “conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills” towards an original creation. Strobel & Barneveld’s (2009) meta-synthesis of PBL outcomes shows how PBL is an important factor in the negotiation and creation of potential countercultures within learning environments. This suggests that PBL is most effective in long term retention, skill development, and satisfaction for participants. Although we cannot measure the first two claims against our data, survey and interview data offer evidence that satisfaction for participants peaked during the PBL based learning activities. Regardless, these three traits of learning are crucial to creating sustainable community ties between learners in and out of the classroom, an affordance that serves both “connected learning” goals as well as community formation that can exist outside of institutional regimes. However, the role of new media technologies in facilitating these developments within Digismith workshops remain unclear, and were under-utilised in the Digismith experience itself.

Against the ideal of connected learning, Neil Selwyn’s (2014) analysis of current trends in the adoption and use of computing and digital technologies in universities highlight how digital processes and practices are tightly bound up with the changing structure, organisation and politics of higher education. In particular, he notes their role in accompanying a shift in educational values from public and communal to individual and commodified. He describes how the threat of digital disruption compels universities to adopt and utilise digital technologies within curricula, yet rather than transforming education he argues this integration often occurs in limited and ‘messy’ ways (pp. 5, 56, 102). Selwyn, it seems, is aware of the critiques a previous generation of educators made with regard to the impotence of ‘de-schooling’ education (Illich, 1971) through ‘new’ media networks when the lager pedagogical project is tied to a political economy of consumption, and thus must reject neo-liberal techniques of control that would also require a society to ‘de-office’, ‘de-factory’ and even ‘de-family’ structures of production (Gintis, 1972). There are multiple implications of this analysis for 3D printing technology and knowledge in (and out of) the contexts of the institutions of academia. Clearly potential markets, both in research through IP and teaching through student enrolments, will drive institutionalisation. Yet, how a countercultural ethic of knowledge sharing can be sustained within such contexts, and how this effects the production of education, as opposed to its consumption is unclear.

Productive models of peer to peer learning enabled by digital technologies have been described by Rheingold (2012) as peeragogy and as paragogy by Corneli and Danoff (2011). For Rheingold, peer learning started as a way to enable him to redesign his own teaching through co-learning, while an end goal envisions the point where his role becomes facilitating others to self-organize learning. Coneli et al.’s (2014) recent Handbook to Peerology suggests that a synthesis of peer learning and production is available and indeed able to offer some of the more radical de-school/office/factory political projects that P2P scholarship has adopted. At the same time, scholars such as Brabazon (2014) have been explicitly critical of attempts to invest learning with peer-based approaches, noting that,

it is cheaper to affirm the value of student-centred learning and deny the expertise of teachers. But the knowledge held by teachers and students is not equivalent. Teachers know more. They write and read expansively. They write and interpret curriculum. They set assignments. They moderate and examine. They study, think and translate complex ideas into the stepping stones of lesson plans. Students can enact none of these tasks. (2014, p.93)

Despite this, 3D printing as a social development is new enough to educational settings that most participants are involved in both sides of the educational process and possess diverse skills and expertise. Because of the transdisciplinary nature of the Digismith workshops, approximately a quarter of the class had significant experience with both the hardware and software aspects of 3D printing, with a number of other participants having software skills in 3D modelling. Some participants were able to provide education in the legal status of intellectual property rights in the context of Australian law, while others were able to demonstrate elements of coding and structural engineering.

The position of universities themselves in parlaying additive manufacturing into 3D printing practices in educational, industrial and innovation spaces should also be commented on. In the immediate research context, 3D printing has been offered as a service at the University for two years prior to the Digismith workshops. However, these services were run by what we will identify as the Information Technology Services (ITS) group, rather than a specific faculty or research centre. This service did not contain any formal teaching or curriculum, and instead offered limited consultations on design and materials regarding the capabilities of the printers on hand. More generally, Australia’s innovative and industrial applications of additive manufacturing have, so far, mostly been centrally spearheaded by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which serves as Australia’s national science organisation and undertakes and collaborates on public and industry science projects. 3D printing innovations have not historically been driven by universities in Australia.

The tension of countercultural movements in relation to our educational research setting has a complex history, influenced partly by manufacturing industries, libraries, and the ‘free and open source’ movements, which we will now explore.

Hacking & Making Culture

The maker community is not homologous, and defines itself in different ways at different times. Conflicting edits on wiki pages such as Wikipedia.org and Hackerspaces.org point to the tensions in self-defining what makerspaces should be – with edits often reproducing the political economic allegiances within FLOSS and GNU communities. Importantly, one of the spaces that have seen the greatest growth in makerspaces is libraries. Proposals by Colegrove (2013) and Good (2013) both explore effective models for libraries to start their own makerspaces that encourage collaborative or entrepreneurial approaches for their participants. Makerspace.org has released their own Makerspace Playbook under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license that details a range of approaches to developing effective makerspaces. Yet, as the copyright page indicates, the project has been funded by the US Military’s DARPA, like the funding of ARPANET years before. Despite this, the Maker movement has a long history of countercultural drive, which we explore below.

The separation between counterculture and subculture that Gelder notes is apparent in the genealogical distinction Maxigas (2011) makes between hacklabs, which are informed by explicitly anarchist subcultures cultures, and hackspaces, which foster values that allow multiple connections including civil society and private interests. These hackspaces mirror countercultures in that they are designed to spread the community norms from their space into larger hegemonic communities as counter culture.

Maxigas’ (2011) historiography of hacking labs and spaces highlights an ideological division that has separated hacklabs, which are informed by explicitly anarchist cultures, from hackspaces, which foster more libertarian values that allow multiple connections including civil society and private interests. Yet, Maxigas argues it is in combining the ‘wide possibilities of transversal cross-pollination of hackerspaces with the social critique of the hacklabs’ (Maxigas, npn) that we might envision the countercultural creation of worlds anew. That is to say that the fluid practices of making that the university attempted to incorporate to its pedagogy cannot be uniquely understood as ‘hacker culture’ or an ‘open maker space’. The sometimes agonistic divisions present in these terms express a separation that continues within maker cultures – which we can broadly categorise by the countercultural maker and hacker spaces, and the subcultural hackerlabs.

Research by Schrock (2014) details a number of conventions related to existing countercultural movements that organise around 3D printing and other related productive practices. Hacker and maker spaces, referred to by Schrock as HMSs, are collective grassroots organisations. Their origins lie in the hacker movements of the 1980s, particularly the German hacker group, The Chaos Computer Club. These movements were highly exclusive, possessing esoteric jargon and significant technical knowledge that limited the engagement of others. As 3D printing technologies and related technical skills became more widespread, HMSs became less restrictive. Indeed, the ‘open-access’ nature of HMSs contradicts the subversive and exclusive aspects of hacker subculture (Schrock, 2014, pp.4-5). The informal nature of HMSs means that they are often organised through “democratic or meritocratic conventions”, and generally eschew “top-down” organisational systems (Schrock, 2014, p.1). This is an important point for this article, as the attempt to not just create a makerspace, but to actively imbue a culture of 3D printing from an institution like the University is somewhat at odds with the anti-institutional origins of HMSs.

Kostakis, Niaros and Giotitsas (2014) extend Schrock’s work by noting how anti-institutional and commons-based approach to counterculture assists to accelerate innovation and growth; there were nearly 900 active HMS worldwide in 2013, compared to less than 40 at the start of 2007. They suggest HMSs are exposing and exporting hacker culture across the globe, making for a broad spectrum of anti-institutional, collective communities. Important qualities within these HMSs communities are “sharing, abundance of resources, intrinsic positive motivation, openness, collaboration, bottom-up innovation, community accountability, autonomy, communal validation, distribution of tasks, and common ownership of the results” (2014, p.5). Finally, drawing upon the work of Axel Bruns, the authors centralise the figure of the “benevolent dictator” in helping guide the growth of the community. In this sense, the University setting and the anti-institutional nature of HMSs butt up against each other without being fully resolved. The University’s benevolence provides materials, tools, space, and staff, while the participants create community through activity, production, and educational aspects of the Digismith workshops.

Like many digital technologies, such as the Tor Project and the internet itself, it would seem that HMSs should not be thought of as solely institutional or radical, but rather having investments of both agendas and resources at once. If we follow Gelder’s interpretation then, the important countercultural aspects of HMSs are the fact that they provide an alternative mode of culture, and wilfully hope to have this cultural form adopted by a broader majority. This article will now explore how the University’s School of Engineering attempted to develop a suitable pedagogical model for fostering a 3D printing Makerspace and accompanying countercultural attitudes and practices.

Structure and drive of the Digismith workshops

The Digismith workshops were developed with the University’s ITS Research department in order to build a 3D printing community within the University. Planning involved developing a practice-based agenda of ‘awareness’ as effective means of meeting that goal. By making participants aware of the available software and hardware, educators hoped to demonstrate the potential that 3D printing held; participants were not given a didactic educational structure, but instead encouraged to innovate and develop their own projects. At the same time, activities revolved around problem-based learning that introduced design, computational and material problems, and then utilised participants’ experimental practices to drive group learning. Furthermore, designations between learners and teachers were sometimes fluid as participants with specialised areas of expertise were called on to shift between educator and student roles as and when their specialisations became more relevant. This formal institutionalisation of co-learning was separate from the more informal communal chatter and exploration that happened within the group during the workshops. The teaching space of the workshops was also decentralised such that groups congregated around shared machining tables and workstations, and independently organised whose projects would be printed first.

The course syllabus for the Digismith workshops has been released online on GitHub in an attempt to contribute to open access for 3D printing education. Furthermore, the entirety of the course slides has been released as a 265 page PDF for more schematic information. These slides cover a wide range of areas, and belie both the institutional and the countercultural influences within the school. Despite the limitations of the linear format of PDFs, the material is modular in nature. The course content is fully directed towards giving participants a sufficient knowledge for going further in a number of areas, and covers such areas as printer maintenance, 3D Computer-Aided-Design across a range of software platforms, the use of social download sites, the theory and principles that connect the software to the hardware, the legal fundamentals, and the technical aspects of photogrammetry. At the same time, however, many pages are stamped with the logo of the University. Furthermore, while the course is available on GitHub as an open access project, the PDF file is far more developed, and far less alterable. Both institutional and non-institutional perspectives are present at an educational level, yet the institutional framework is certainly privileged in this case.

The first workshop, held in January 2014, was a week-long summer school. The course was free to attend, open to the public, and all costs were covered by institutional stakeholders within the university. Volunteer mentors internal and external to the University from a range of backgrounds, including engineering, cultural studies, political science, library studies, vet science, and business ran the course through a set of modular introductory units. Some of the mentors were already involved in HMSs within Australia, including Melbourne’s Connected Community Hacker Space and the Hacker Summit at the Melbourne Maker Faire in 2014, with one mentor contributing code to the open source 3D modelling program, Blender. Despite the institutional drive of the ITS research project, the Digismith project managed to include active participation from some groups that are a part of the counterculture software movement. The second workshop, held over June/July 2014, used the same overall structure as the first. However, funding from the University had been reduced, and two changes were required: the workshop was reduced from five days to four, and a cost of $100 was introduced. The second workshop was less successful at creating a community: interviews with the workshop coordinators indicated that the new transactional nature of the course might have led participants to being less interested in the project overall; furthermore, there was a noted lack of community and a number of participants stopped attending prior to the conclusion of the workshop. Nonetheless, many of the original volunteers returned to provide aid for the second workshop. The researchers on this article were involved in both workshops as participant observers. Researchers drew on existing literature and their observations in the first workshop to build a methodology for surveying and interviewing participants in the winter Digismith, the method and results for which we will now address.

Research methods

The research design included three stages conducted over an eight month period and employed primary methods of semi-structured interviews and online surveys with key informants within the Digismith workshop, including both students and employees – although as we have noted, these categories became blurred.

Stage one involved exploratory work during the first Digismith, with researchers embedded in the workshop engaging participants in informal discussions regarding experiences and expectations. This period allowed the researchers to develop the scope and direction of an interview and survey-based inquiry into participant experiences, while also reflexively considering the pedagogical outcomes of the program.

Stage two synthesised a literature review with preliminary participant observation data to further develop an interview and survey schedule. Questions regarding prospective importance of various Australian industry sectors were integrated in order to map participant expectations about personal 3D printing, and its carry-on effects into the future. Other research questions related to existing survey research of 3D printing communities, in particular the work by Moilanen and Vadén (2013). A final set of questions were designed to examine normative preferences regarding claims of intellectual property that surround 3D printing.

Stage three involved data collection and a second round of participant observation during the second Digismith workshop. From this workshop of twelve attendees, researchers carried out semi-structured interviews with individual participants (n: 9) over the first three days of the Winter School workshop, while surveys (n: 11) were completed anonymously online on the fourth day of the workshop. Due to the small survey size, the below analysis is not comparable to Moilanen and Vadén’s work to any degree of statistical significance, however the results still enable a window into understanding the experiences and motivations of people participating in 3D printing workshops, especially when set against the previous quantitative work’s large sample sizes.

Results and observations

The results that we observed from our data are mixed. The survey given to participants was modelled on similar research by Moilanen and Vadén, which involved global surveys in 2012 and 2013 of non-corporate users of 3D printers. Our survey was comparatively modest. Moilanen and Vadén’s research showed a clear trend towards participation in HMSs as a conscious part of a cultural movement (54%), yet only a quarter of participants consciously identified with a cultural movement. This is instructive as all but one of our participants reported having either previously printed a 3D object, or having one printed for them, while only a minority had never designed a 3D object. Across both years of the Moilanen and Vadén survey the top five self-reported use cases for 3D printing were the same: functional models, artistic items, spare parts to devices, research/educational purposes, and direct part production. Our own data suggests that workshop participants overwhelming wanted to create “artistic items” with a large subset wanting to use 3D printing for research and educational purposes – this latter result is not surprising given the academic context.

We also sought to uncover participant motivations in 3D printing projects with the aim of interrogating agendas and practices that could be used as proxies for describing hacker and maker counterculture, without participants necessarily self-identifying previous involvement with these movements. Some participants felt isolated, with one stating “I could see myself as a part of the community, but not at the same time.” One participant, however, was extremely enthusiastic, saying, “I want to set up my own workshop for others to come and be a part of a community – sharing tools. This is my dream.” More often than not, participants shared this drive, but also felt like the existing structure did not support such outcomes, with one reporting that “it’d be wonderful to be a part of a 3D printing group”, while another adamantly stated “I definitely don’t see myself as a part of a community.”

The instrumental interests that drove participation were mixed. When asked about desire to “give back to the community” responses were grouped around a neutral response. Yet, when asked about community-building practices, respondents were highly enthusiastic regarding the ‘fun’ of 3D printing, sharing and learning new skills, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the collaborative elements of the experience. We can expect that those that do not identify with a 3D printing culture cannot ‘give back’ to it, while there are still strong indicators of practices of cultural creation. Questions regarding prospective importance of various Australian industry sectors were most interesting in terms of what participants did not think personal 3D printing would influence; namely government and defence, utilities supply (gas, water, communication). However, there was a strong indication that cultural and recreational services, health and community services, and goods production industries would be strongly influenced by personal 3D printing.

We noted two tendencies which identify attitudes in our participants that parallel countercultural agendas and hackerspace realities; a lack of financial incentive and complex but subtle motivations around sharing the community. Firstly, in terms of the counter-cultural aspects of the hacker and maker identity, there was little interest amongst our participants for monetary gain, with less than a third of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing with the suggestion of financial motivation. A majority did, however, suggest their interest in 3D printing was instrumental rather than intrinsic. Importantly, many respondents were interested in seeing the development of legal protections for individual users, at the expense of large corporations. In this regard, a couple of users expressed fears around the domination of users by corporate entities, one participant stated that “a company has all the patents on medical equipment [… ] but they make it inaccessible for copyright reasons, and people die. […] I see that as an ethical problem.” Another respondent noted,

you can print it, but it doesn’t say anything about where you got it […] that’s something that’s very easy to take advantage [of] by big companies […] you can see people have a passion for printing, for 3D drawing, but that doesn’t mean that companies are going to respect that, especially in this capitalist society that we have.

Others suggested that intellectual property rulings be discarded in their entirety:

Personally I believe that if they got rid of intellectual property rights for small scale users, it would make everything a lot less confusing.

In particular, peer-based sharing was seen to be an extremely important issue for many people. One respondent remarking that in a legal context, “I think STL files should be very very easy to share” (STL files are the instruction files used by most 3D printers).  Such a sentiment was very common among users, one noting that “it’s great – I think they should be encouraged.” Despite this, another participant reported concerns about greater proliferation of 3D printing, in terms of increased access to weapons, as much as large scale effects on employment:

Well I guess there this problem with [sharing] if we’re speaking about weapons […] it’s scary to think about how many people would be put out of work, if things were shared. It’s scary to think about what would happen if it really took off.

In contrast, some thought of it as desirable for the Australian economy envisioning a case where “manufacturing moves out of China to here because the resources are already here and it’s cheaper to move finished products.”

Finally, in reference to intellectual property regimes relating to 3D printing objects and files, there was a strong preference for sharing in order to produce objects that followed a Creative Commons Share-Alike licensing structure, where modifications are allowed, as long as credit is given to previous contributors and the license is kept under the same terms. Interestingly, the survey results might suggest that workshop respondents identified the sharing and printing of 3D objects as sharing others’ work, rather than creating derivative works of their own, even if modified. This is a key aspect of what Schrock and Kostakis, et al, identify as the meritocratic elements of maker communities, it is also a key element in the work being performed by Angela Daly, who notes that the exact legal status of most aspects of 3D printing are extremely unclear (Daly, 2016). In terms of sharing in order to distribute 3D models, respondents tempered some of their acceptance of ‘copyleft’ intellectual property regimes for commercial distribution, but remained proponents of sharing for purposes of distribution overall. The drop off in acceptance of commercialised sharing mirrors the tension in hackerspaces as countercultural elements negotiate the spread of their own values and cultural products to larger systems that might not maintain the original value. This distinction remains an important difference to sub-cultures, which do not propagate their cultures further afield. Counter-cultures of 3D printing must negotiate the paradox of support and autonomy that comes with the peripheral hackerspaces they inhabit, and eventually grow out of.

Discussion

It is clear that participants did not consider themselves part of a community. We attribute this to the artificial nature of the institutional program, the lack of existing relationships within the group, and the lack of connected media the sessions offered from which participants could continue their relations. A reasonable degree of diversity of interests meant that there was little common ground between participants beyond the technology itself. Despite this, we read many participants as hoping to contribute to a culture of 3D printing, insofar as they wished for greater protections for individual users, at the expense of corporations. Some were concerned about the effects of 3D printing on social conditions, such as economic stability and crime, but these individuals were in the minority.

We observe from this that participants, and therefore the Digismith workshops, were peripheral to genuine countercultural movements, and that interest in HMSs was nascent, rather than fully developed. For the short time that it existed, the Digismith community seemed to share an interest in the traditional virtues of Peer-to-Peer cultures. While there was only some hostility to hegemonic culture, there was a strong interest in counterculture practices. We infer from this that the Digismith workshops fosters something of a countercultural attitude amongst its participants, but lacks the firm community grounding that is so important to the countercultural practices of other HMSs.

The lack of a coherent shared vision about the cultural or instrumental use of 3D printing presents the primary challenge to educational workshops. This is particularly pronounced in institutional settings, such as universities, that seek to foster cultures that are primarily found in settings that are informal and democratic. Survey and interview data does inform this understanding beyond what existing literature indicates, insofar as it identifies that participants held latent interests in the ethics and practices of countercultural movements, such as an appreciation of sharing and peer-to-peer practices, and an interest in legal protections for creative developers over large corporate entities.

On the basis of these observations, it becomes clear that Matt Ratto’s (2011) work on ‘critical making’ should be an important touchstone for educational practice related to 3D printing. Unlike other practices, Ratto frames a project-based approach to learning, in that participants should work towards a particular goal or output to frame the learning, rather than working towards the goal of learning in and of itself. This project should be, according to Ratto, theoretically grounded but not necessarily have a pragmatic use. The useful application of 3D printing comes later, as Gauntlett and Holroyd note, “The stronger that ‘maker’ culture becomes, the more confident people will become in their own skills and in using the things that they’ve made” (2014, p.16). We believe that this crucial aspect – a clear and purposive approach for students to work towards – is what is missing from the institutional framework for the Digismith workshops. Purpose-driven, or problem-based learning approaches are fundamental to involvement in HMSs, and are largely missing from the Digismith workshop curriculum, and in the event that future courses build on the Digismith curriculum, we believe that these courses should necessarily include goal-based projects for students to work towards. At the same time, the lack of course credits in the workshops may have led to reduced engagement from some students, particularly given the timing of the second – and slightly less successful workshop – at the tail end of the first semester of the year, just after an intensive period of examination.

Conclusion

To conclude we offer some speculation towards how educators could more successfully establish community and peer-to-peer styles of learning via 3D printing curriculum. At the micro level, group problem-based learning projects that are presented and then subsequently remixed by other groups as part of peer assessment might afford students the opportunity to grapple with the political economy of HMS vis-à-vis institutional settings and expectations – including assessment. At a macro level, institutional engagement with not only HMS, but other public institutions (such a libraries and civic centres) that run informational 3D printing sessions may allow some pedagogical theory and practice to permeate in peer-to-peer spaces that are less along a counter-cultural spectrum. These spaces might be on the one hand more receptive to ‘institutional’ pedagogy while on the other, still effect peer-based learning with intrinsically motivated individuals.

From the experience of Digismith, curriculum design seems to currently be constrained by learning how to leverage both the complex motivations behind sharing, and the power of purpose-driven learning opportunities. At the same time it should be noted that, currently, institutional 3D printing learners are mostly intrinsically motivated. As 3D printing practices become (further) institutionalised into mandated curriculum, extrinsic motivation, and a subsequent curriculum shift, will have to be taken into account. Learning 3D printing may offer a novel way to combine the intrinsic motivations of making and sharing with extrinsic motivations of critique and purpose driven assignments. How peers navigate these sometimes conflicting motivations offers opportunity for much experimentation and further study. The data presented here are a part of a preliminary inquiry into the state educative aspects of consumer-level engagement with 3D printing, and act as an indicator for future areas of research. Some areas exposed by this research would be better suited to certain types of market research, rather than education and cultural studies. This research does, however, show how the complex relations between counter-culture and institutional priorities affect learning environments and practices. The experimental Digismith workshops did not present an ideal connected learning experience for participants hoping to build social support networks as they learned. However, in some cases, student projects enabled learners to link to their own academic, civic, and career goals. The counter culture techniques associated with radical pedagogy such as peer based learning were, to some extent, subsumed into institutional logics. Here, peer learning enabled more efficient and less costly programs to be created under the University’s brand, while the need for the HMS itself remained within the institution and radical forms of production – either in plastic or pedagogically – were snuffed. In this sense, Gintis’ (1972) critique of ‘deschooling’ society remain pertinent; the political economy of learning and production tied to the university as institution presided over the major outcomes of a course designed to live at the institutional periphery.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the participants of the Digismith workshops and staff of the School of Engineering as well as Information Technology Services at the University for their time, patience and encouragement of this project. The authors also acknowledge Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and Melbourne Network Society Institute for funding our ongoing 3D printing research.

Biographies

Robbie Fordyce is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne and Research Fellow at the Melbourne Network Society Institute.

Email: robbie.fordyce@gmail.com

Luke Heemsbergen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne and Research Fellow at the Melbourne Network Society Institute.

Paul Mignone received his PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2015. He currently works for the University of Melbourne’s Research Platform Services.

Bjorn Nansen is a lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, the Melbourne Network Society Institute Digital Media Fellow, and a member of the Microsoft Social NUI Research Centre and Research Unit in Public Cultures.

Matthew E. Levy, Christopher Chauncey Watson, Leo Wilton, Vittoria Criss, Irene Kuo, Sara Nelson Glick, Russell A. Brewer & Manya Magnus

Published Online: October 27, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Eliminating racial HIV disparities among men who have sex with men (MSM) will require a greater uptake of HIV prevention and care interventions among Black MSM (BMSM), yet such strategies generally require meaningful engagement in a health care system that often does not meet the unique needs of BMSM. This study assessed the acceptability of, and correlates of having favorable perceptions of, a mobile smartphone application (app) intervention for BMSM that aims to remove structural barriers and improve access to culturally relevant HIV prevention and care services. An Internet-based sample of 93 BMSM completed an online survey on their perceptions of the app using 14 items measured on a 100-point visual analogue scale that were validated in exploratory factor analysis (alpha=0.95). Among the sample, perceptions of two sample app modules were generally favorable and most BMSM agreed that they would use the modules (81.2% and 87.1%). Correlates of having favorable perceptions included trusting medical advice from social networks, lacking private health insurance, and not having accessed a primary care physician in the last year. Our findings warrant the further development of this app and point to subgroups of BMSM for which it may have the greatest impact.

Keywords: Black men who have sex with men, HIV, structural barriers, smartphone, mobile, technology, application, app

Introduction

Current HIV prevention and treatment modalities are failing to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic among Black men who have sex with men (BMSM) in the United States (US) (Rosenberg, Millett, Sullivan, del Rio, & Curran, 2014). An estimated 3.0 to 5.1% of BMSM become infected with HIV each year (Balaji et al., 2013; Koblin et al., 2013) and BMSM are infected at a rate six times that of White men who have sex with men (MSM) (Purcell et al., 2012). Locally, in the District of Columbia (DC), BMSM represent 26% of people living with HIV and 25% of newly diagnosed HIV cases (DC DOH, 2013). The racial disparity in HIV incidence, however, is not adequately explained by differences in individual-level risk behaviors (Millett et al., 2012), and is better attributed to poor health outcomes of the HIV care continuum (Rosenberg et al., 2014). Indeed, BMSM living with HIV are less likely than other HIV-infected MSM to receive an HIV diagnosis (CDC, 2011; Millett, Peterson, Wolitski, & Stall, 2006), be linked and retained in care, and achieve and maintain viral suppression (Millett et al., 2012; Oster et al., 2011). These gaps in HIV care contribute to greater rates of HIV transmission among sexual networks of BMSM (Marks, Crepaz, & Janssen, 2006; Vernazza, Eron, Fiscus, & Cohen, 1999). In addition, recent research suggests that the disparity in HIV incidence between BMSM and White MSM can also be largely explained by differences in dyadic level characteristics (i.e., the extent to which men report partners from groups that likely have higher HIV prevalence) and in the possession of health insurance (Sullivan et al., 2015). Thus, it is important to maximize access to HIV prevention, care, and treatment services for BMSM in settings where partner pool risk is a driver of high incidence (Sullivan et al., 2015).

Eliminating racial disparities in HIV incidence and care outcomes will require a greater uptake of HIV prevention and care interventions among BMSM (Rosenberg et al., 2014). Most HIV prevention interventions and treatment approaches – behavioral sexual risk reduction counseling, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), treatment as prevention (TasP), linkage and retention in care, and adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART) – require interaction with health care infrastructure, yet it is often difficult for BMSM to access culturally appropriate health care services due to known structural barriers (Levy et al., 2014). Such barriers include experiences of racism and homophobia during health care visits, discomfort and distrust associated with disclosing sexual behavior to health care providers for fear of ramifications, low cultural competency of providers for working with BMSM of diverse sexual identities, stigmatization of voluntary HIV testing, and low density of HIV prevention services in areas where BMSM live (Levy et al., 2014). On the whole, prevention and treatment strategies are failing to slow the epidemic because they require meaningful engagement in a health care system that often does not meet the unique health needs of BMSM. Novel interventions are urgently needed to reduce and/or eliminate these barriers to services for BMSM.

Smartphone applications (apps) provide an important opportunity to reach and engage BMSM in primary and secondary HIV prevention services across the HIV care continuum. For those with existing barriers to care, such apps may represent a critical link to enter and remain in the health care system. Smartphones not only offer standard features such as text and voice communication, but also advanced computing and communication capability, including Internet access and geo-positioning systems (Boulos, Wheeler, Tavares, & Jones, 2011). Among all US adults, non-Hispanic Blacks are more likely than Whites to own a smartphone (70% vs. 61%), and younger adults are the age group most likely to own one (85% of those aged 18-29, 79% of those aged 30-49, 54% of those aged 50-64, and 27% of those aged ≥65) (Smith, 2015). Among MSM, one study found that non-White men were nearly six times more likely than White men to report wanting to receive sexual health information via an app (Sun, Stowers, Miller, Bachmann, & Rhodes, 2014). In another study conducted among young BMSM, mobile technologies were a widely used and acceptable means for an HIV intervention (Muessig et al., 2013).

In fact, researchers and practitioners are increasingly using smartphone interventions for HIV prevention and care. In a systematic review, Muessig, Nekkanti, Bauermeister, Bull, and Hightow-Weidman recently identified the use of smartphone-based HIV interventions in four published studies and 14 ongoing projects (2015). These smartphone interventions address various stages of the HIV care continuum, including primary prevention, testing, linkage to care, retention in care, initiation of ART, ART adherence, and secondary prevention (Muessig et al., 2015). Eight ongoing smartphone-based or mobile-optimized projects specifically focus on HIV prevention and care among MSM in the US, including HIV-negative MSM, HIV-positive MSM, young MSM, stimulant-using MSM, and BMSM. Of these ongoing projects, two Internet-based interventions that are optimized for mobile devices specifically focus on HIV prevention and care among BMSM (Muessig et al., 2015). One mobile-optimized website, healthMpowerment, aims to reduce risky sexual behaviors and build community among HIV-positive and negative young BMSM and transgender women in North Carolina (Hightow-Weidman et al., 2011; LeGrand, Muessig, Pike, Baltierra, & Hightow-Weidman, 2014; Muessig, Baltierra, Pike, LeGrand, & Hightow-Weidman, 2014; Muessig et al., 2015). A second mobile-optimized website provides young BMSM in New York City with a tailored recommendation of their optimal HIV testing approach (Muessig et al., 2015).

Despite these emerging and innovative websites and apps focusing on critical health needs of MSM and BMSM, researchers have yet to fully harness the utility of smartphone apps and other technological advances to address structurally rooted reasons why BMSM frequently cannot access culturally relevant HIV services across the HIV continuum of care (Muessig et al., 2015). More specifically, there is a great need for an app that increases access to culturally relevant HIV prevention and care services for BMSM and improves the user’s self-efficacy in initiating communication about sexual and other health needs with health care providers. In this study, we surveyed BMSM in DC metropolitan statistical areas to investigate the potential utility of a smartphone app that aims to eliminate barriers to HIV prevention and care services among this population. The aim of this study was to assess the acceptability of such a smartphone app specifically designed to meet the needs of BMSM in DC. We also explored the psychometric properties of the survey items used to assess participants’ perceptions of the app and subsequently identified correlates of having favorable perceptions of the app’s utility.

Methods

Data Collection

We collected the data reported in this paper during an Internet-based study for the PRISM (Pursuing Real and Innovative Ideas to Remove Structural Barriers for Men) project conducted among BMSM in the DC metropolitan statistical areas. An online survey was used to evaluate the acceptability of a mobile smartphone app intervention that would aim to improve access to culturally relevant HIV prevention and care services and facilitate communication about sexual and other health needs between BMSM and providers.

We conceptualized the design of the smartphone app based on formative research conducted during an earlier phase of this project among a community-based sample of 100 BMSM. In brief, the objective of this formative phase was to identify and characterize socio-cultural and structural barriers to accessing HIV prevention and care services for BMSM. From July 2012 to February 2013, an ethnographer conducted in-depth individual interviews with 25 of these men to collect qualitative data on structural dimensions based on the dynamic social systems model developed by Latkin, Weeks, Glasman, Galletly, and Albarracin (2010). Subsequent transcription and team coding of these data informed the development of a mixed-methods instrument that was administered to 75 men between October 2013 and June 2014. At these study visits, BMSM who had experienced at least one barrier to engagement in health care provided self-reported data on their experiences with health care infrastructure during a computer-assisted quantitative self-interview and an in-depth qualitative interview that was digitally audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim by a professional transcription service. In this initial phase, we found that BMSM placed great importance on developing trusting relationships with nonjudgmental health care providers and expressed discomfort with initiating conversations about sexual behavior and HIV. The data from this parent study demonstrated a critical need for targeted and culturally appropriate interventions that would address the complex reasons why BMSM often do not access HIV services.

For this current study, using online recruitment methods, we invited BMSM to complete an anonymous, Internet-based survey on their perceptions of the potential utility of a smartphone app intervention. We distributed Internet-based recruitment materials that included a hyperlink to the survey via Facebook and email communication with professional networks and community-based organizations in DC that serve populations inclusive of BMSM (Figure 1). We used REDCap electronic data capture tools hosted at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at Children’s National Health System to manage survey data collected between September and November 2014. REDCap is a workflow methodology and software solution for designing clinical and translational research databases (Harris et al., 2009).

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Figure 1. Internet-based recruitment material.

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Figure 2. Screenshot of eligibility criteria in REDCap survey.

The survey’s introductory screen described the study as “a study about Black men’s health needs… [that] can be done on a tablet, a smartphone, or a computer.” If men responded that they were interested in learning more, the next screen indicated that we would first ask questions to determine if they were eligible. In order to be eligible for the study, participants had to: (1) be 18 years of age or older; (2) identify as Black, African American, Caribbean Black, or Multiethnic Black; (3) be labeled male at birth; (4) identify as gay, same gender loving, homosexual, or bisexual, or have had sex with a male, transgender, or intersex individual in the last 12 months; and (5) live in the DC metropolitan statistical areas (Figure 2). Using conditional logic in REDCap, ineligible respondents were informed that they were not selected for the survey. Eligible participants were notified that the survey would take 15-20 minutes to complete and that their responses would be voluntary and anonymous. At the end of the survey, participants could access a link to a secure Google form to provide unlinked contact information and retrieve a $25 gift check by mail or at our office. The George Washington University (GWU) Institutional Review Board approved all study protocols and instruments.

Measures

The REDCap survey collected data on perceptions of the potential utility of an app that would aim to eliminate barriers to accessing HIV prevention and care services and improve communication of sexual and other health needs between BMSM and providers. We created questions on perceptions that were in reference to an initial prototype of two app modules named “Talking with my Health Care Provider” and “Sexual Health.” These two sample modules were designed based on formative data to facilitate the user’s own understanding of the health concerns most important to him and improve his self-efficacy in seeking relevant resources and health services that may be difficult to access. After a description of the first module – “Many people don’t feel comfortable asking their medical providers for all the services they need during a visit, forget to ask all their questions, or can’t ask since there is not enough time during the visit. In this part of the app, we are trying to make it easier to tell your provider what you want out of the visit” – participants viewed a sample screenshot with selection options that corresponded with health concerns that participants may want to communicate to providers (Figure 3). The survey language explained that the user would be able to select specific concerns that he would want to discuss with his provider and the app would then populate relevant information, tools, and resources that could be saved, printed, and discussed with providers during visits. We then provided participants with a description of the second module: “The goal of this part of the app is to help you get what you need from your medical provider to support your sexual health, since sometimes it is hard to talk with providers about sexual health and prevention.” Similarly, this module would allow the user to select specific sexual health concerns that would populate relevant information, tools, and resources to be saved, printed, and discussed with providers during visits (Figure 4).

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Figure 3. Screenshot of sample smartphone app module on communicating with health care providers.

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Figure 4. Screenshot of sample smartphone app module on sexual health.

Based on descriptions of the two modules, we asked participants to respond to 14 items – seven on the module pertaining to communicating with providers (numbered C1-C7) and seven on the module pertaining to sexual health (numbered S1-S7). These items were measured using a 100-point visual analogue scale by which participants could electronically select a response (from 0 to 100) consistent with the extent to which they agreed with each item (listed in Table IV) (Miller & Ferris, 1993). We explained to participants that they could drag the ‘slider’ – the position on the visual analogue scale representing their response – from the default midway point (i.e., 50 out of 100) to the desired point, consistent with the extent to which they agreed with each statement. Participants were also asked an open-ended question: “Do you have any ideas about how to make it easier for people to get the care and services they need, including HIV prevention services?” In addition, participants responded to questions on demographics, smartphone characteristics, sexual behaviors, health seeking behaviors, health knowledge, health care experiences, and health care beliefs that were adopted from previous pilot work with BMSM in DC during HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) 061 (Koblin et al., 2013; Mayer et al., 2014), National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) (Magnus et al., 2010), and PRISM studies (these items and their response options are listed in Table I).

Statistical Analysis

We completed statistical analyses using SAS, Version 9.3 (Cary, NC). Descriptive statistics (frequencies and percentages) were calculated for each variable. For the 14 items that measured participants’ perceptions of the app using a 100-point visual analogue scale (C1-C7 and S1-S7), descriptive statistics were reported using a cutoff of ≥51 (representing agreement with items) as well as using the median and interquartile range (IQR). Differences in responses by self-reported HIV status were assessed using the Mann-Whitney U test to determine whether subsequent analyses should be stratified by HIV status. We performed exploratory factor analysis on this 14-item scale using the principal components method with promax rotation to assess its validity as a measure for perceptions of the app among BMSM in the sample and investigate its underlying factor structure. This approach has been effective for validating scales and creating subscales in other studies (Mutumba et al., 2015; Neufeld, Sikkema, Lee, Kochman, & Hansen, 2012) and recent simulation studies have indicated that small samples, even those with less than 50 participants, can produce reliable results (de Winter, Dodou, & Wieringa, 2009; Mundfrom, Shaw, & Ke, 2005). Cronbach’s alpha was calculated to assess the internal consistency of these 14 items and item analysis was performed by computing item-to-total correlation coefficients for the overall scale and for subscales that were created as the sum of items loading on each factor extracted in exploratory factor analysis. Using these subscales in bivariable analysis, we assessed correlates of having favorable perceptions of the utility of the app (i.e., having higher subscale scores) to generate medians with 95% confidence intervals (CIs), Mann-Whitney U test statistics, Spearman’s rank correlation coefficients with 95% CIs (for health care beliefs), and p-values. Key demographic characteristics, health care characteristics, and health care beliefs with sufficient variability in responses were selected for these analyses. Open-ended, qualitative responses were coded using thematic analysis, which is a method for identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). After identifying patterned and related statements among open-ended responses, we named themes and used them as the basis for coding. Then, the data set was analyzed for the frequency with which different themes were mentioned in open-ended responses.

Results

Demographic, Behavioral, and Health Care Characteristics

A total of 93 BMSM completed the survey. Nearly half (43%) of participants were <30 years of age (mean=34; SD=10.3; range: 21-69) and 26% reported having previously tested positive for HIV (Table I). Almost all participants (95%) reported owning a smartphone. Participants reported having accessed community-based clinics (61%), primary care physicians (50%), acute care settings (42%), and dentists (37%) in the last year. Excluding dental care, only five participants had not accessed any medical care in the last year. Among participants who had not previously received a positive HIV test result, most (88%) reported having received HIV testing in the last year and nearly one-third (30%) had taken PrEP in the same time period. In terms of their beliefs about the health care providers they usually see, most participants trusted their providers (93%), believed they are competent (96%), agreed that it is easy to talk to them (94%), and agreed that it is easy to get their needs met (92%). Some participants believed their providers thought less of them because they have sex with other men (15%), because they are Black (16%), or for both of these reasons (7%).

Table I. Characteristics of an Internet-based sample of Black men who have sex with men in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 2014 (N=93)a.

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a Participants included 91 self-identified males, one self-identified transgender woman, and one self-identified intersex individual.
b Participants could provide more than one value for a response.
c One participant did not provide a response for this item on condom use.
d Endorsement of health care beliefs is defined as a response ≥51 on a visual analogue scale from 0 to 100. The sum of response frequencies for questions on health care beliefs is less than 93 due to missing values in this component of the survey.

Acceptability of the Mobile App Intervention

Based on perceptions of the smartphone app intervention, study participants on the whole supported its potential utility (Table II). After viewing the module on communicating with health care providers, most participants agreed that they would use the app if it were free (81%) and that it would be easier to remember to tell the doctor what they needed (88%) and get the medical services they needed (80%). After viewing the module on sexual health, most participants also agreed that they would use it if it were free (87%); they also believed that the app would make it easier to get the sexual health services they needed (87%), talk about sex with their medical providers (82%), and talk about PrEP (71%). There were no significant differences in perceptions of the app by self-reported HIV status; thus, subsequent analyses used pooled data from HIV-negative and HIV-positive participants.

Table II. Perceptions of a smartphone application intervention to facilitate access to HIV prevention and care services among Black men who have sex with men in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 2014 (N=93)a.

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a Participants included 91 self-identified males, one self-identified transgender woman, and one self-identified intersex individual.
b Agreement with each item is dichotomized as a response ≥51 on a visual analogue scale from 0 to 100. The sum of response frequencies is less than 93 due to missing values.
c The median and interquartile range are presented for each item measured on a visual analogue scale from 0 (i.e., no agreement) to 100 (i.e., complete agreement).
Forty-two men provided a response for the open-ended question on how to make it easier for people to get the care and services they need. Although this question did not directly ask about the app, many open-ended responses focused on the app and also demonstrated high endorsement of the utility of the app among participants (Table III). Men in the sample stated that the app would be easy to use and would help users identify culturally competent and accessible health care providers. They also recommended the app be visually appealing, track health seeking behaviors, use electronic notifications to remind them of behaviors like testing for HIV and taking PrEP, and incorporate tools for two-way communication between users and providers.

Table III. Open-ended responses regarding ideas to improve access to HIV prevention services among Black men who have sex with men in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 2014 (N=93)a.

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a Participants included 91 self-identified males, one self-identified transgender woman, and one self-identified intersex individual.

Psychometric Properties of the 14-Item Scale for Perceptions of the App

The exploratory factor analysis procedure supported the validity of using the 14 items to measure perceptions of the potential utility of the app intervention and informed the creation of two subscales (Table IV). The procedure extracted two factors that explained 78.0% and 11.6% of the total variance (eigenvalues of 8.54 and 1.27; KMO test=0.87; χ2 of Bartlett’s test of sphericity=997.92, p<0.0001). Based on the items that loaded more strongly on each factor, we named factor 1 for the general utility of the app for improving access to health insurance and health services (abbreviated as ‘Access’). We named factor 2 for the utility of the app for increasing ease in communicating health needs to health care providers (abbreviated as ‘Communication’). We recommended removing items C7 and S3 because they had two of the lowest loadings on factor 1 (0.58 and 0.60, respectively) and more closely represented the construct measured by items loading on factor 2 (Communication) – and had loadings >0.30 on factor 2 (0.32 and 0.34, respectively). Subsequent analyses excluded these two items. Further exploratory factor analysis on the other 12 items produced the same factor structure and explained 93.1% of the total variance. The Cronbach’s alpha values were 0.95 for the total scale, 0.92 for the Access subscale, and 0.91 for the Communication subscale. We then used these two newly created subscales to identify correlates of having favorable perceptions of the app.

Table IV. Factor loadings, item-subscale correlations, and item-total correlations for items measuring perceptions of a smartphone application intervention among Black men who have sex with men in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 2014 (N=93)a.

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a Participants included 91 self-identified males, one self-identified transgender woman, and one self-identified intersex individual.
b Items numbered using “C” are in reference to the hypothetical mobile app module on communicating with health care providers and items numbered using “S” are in reference to the hypothetical mobile app module on sexual health.
c Factor 1 was named for the general utility of the app for accessing health insurance and health services (Access).
d Factor 2 was named for the app increasing ease in communicating health needs to the health care provider (Communication).

In Table V, we report participant characteristics associated with higher scores on the two subscales that measured perceptions of the app. Variables significantly associated with higher scores on the Access subscale (i.e., having more favorable perceptions on the utility of the app for accessing health services) were not having private health insurance (U=981.5; p=0.0203), not having accessed a primary care physician in the last year (U=1748; p=0.0385), believing he could get his needs met when seeing a health care provider (rho=0.260; p=0.0234), trusting medical advice from social networks (rho=0.296; p=0.0090), and trusting medical advice from apps (rho=0.327; p=0.0039). Variables significantly associated with higher scores on the Communication subscale (i.e., having more favorable perceptions on the utility of the app for increasing ease in communicating health needs to providers) were believing that health care providers did not think less of him for being Black (rho=-0.292; p=0.0116), trusting medical advice from social networks (rho=0.231; p=0.0463), and trusting medical advice from apps (rho=0.372; p=0.0012).

Table V. Associations between key participant characteristics and having favorable perceptions of a smartphone application intervention among Black men who have sex with men in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Areas, 2014 (N=93)a.

Participant Characteristics Subscale 1: Utility for Accessing health services (Access)b Subscale 2: Ease in Communicating health needs (Communication)c
Median (IQR) Ud p Median (IQR) Ud p
Age 1548 0.2082 1326 0.8227
<30 years 423 (327 – 478) 475 (371 – 642)
≥30 years 381 (300 – 455) 497 (383 – 620)
Result of last HIV test 704 0.9338 629 0.4378
Positive 375 (330 – 464) 475 (288 – 573)
Negative 417 (301 – 464) 503 (378 – 642)
Has private health insurance 982 0.0203 881 0.0593
Yes 379 (285 – 452) 468 (372 – 588)
No, but has another type of insurance 435 (389 – 485) 574 (425 – 680)
Accessed a community-based clinic in the last year 1164 0.8332 1152 0.9746
Yes 423 (320 – 466) 475 (372 – 642)
No 383 (306 – 457) 503 (378 – 591)
Accessed a primary care physician in the last year 1748 0.0385 1310 0.2361
Yes 362 (233 – 455) 476 (371 – 585)
No 434 (346 – 470) 507 (383 – 658)
Accessed an acute care setting in the last year 1261 0.7169 1199 0.6439
Yes 399 (333 – 470) 504 (391 – 603)
No 399 (285 – 457) 468 (371 – 636)
Tested for HIV in the last year (among those HIV-negative) 735 0.8613 704 0.7415
Yes 399 (306 – 467) 499 (372 –  649)
No 399 (310 –  464) 476 (390 –  585)
Tested for another sexually transmitted infection in the last year 1071 0.3769 1104 0.2617
Yes 389 (302 – 455) 468 (371 – 603)
No 427 (338 – 470) 502 (392 – 652)
Received HIV counseling in the last year 757 0.5893 695 0.9903
Yes 443 (272 – 475) 499 (372 – 651)
No 394 (310 – 456) 494 (378 – 620)
Received PrEP in the last year (among those HIV-negative) 601 0.7385 548 0.7880
Yes 388 (306 – 480) 490 (371 – 669)
No 427 (300 – 452) 503 (387 – 612)
Was offered an HIV test the last time he saw a health provider for any reason (among those HIV-negative) 724 0.9039 698 0.4370
Yes 394 (294 – 473) 458 (372 – 647)
No 423 (322 – 454) 559 (425 – 636)
Unable to get medical care that he needed in last year 287 0.6387 277 0.5998
Was unable 389 (301 – 451) 440 (382 – 565)
Was not unable 402 (310 – 464) 500 (375 – 634)
Spearman’s Rho (95% CI)e p Spearman’s Rho (95% CI)e p
Trusts the health care provider he usually sees 0.162 (-0.066, 0.374) 0.1618 0.148 (-0.084, 0.364) 0.2095
Believes the health care provider he usually sees is competent 0.110 (-0.117, 0.326) 0.3426 0.097 (-0.133, 0.317) 0.4068
Believes it is easy to talk with the health care provider he usually sees 0.177 (-0.052, 0.388) 0.1295 0.043 (-0.189, 0.271) 0.7171
Believes it is easy to get all of his needs met when he sees a healthcare provider 0.260 (0.037, 0.458) 0.0234 0.117 (-0.114, 0.337) 0.3203
Believes that health care providers think less of him because he is a man who has sex with men -0.002 (-0.231, 0.226) 0.9843 -0.059 (-0.285, 0.174) 0.6209
Believes that health care providers think less of him because he is Black -0.224 (-0.428, 0.002) 0.0519 -0.292 (-0.488, -0.068) 0.0116
Trusts medical advice from his social network about health issues 0.296 (0.077, 0.487) 0.0090 0.231 (0.004, 0.435) 0.0463
Trusts medical advice from apps about health issues 0.327 (0.110, 0.515) 0.0039 0.372 (0.155, 0.555) 0.0012
a Participants included 91 self-identified males, one self-identified transgender woman, and one self-identified intersex individual.
b Subscale 1 was determined using exploratory factor analysis of 14 items asking for participants’ beliefs on the app and was named for the general utility of the app for accessing health insurance and health services (Access). Values for subscale 1 range from 0 (completely negative perceptions) to 500 (completely favorable perceptions).
c Subscale 2 was determined using exploratory factor analysis of 14 items asking for participants’ beliefs on the app and was named for the app increasing ease in communicating health needs to health care providers (Communication). Values for subscale 2 range from 0 (completely negative perceptions) to 700 (completely favorable perceptions).
d P-values for categorical variables were obtained using the two-sided Mann-Whitney U test.
e Positive values for Spearman’s Rho indicate positive correlations between the beliefs listed and the degree of agreement with subscale items. Conversely, negative values for Spearman’s Rho indicate negative correlations between the beliefs listed and the degree of agreement with subscale items.

Discussion

In this formative study of BMSM in DC, we evaluated the acceptability of, and correlates of having favorable perceptions of, a smartphone app that would aim to improve access to culturally competent HIV prevention and care services and facilitate communication about sexual and other health needs with providers. These men – almost all of whom owned a smartphone – were diverse in age and in HIV status. On the whole, they positively endorsed the utility of the app regardless of these and other participant characteristics. Surprisingly, despite known barriers to care, almost all participants reported having insurance and having accessed some form of health care in the last year. They also had generally positive perceptions of their health care providers. Despite their engagement in at least one form of health care, most participants agreed that they would use the app and supported its potential utility among BMSM. Quantitative and qualitative findings suggest that participants believed the app would facilitate more complete and culturally relevant utilization of the health care services they could access. In fact, previous formative research for this study found that the receipt of HIV prevention interventions differed by health care setting for BMSM in DC, with receipt of these services being less common in primary care settings than at community-based clinics. Given the complex known socio-cultural and structural barriers to HIV prevention and care services, access to health care does not guarantee access to HIV-specific services for BMSM (Levy et al., 2014). The high acceptability of the app could be attributed to its focus on improving the user’s self-efficacy in identifying and communicating specific sexual and other health needs to providers as opposed to solely focusing on promoting access to care.

Our findings are consistent with previous studies that have shown that Internet- and smartphone-based technologies are an acceptable and effective modality for an HIV-focused intervention among MSM and BMSM in the US. The high acceptability of these technologies for primary and secondary HIV prevention among MSM is demonstrated by research on a diverse set of interventions that are in development or that have already been created specifically for MSM: Internet- and smartphone-based interventions providing HIV prevention education (Holloway et al., 2014; Hooper, Rosser, Horvath, Oakes, & Danilenko, 2008; Mustanski, Lyons, & Garcia, 2011), geosocial and sexual networking apps for sexual health education and HIV/STI referrals (Sun et al., 2014), a live-chat intervention using Facebook to reduce HIV risk (Lelutiu-Weinberger et al., 2014), an online video intervention designed to decrease sexual risk behaviors and increase HIV disclosure (Chiasson, Shaw, Humberstone, Hirshfield, & Hartel, 2009), a chat room-based HIV prevention intervention designed to promote HIV testing (Rhodes et al., 2011), an Internet-based skills training and motivational intervention to reduce sexual risk (Carpenter, Stoner, Mikko, Dhanak, & Parsons, 2010), a text-messaging intervention to reduce HIV risk behaviors among methamphetamine-using MSM (Reback et al., 2012), and an Internet-based intervention to increase condom use among HIV-positive MSM (Miranda et al., 2013). Indeed, emerging Internet-based interventions appear to be the most promising approaches for HIV prevention among MSM (Rosser et al., 2011). To date, the only published Internet- or smartphone-based intervention developed specifically for BMSM, healthMpowerment, provides information, resources, and tailored feedback to reduce risky sexual behaviors and build community among young BMSM and transwomen. The feasibility and acceptability of the mobile-optimized website is supported by findings from pilot studies among BMSM, and its effectiveness is being assessed by a randomized controlled trial in North Carolina with multiple outcomes of interest: unprotected anal intercourse in the past three months (primary outcome), depression, social support, viral load/CD4, adherence, testing, HIV knowledge, and substance use (Hightow-Weidman et al., 2011; LeGrand et al., 2014; Muessig et al., 2014; Muessig et al., 2015; Muessig et al., 2013).

Although the design of the app’s sample modules used in this study were an initial prototype, other research has identified key characteristics and functionalities of smartphone-based HIV interventions that are important for user acceptability. In one study, young BMSM emphasized the importance that smartphone-based HIV interventions be fast-paced, useful, fun, efficient, user-friendly, and interactive without an overwhelmingly large amount of text. They also indicated a desire to control app features such as preferences for receiving app-related alerts and messages (Muessig et al., 2013). MSM in another study stated that an app’s design should facilitate interactive engagement whereby the user can input information using game-like functions and receive feedback, for example, on personal behaviors. They also preferred an app that incorporates social networking features yet also ensures privacy and discretion so that it feels safe and trustworthy (Goldenberg, McDougal, Sullivan, Stekler, & Stephenson, 2014). Moreover, guidelines for using mobile technologies in public health research call for interventions that integrate multiple communication devices, are scalable and sustainable, incorporate social network and/or geographic metrics, and take a community-based participatory approach to development and implementation (Young, Holloway, & Swendeman, 2014). Despite the app’s rudimentary design for the purpose of this study, app characteristics of known importance for user acceptability should further guide the development of its design and functionalities.

By creating subscales for participants’ perceptions of the app in exploratory factor analysis, we were also able to explore participant characteristics that were associated with having positive perceptions of the utility of the app. Both subscales were associated with trusting medical advice from apps, which provides support for the construct validity of these measures. Findings from bivariable analyses point to potential subgroups of BMSM for which the app may have the greatest impact. Participants who had not seen a primary care physician in the last year or who lacked private health insurance tended to more strongly support the general utility of the app for improving access to health insurance and health services. Research has found that BMSM (and the general population of Black men) often do not seek primary care due to barriers such as low cultural competency of providers, racial and sexual discrimination, mistrust of the medical establishment, low socioeconomic status, and lack of awareness of the need for care (Cheatham, Barksdale, & Rodgers, 2008; Malebranche, Peterson, Fullilove, & Stackhouse, 2004; Ravenell, Whitaker, & Johnson Jr, 2008). This app could provide an acceptable modality for these men to receive support in accessing comfortable primary care services. In addition, participants who did not believe that their providers thought less of them for being Black tended to more strongly agree that the app would increase ease in communicating health needs to providers. BMSM across multiple studies have indicated perceptions of racism and homophobia during visits with providers and were less likely to use HIV prevention services if they were unable to access nonjudgmental health care environments (Brooks, Etzel, Hinojos, Henry, & Perez, 2005; Dillon & Basu, 2014; Saleh, Operario, Smith, Arnold, & Kegeles, 2011). Experiences of discrimination and negative encounters with medical institutions have led to the inadequate use of health care, poor communication with providers, and poor ART adherence among BMSM living with HIV (Malebranche et al., 2004). Thus, some of these same barriers may inhibit men from using this app, yet the app might also help BMSM navigate a health care system that may not mitigate these barriers or meet their unique needs. Moreover, one study found that young BMSM were more likely to get HIV prevention information from social networks, the media, and the community rather than from medical providers (Voisin, Bird, Shiu, & Krieger, 2013). For BMSM who use smartphones, this app could provide an acceptable means to bridge these separate entities, with culturally appropriate HIV prevention information and tools immediately available to help them access the services they need.

Our findings are especially relevant to BMSM in the DC metropolitan statistical areas who are similar to the men in this study, yet these results also have applicability to other sub-populations of BMSM. Participants in this study were recruited via Internet-based materials and surveyed using Internet-based methods, and thus were admittedly a select group of BMSM who could and do regularly access the Internet on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. An Internet-based sample was appropriate for this study because it consisted of men that would have the tools to use this app. However, given known barriers to engagement in health care experienced by BMSM, the health care characteristics of men in this study’s sample suggest that they were already more linked and engaged in care, on average, than the target users of the proposed app. Although recruitment methods included the distribution of materials via Facebook, we likely did not reach the group of BMSM who are the least engaged in care. Future outreach efforts and sampling methods regarding this app should attempt to reach more men who are not engaged in health care, since they might benefit from this app the most (although our sample endorsed the app’s utility despite most men having at least some engagement in health care). In addition, sub-populations of BMSM in other geographic regions of the US would also be likely to use this app. Smartphone apps are being developed for BMSM in other regions (Muessig et al., 2015) and evidence indicates that BMSM in other regions have experienced similar barriers to services (Levy et al., 2014).

This study has several limitations. First, participants’ perceptions of the app were based on an initial prototype, but based on the information provided to participants, they were able to conceptualize its general structure and purpose so that they could provide meaningful feedback on its acceptability and potential utility. Second, the items used to measure perceptions of the app had not been previously used or validated, but their psychometric properties in this study supported their validity. Third, analyses of this moderately sized sample used pooled data from HIV-negative and HIV-positive participants because, despite potential differences in health care experiences, there were no significant differences in perceptions of the app or health care beliefs by HIV status in this sample. Fourth, results could have been influenced by social desirability bias. To minimize bias, participants were able to anonymously take the survey on their own computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Conclusions

This study provides compelling formative evidence that BMSM in DC would use and may benefit from a targeted smartphone app that aims to improve their access to culturally competent HIV prevention and care services and facilitate communication about sexual and other health needs with providers. To our knowledge, this study is the first to report correlates of having favorable perceptions of a mobile app focused on HIV prevention and care for BMSM. Our findings warrant the further development of this app intervention and call for additional studies to evaluate its feasibility and effectiveness. By building on previous research on structural barriers to HIV prevention and care services among BMSM, this potential app intervention represents a step forward in efforts to eliminate racial disparities in care outcomes and HIV incidence among MSM in the US.

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Acknowledgements

The authors appreciate colleagues Kyle Gordon, Jenna Ebert, Dr. James Peterson, and Dr. Sheldon Fields for their devoted work on the R21 project (MH097586). Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R21 MH097586. This publication was made possible with help from the District of Columbia Developmental Center for AIDS Research (DC D-CFAR), an NIH funded program (P30AI087714). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Biographical Statements

Matthew Levy is a Research Associate and doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. He serves as the Study Coordinator and Data Quality Manager for multiple clinical trials of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) within the George Washington University HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) Clinical Research Site. For his doctoral dissertation, he is investigating dyslipidemia and its management in a prospective cohort of people living with HIV who are engaged in care in the District of Columbia.

Contact: mattelevy@gwu.edu

Christopher Chauncey Watson, MHS, has studied health disparities affecting African Americans for over a decade. At the time of this paper’s conduct and analysis, Mr. Watson worked at The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.  Mr. Watson’s professional efforts encompass multiple roles, including both domestic and global initiatives aimed to end the HIV epidemic and health disparities. Named a Champion of Change by a local organization, IMPACT, for his contributions to the global fight against HIV/AIDS, Mr. Watson works to influence both policy makers and community stakeholders about the importance of health inequalities.

Contact: cclwat@gwu.edu

Leo Wilton, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development in the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) at the State University of New York at Binghamton and a Senior Research Associate in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg in Johannesburg, South Africa. His primary research interests include health disparities (primary and secondary HIV prevention); community based research and evaluation; and Black psychological development and mental health. Dr. Wilton’s scholarly research on the AIDS epidemic focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality, as situated in macro- and micro-level inequalities in Black communities, both nationally and internationally. The overall objective of Dr. Wilton’s scholarly research program has been to focus on the impact of socio-cultural factors that influence sexual/drug-risk and protective behavior and mental health in Black communities. His scientific research examines socio-cultural factors that provide the basis for the development of culturally grounded HIV prevention interventions in Black communities.

Contact: lwilton@binghamton.edu

Vittoria Criss is a student pursuing a Master of Science in Public Health Microbiology with interests in HIV and tuberculosis. She has worked as a Research Assistant on HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) clinical trials as well as other epidemiologic research studies focused on men who have sex with men and transgender women.

Contact: vcriss646@gwu.edu

Irene Kuo, PhD, MPH, is an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University (GWU). Dr. Kuo has nearly 15 years of experience conducting research and behavioral surveillance on infectious diseases (particularly HIV, HCV and HBV) in key populations at risk for HIV regarding substance use, risk behaviors, incarceration, linkage to HIV care and HIV prevention.

Contact: ikuo@gwu.edu

Sara Glick, PhD, MPH, is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Washington. She has a BA in anthropology from Northwestern University, a Master of Public Health in epidemiology from the University of Illinois – Chicago, and a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Washington. Previously, Dr. Glick was on faculty at the George Washington University where she conducted HIV prevention research for men who have sex with men in collaboration with the co-authors of this paper. She currently is the site principle investigator for the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance project in Seattle.

Contact: snglick@gwu.edu

Russell Brewer, DrPH, has served as the Director of the HIV/STI Program at the Louisiana Public Health Institute in New Orleans, LA since August 2011. He is also a Visiting Professor at the University of San Francisco, Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. From 2010-2012, he was an HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) Scholar conducting research to explore the relationship between incarceration and HIV among Black men who have sex with men (BMSM) enrolled in the HPTN 061 study. His research and programmatic efforts are focused on the needs of BMSM and persons living with HIV infection in the South.

Contact: rbrewer@lphi.org

Manya Magnus, PhD, MPH, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the George Washington University School of Public Health. Dr. Magnus is co-director of the School’s MPH Epidemiology Program. Dr. Magnus received her BA in psychology from the University of California, San Diego, and her MPH and PhD in epidemiology from Tulane University. Always interested in integrating research with clinical care, Dr. Magnus has collaborated on and directed a variety of epidemiologic studies, including clinical trials, cohort studies, and case-control studies. She applies epidemiologic methodology to conduct studies on the local, state, and national level, including NIH- and CDC-sponsored studies surrounding risk factors associated with HIV and use of innovative methods to improve HIV prevention services to at-risk individuals.

Contact: manyadm@gwu.edu

Benjamin Eveslage

Published Online: August 22, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: In Ghana and other countries, heightened social stigma and discrimination towards gay men and other men that have sex with men (MSM) is compounded by the criminalisation of homosexuality. These are factors that influence them to avoid in-person peer-networks and settings where HIV prevention and care services are available. Yet in Ghana, and more globally, these same populations are increasingly using online social media networking practices to connect with people and information. This is because it is perceived to be safer and more anonymous. From an HIV prevention and care perspective, this makes online social media—particularly Facebook—uniquely well suited for connecting these at-risk populations to sexual health interventions and services. Drawing on findings from an ethnographic study, I outline how CBOs and NGOs delivering sexual health services could possibly improve HIV prevention and care outreach within these subpopulations of gay men and MSM by mimicking how they use social media. Such an approach entails ambitious and undercover methods for leveraging these subpopulations’ use of social media networks in order to connect them to localised HIV prevention and care services. However, the approach of mimicking how sexual minorities use social media presents new ethical dilemmas.  I consider these ethical dilemmas. Then I outline a number of logistical considerations and specific methods sexual health CBOs and NGOs could implement using social media for HIV prevention and care, arguing they have the potential to improve outreach to underserved subpopulations of gay men and other MSM in contexts where discrimination, fear and stigma prevent them from accessing these vital resources.

Keywords: social media, Facebook, gay, MSM, sexual minorities, sexual health, HIV, NGOs, Ghana

Sexual health organisations, sexual minorities and social media

At the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, it was made clear that those who provide sexual health services to gay men and other MSM need to rethink the intersection between sexual health organisations, sexual minorities and social media in “stepping up the pace” to address HIV. It is critical to better understand how sexual minorities’ use of social media can inform sexual health interventions targeting these populations. Gay men, other MSM and transgender women are sexual minorities targeted by sexual health organisations because they are at a disproportional risk for contracting and transmitting HIV and other STIs (UNAIDS, 2014; Wilson et al., 2013, Baral et al., 2013). These sexual minorities, as well as people involved in sex work and people who inject drugs comprise the “key populations” framework for targeted HIV/AIDS interventions by USAID (2014).

In this article, I argue nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) who focus on sexual health could broaden their reach within and to subpopulations of gay men and other MSM by mimicking how these populations use social media. Such an approach entails more ambitious and undercover methods for leveraging these populations’ use of social media networks, like Facebook, to better connect them to localised HIV prevention and care services. In what follows I review a number of successful HIV programs to highlight successful examples of NGOs and CBOs using social media to provide HIV services to gay men, other MSM and transgender people to underscore the potential benefit of integrating similar approaches to strengthen HIV efforts into the future.  Then, drawing on an ethnographic study with sexual minorities in Ghana, I describe specific methods and logistical considerations used to successfully reach underserved populations using Facebook. Drawing on data sets across participants from urban areas in six regions in Ghana, I illustrate how many gay men and other MSM in Ghana reported having little or no knowledge of local sexual health services. Findings highlight the need to expand the reach of sexual health interventions on offer in Ghana targeting gay men and other MSM. This led me to explore the potential benefits of using Facebook to broaden and diversify the reach of HIV services to gay men and other MSM, as well as other sexual minorities disproportionately at risk to HIV. However, new ethical dilemmas arose as a result of my “when in Rome, do as Romans do” approach of mimicking how sexual minorities’ use social media. I conclude by examining these ethical dilemmas and then outline how they influenced my recommendations for approaches sexual health NGOs and CBOs can implement. I argue these methods have the potential to better reach underserved subpopulations of gay men and other MSM in Ghana and more globally to provide contextualised HIV prevention and care.

Outreach to sexual minorities through social media

The increasing ubiquity of online social media corresponds with a surge in numbers of sexual minorities engaging these platforms (Jones & Fox, 2009; Martinez et al., 2014; Oosterhoff, 2014). Furthermore, the recent and dramatic politicisation of homosexuality and high levels of stigma and discrimination in many Sub-Saharan African countries not only influence some sexual minorities to avoid public interaction, but also negatively affects the provision of HIV care and prevention services (Corey-Boulet, 2012, Currier, 2014, Epstein et al., 2004; IRIN, 2006; Walsh, Laskey, Chiayajit and Morrish, 2010). Over the past decade, Ghana has witnessed not only a proliferation of more affordable information communication technologies (ICTs) (Frempong, 2012; infoDev 2014), but also the politicisation of homosexuality and increased instances of human rights abuses directed at sexual minorities (Eveslage, 2015; Essien & Aderinto, 2009; PANA, 2011; Citi FM Online, 2010; Daily Guide, 2010; Mac-Darling Cobbinah, 2015). In this context, online social media networking becomes increasingly attractive for sexual minorities seeking sexual partners. It also provides unexplored platforms to maintain anonymity and discretion in accessing health services and information. Importantly, this also potentially opens up new avenues of exploitation (O’Mara, 2013) and violence (Wood, 2014; Avari 2014).

HIV prevention and care interventions in various regions – from North and Central America (Allman et al., 2012; Rivas et al., 2014) to Africa (Henry et al., 2012; Scheibe et al., 2012) and Asia (Avery et al., 2014; Chaiyajit & Walsh, 2012; Dasgupta 2012) – have highlighted the ways sexual minorities use social media to better inform the practice of HIV prevention and care (also see Kahema et al., 2014; Beck et al., 2012; Young & Jaganath 2013). These research studies highlight the importance of understanding how and why sexual minorities use social media in order to improve outreach into the virtual locations where they connect and communicate (Hanckel et al., 2014, p. 183-185). The available ICT resources range in their ability to directly reach gay men and other MSM. For example, designing a new website for sexual health education as Muessig et al. (2014) describes may allow for more tailored messages and service delivery, but will likely be encumbered with getting their target population engaged on their platform. Instead, Rivas et al. (2014) and Chaiyajit and Walsh (2012) document projects that more directly reached sexual minorities through chat rooms and social media websites already in use by sexual minorities. Specifically, the Sexperts! project, developed by RFSL (2009) in Stockholm and deployed by Mplus+ Thailand and TLBz Sexperts!, included two CBOs in Thailand that engaged on social media to reach populations of MSM and transgender women (Walsh, 2008; 2011; Walsh,  Chaiyajit & Thepsai, 2010). In Thailand, the TLBz Sexperts! Program is “a low-cost, transgender-led, community project offering accurate online transgender-specific sexual health information, social support and legal advice” (Chaiyajit, 2014). With 10 years of experience, the Sexperts! projects serves as example of directly reaching key populations to connect them to HIV and broader STI education.

In Ghana, Green et al. (2014) detailed the experience of USAID-funded HIV prevention and care efforts for key populations under the SHARPER project. In 2012 they reached less than 50% of the estimated number of MSM in Ghana when using traditional means of reaching MSM through “peer educators” (p. 210; Aberle-Grasse et al., 2013). However, peer educators within their project “were aware of other MSM networks – particularly those that were older or discreet about their sexuality, and who were not interested in being directly contacted by a peer educator” (p. 210). To incorporate these un-reached populations SHARPER invested in new efforts to reach MSM through social media (including Facebook and dating websites), increasing their coverage to 92% of the estimated population of MSM in Ghana (ibid.).

These studies evidence that sexual health CBOs and NGOs are capitalising on expanding ICT resources and social media used by sexual minorities. However, there remain large populations out of the reach of current HIV programming for various reasons.  For one, many of the population size estimates of gay men and other MSM – which are used to measure the success of HIV reach, prevention, care and treatment services – are typically based on biased starting points such as respondent driven sampling or a “wisdom of the crowds” approach (Paz-Bailey et al., 2011; Quaye et al., 2015).  While there are methods that attempt to control for this bias (Lane, 2009, p. 73), they tend to overlook subpopulations not connected to peer-networks whatsoever. Furthermore, there remain issues of how researchers and demographers understand sexual identities and how they conceptualise the impact of these identities on sexual behaviours (as discussed in Lane, 2009, p. 71; Sandfort & Dodge, 2009, p. 55; Nel, 2009).

The current approaches harnessing social media and ICTs to reach subpopulations of gay men, other MSM and transgender women to connect them to HIV services have room for growth. The goal of my research, reported below, is to add to and augment these methods by describing a study that could also be used to connect an at-risk population in Ghana to sexual health interventions and services. In what follows, I describe an independent field study conducted in Ghana that leverages subpopulations of gay men and MSM’s use of Facebook—by mimicking how they use social media—to:

  • broaden the reach of sexual health CBOs and NGOs to currently un-reached sub populations of gay men and other MSM on Facebook in Ghana;
  • to bridge the gap from online to in-person CBO and NGO contact with gay men and other MSM (e.g. to connect them to research studies or HIV prevention, care and treatment); and
  • to successfully navigate and address ethical dilemmas that arise when using such an innovative approach in a context where social stigma and discrimination towards gay men and other men MSM is severe.

Detailing my field study experience in Ghana will provide a deeper context for how sexual minorities use social media in Ghana and how sexual health CBOs and NGOs can learn from and mimic sexual minorities’ use of social media to develop methods to reach largely hidden subpopulations of gay men and other MSM who have little to no knowledge of sexual health services available to them.

Using Facebook to reach gay men and other MSM

Background and review of the study

To provide a background to my research, my use of the phrase “when in Ghana, do as sexual minorities do” is a reflection of my own experience as a sexual minority, and within broader sexual minority populations in Ghana. Over a 10-month period between 2009 and 2010 I became acquainted with sexual minority populations in Ghana as well as a number of sexual health NGOs targeting key populations at disproportionate risk to HIV. Unquestionably, I operated from a position of privilege being a white, male foreigner while in Ghana. However, my methods of making contacts and developing friendships within these populations were similarly shaped by the apparent risks that sexual minorities experience when connecting with others and disclosing sensitive information about sexuality. I also learned about methods of networking within sexual minority populations by interacting within sexual minority communities, taking their advice, and learning from their strategies. The experience integrally shaped my understanding of how sexual minorities interacted, connected and socialised on Facebook in the context of heightened stigma and discrimination.

My field research in Ghana was conducted in 2014 for my Masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. The field study was designed to gather a broad range of data to address the research question: “How have the politicisation of homosexuality and the transcultural production of sexual orientation and gender identity impacted people with non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities in Ghana?” Preparation for the field study began in January 2014 including obtaining ethical clearance and designing field research methods. Beginning in March, and spanning till the end of the field study in August, I reached out to 400 gay men and other MSM on Facebook to recruit research participants (Facebook recruitment methods are described in the following section). From mid-June to mid-August I was located in Ghana to collect data from participants recruited from Facebook, as well as through respondent driven sampling (i.e. snowballing) and gatekeeper referrals that brought in some lesbian women participants.

Participants predominantly included sexual minorities, including 113 gay men and other MSM and five lesbian women.  A small number of participants recruited described themselves as heterosexual during interviews (N=9).  Additional interviews included staff of human rights and sexual health NGOs and other business, civil society and community leaders that impact sexual minorities (N=9).  While my field study sought to speak with a diversity of sexual minorities, this chapter specifically focuses on how I identified and recruited gay men and other MSM using Facebook.  Data collection with the larger group of gay men and other MSM included in-depth interviews (N=70), focus group discussions (N=36) and participant observation (N=7).  Gay men and other MSM recruited using Facebook only participated in-depth interviews, while some recruited through snowballing, gatekeepers and sexual health NGOs participated in focus groups.  Of the 113 gay men and other MSM who participated in the study, Facebook recruitment methods recruited 64 participants, while 49 other participants had been identified through traditional strategies.  In-depth interviews lasted between 30 minutes to three hours, with an average of about 90 minutes.  An interview discussion guide was used in all interviews and focus groups, which included a list of standard open-ended questions (see Appendix 1), divided between these eight sections:

1)     Social-demographic profile (age, religious/ethic background and family details);

2)     Economic profile (means of livelihood, education and future plans);

3)     Sexuality profile (description of sexuality, sexual behaviours/dating life, and any economic factors related to sexual relationships);

4)     Globalisation and perception of sexuality (Connectedness to ICT resources and friends located globally, means of learning about sexuality, perceived marginalisation/agency that comes with their sexuality);

5)     Politicisation of homosexuality (Understanding of the politicisation of homosexuality in Ghana and how this has impacted their life);

6)     Societal norms (perception for how societal norms and others’ expectations impact their gender performivity and their relationships including marriage and having children);

7)     Religious/spirituality profile (Role/impact of religion in life, marginalisation experienced and agency demonstrated through participation in religious activities/organisations or spirituality); and

8)     Sexual health knowledge (knowledge of sexual health services/NGOs, health seeking behaviour, and suggestions for organisations working with sexual minorities in Ghana).

Analysing this data took the form of transcribing interviews, where I categorised responses into themes that I then codified and tallied.  However, the data collection was not administered uniformly across participants. Some concepts and questions were added to interviews after participants identified them as important. At times, participants commanded the direction of the interview, addressing many of the questions on their own, while at other times, I led the conversation and adapted the wording and order of questions to maximise continuity and depth of conversation.  At the conclusion of interviews, I typically sought to clarify any unclear responses or address skipped questions.  Yet, in some instances not all sections or questions were answered, resulting in a number of incomplete interviews.

Methods for identifying gay men and other MSM on Facebook as potential research participants

Three methods were used to identify gay men and other MSM on Facebook as potential participants for my research project. Some of these methods are distinguished from others employed by other NGOs because they reached populations whose status as gay or MSM was not assured before contacting them, leading to both an imperfect but also widely cast sample. These methods included:

  1. Adding friends-of-friends: I reached out to my previous contacts and friends in Ghana who I knew as gay men or other MSM by requesting their “friendship” on their Facebook profile. From this initially small group of Facebook contacts, I requested friendship with their friends, and friends of their friends (and so on).
  2. Joining Facebook groups for gay men and other MSM: I searched for and joined Facebook discussion groups for gay men and other MSM.  To connect with the members of these groups, I posted a short research description in the discussion board indicating that interested members could reach out to me directly to participate and I directly contacted and requested friendship with some members.
  3. Searching for “men interested in men”: I used Facebook’s search box to find “men interested in men”. Using this last method, I searched for “men who are interested in men from [name of city]“. Entering these search criteria returned profiles on the basis of the details that Facebook users entered on their profiles, such as their gender, who they are “interested in” (which can include “men, women, or both”), and their current location and hometown.

Each method had unique strengths and weaknesses for identifying gay men and other MSM as potential participants.  For instance, those I identified using methods two and three created additional entry-points for the first method to be used again to deepen and broaden to friends-of-friends.  However, the first method’s accurate identification of gay men and other MSM was predicated on the assumption that my initial contacts (and their friends) used their Facebook profile primarily to connect with similar men.  This appeared especially true for those who used an anonymous Facebook profile (i.e. containing no personally identifiable information or photos), which allowed them to connect with other gay men and MSM and openly discuss matters related to sexuality and sexual interests while avoiding exposure.  However, some individuals reached using this method did not only use Facebook for these reasons, some had friends who were heterosexual or others were pretending to be gay or MSM to in order to exploit/blackmail or direct violence towards these groups.  Others used their real name and photo to connect with gay men and other MSM among a range of other people including friends and family.

Many Facebook groups for gay men and other MSM are openly accessible, which allowed me to view the list of group members and communicate with members directly. The openness of these groups also indicated they were particularly high risk, as they were open to any Facebook user including people interested in finding other gay men for financial gain (e.g. commercial sex work, blackmail or and theft/violence). Accurately identifying potential participants by searching for “men interested in men” on Facebook was predicated on the assumption that “interested in” meant a sexual interest. Many people I identified using this method appeared to use Facebook profiles that were not anonymous, meaning that some gay men and other MSM used the “interested in” section of their profile to discreetly communicate sexual interests to other gay men and MSM who could interpret this.  For example, some participants I identified using this method, and later interviewed, described that their Facebook friends who are neither gay nor MSM would understand “interested in men” on their profile to mean an interest in friendship with other men.  Using this method allowed me to identify potential participants located in regions where I had little success with other methods. However, this method also identified a number of “straight” or heterosexual Facebook users (as was revealed during interviews).

In each of these methods, I targeted Facebook profiles that I judged as being more likely to be owned by gay men or other MSM, such as profiles with a high number of mutual friends with me or those who used their Facebook to discuss topics about gay men or other MSM.

Interview recruitment strategies

Knowing how gay men and other MSM use social media not only guided my methods for identifying potential participants on Facebook, but also my strategies to recruit these contacts into in-person interviews. I focused the use of these recruitment strategies on contacts with interest to participate in the research.  Conducting my research in Ghana as an independent researcher required that I build my credibility as a legitimate researcher to those I reached on social media.  For instance, because Facebook is commonly used as a dating website among gay men and other MSM in Ghana, it was important that I first clarified the goals of my study to those I reached using plain language and inviting a wide range of participants to join the study.  In order to protect the privacy and non-disclosed sexuality of possible participants recruited using Facebook, my project description was authored in such a way that it avoided narrowly targeting sexual identities with admittedly quite vague wording. An example of the standard messages sent to those identified on Facebook as possible research participants are included in the graphic below. (The image was edited to blur the profile photo and the named was changed).

eveslage1

Figure 1: Screenshot of Standard Recruitment Messages on Facebook

Being an independent researcher allowed me to travel alone and remotely in order to meet with participants in a variety of locations and settings comfortable to them.  Being a gay man who also used social media to connect with other gay men and MSM, meant I assumed additional risks when meeting with participants for interviews.  I believe this context offset the typical unequal power relationship between researcher and participant, providing for a friendlier two-way discussion by showing that (in some ways) we had our queer sexuality in common.

For many potential participants identified on Facebook, my positionality facilitated the process of building trust and setting up interviews.  Most notably, I am referring to being an “out”, gay, white male researcher who is not from Ghana.  Many participants indicated they would not have met with me had I been Ghanaian, or even black.  Being seen as an outsider (and my whiteness being evidence of that) but also an insider as a sexual minority, meant many of the contacts I made on Facebook felt more comfortable meeting with me to discuss issues related to their sexuality.

Obtaining informed consent and addressing other ethical considerations
My methods and strategies of reaching gay men and other MSM on Facebook led to unique ethical dilemmas. Here, I account for how participants’ informed consent was obtained, anonymity ensured, confidentiality of personally identifying information secured and the chance for undue harm reduced.
Obtaining participants’ informed consent

To obtain participants’ informed consent, I sent those I reached on Facebook who were interested to participate in the research a “participant consent form” (see Appendix 2 & 3), which detailed the purpose of the study, procedures, ethical considerations, benefits, duration and a statement of confidentiality.  I asked each participant to review the participant consent form through Facebook (where possible) before deciding to meet for an interview.  Further, I reviewed the participant consent form fully with all individuals who met me for an interview by asking them to read it or, where that was difficult, I read it to participants.  Before moving into an interview, I addressed any remaining questions and confirmed their voluntary participation with a verbal consent (to avoid any names being written on paper for anonymity purposes).  All of those who met with me consented to participation in the research, while a few opted for informal discussion instead of a formal interview.

Ensuring anonymity and confidentiality of personally identifying information

At the point when my contacts on Facebook indicated an interest to participate, I noted their details into a password protected key file, which included their Facebook name, a link to their Facebook profile and additional contact information provided (e.g. email and phone numbers).  I commonly made note of their city or neighbourhood location to schedule interviews by geographic location.  I never asked for real names, but rather asked for a name they preferred to use. During audio-recorded interviews the participant and I used a completely new pseudonym that no one knew the participant by.  All notes and files associated with participants’ interview responses were linked to their pseudonym and a 4-digit code and only linked to their other names and identifying information in the key file.  All field study data, including the key was encrypted before backing up to Google Drive.

Interviews were held in various public and private locations, but never in designated, interview sites or rooms where former participants could find me interviewing later participants.

Reducing chance of undue harm

Even before a participant agreed to participate, those I reached on Facebook could be adversely impacted.  For instance, there remained chances that my Facebook ‘friends’ could see whom I was connected to on my Facebook and might suspect these contacts as sexual minorities. For these reasons, I hid my list of friends from others and was sure to invite a wide range of participants (and not narrowly target sexual minorities) so others could not assume that I only connected with sexual minorities on my Facebook account.  Further, I depended on those I reached and recruited to recognise and mitigate their own risk when using Facebook, such as using privacy settings, or preventing others from viewing their communication with me on their phone, laptop or public computer.

Minimising risks to participants also resulted from me acknowledging participants’ level and manner of communication and matching this, commonly using less than straightforward language that preserved discretion and plausible deniability for their participation in my research or any basis for them to receive undue harm.

Data and results

Knowledge of sexual health services

Of the 64 interviews with gay men and other MSM recruited through social media, 55 completed the interview discussion guide section on sexual health services. Data from these interviews revealed a very low level of knowledge about sexual health services. Of these 55 men, 24 (44%) had no knowledge of sexual health services for gay men or other MSM in Ghana, while 14 people (25%) merely knew of their existence, but could not name the organisation or what their activities were. A remaining 17 people (31%) were familiar with these organisations and their services (see Figure 2).

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 4.09.54 pm

Figure 2: Knowledge of Sexual Health NGOs/Services for Gay Men & MSM in Ghana

Another series of questions asked participants about their knowledge of, connection to, and interest in “peer educators” and their services.  40% of participants recruited through social media (N=23) had no knowledge about peer educators.  The remainder knew about peer educators (25%), had peer educators as friends (24%) or was either a peer educator himself or had been previously (4%).  Slightly more participants were aware of the kinds of services that peer educators provide (N28), while 26 participants (44%) had no knowledge about their service (See Figure 3).

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 4.11.01 pm

Figure 3: Knowledge of Peer Educators for Gay Men & MSM in Ghana

After confirming that participants were familiar with peer educators (or after I told them about the kinds of services they provide), 34 participants indicated that at some point they would have wanted to speak with a peer educator about issues they were facing. These participants demonstrated unmet needs for peer educators’ services because 15 people indicated both that they did not know about peer educators, but would have liked to speak with one had they known. However, 10 participants who were aware of peer educators did not want to speak to one.  An additional 8 participants similarly felt no need to speak to a peer educator even after learning about their services (see Figure 4).

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 4.11.55 pm

Figure 4: Demand for Peer Education Services

A number of these individuals explained that they felt no need to speak with a peer educator because they already received education on sexual health or felt more confident using the Internet or books to find reliable sexual health information.  Some of these respondents did not face many barriers to accessing commodities provided by peer educators (i.e. condoms and lubricant).  However, a few indicated that they actively disassociated themselves from sexual health services for gay men and other MSM (e.g. peer educators).  For instance, a participant called “Michael” indicated awareness that peer educators provided services to gay men and other MSM in Ghana.  “So I know these things are there,” Michael said.  “I think I have made a conscious effort not to be a part of them”.  Like Michael, there were other participants who shared his sentiments, indicating a self-distancing from sexual health organisations and services targeting sexual minorities – not due to their lacking awareness, but because they wanted to avoid compromising the confidentiality of their sexuality by affiliating with such organisations.

Limitations

Despite successfully gathering a broad range of participants both demographically and geographically (see Appendix 4-6), my methods proved unsuccessful or insufficient for including some groups of gay men and other MSM (e.g. those older than 45 years old, those located in rural areas or outside the six regions where I conducted fieldwork).  Furthermore, my positionality as a white, gay researcher likely complicated the participation of gay men/MSM who engage in blackmail against others because it would be financially non-remunerative (I offered no incentive for participation) or they could feel morally vexed by being interviewed by a queer researcher and may be afraid to discuss how they exploit other gay men/MSM for financial gain.  My use of social media also did not help me to reach those not using social media (or those not using it for same-sex sexual interests) and those who cannot speak or read English (due to my own language limitations).  For a number of these gay men and other MSM who remain unreached, they likely face added factors making them vulnerable to sexual health concerns (e.g. economic vulnerability) and are distanced from the NGOs who provide sexual health prevention and care services. These sub-populations are a new frontier for future research and service delivery methods in the field of sexual health.

Discussion and conclusion

My field study in Ghana is relevant to sexual health organisations because its methods facilitated outreach and recruitment of gay men and other MSM who are not being reached by the sexual health services targeted for them. I argue this offers a new and innovative approach that sexual health CBOs and NGOs, who are possibly struggling to reach gay men and other MSM, could leverage to provide their services. Furthermore, my participants’ knowledge of, and attitudes towards, available local HIV services can also usefully inform programmatic options to address the sexual health needs of more diverse groups of gay men and other MSM.

Improving sexual health CBOs and NGOs’ outreach to gay men and other MSM

I argue my approach of mimicking how sexual minorities use social media—specifically Facebook—is a timely approach that sexual health CBOs and NGOs could possibly implement to improve outreach to subpopulations of gay men and other MSM in Ghana and elsewhere where homosexuality is criminalised (or where gay men, other MSM and transgender person face extreme stigma and discrimination).  CBOs and NGOs could also possibly appoint a social media peer “champion” from the community tasked with mimicking how sexual minorities use social media to improve and augment their outreach programs.  Such a peer champion could connect with other gay men/MSM by accumulating contacts and by snowballing through his contacts’ Facebook “friends”, by joining and contacting members of Facebook discussion groups for gay men and other MSM, and by directly searching for “men interested in men” on Facebook.

By using these methods, along with traditional recruitment methods, my research project included the experiences and opinions of 121 sexual minorities; 113 of whom identified as gay men or other MSM.  With nearly 70% of participants recruited on social media having little to no knowledge of sexual health services for MSM, it struck me that not only were existing CBOs and NGOs still struggling to connect to sexual health services to these populations in Ghana, but also that outreach strategies, similar to those outlined in this study, could help address this issue.  Furthermore, outreach in this manner could connect individuals to sexual health services that they want but don’t know exist (27% of social media-recruited participants indicated this). While some participants did not want to be associated with these sexual health organisations and services, the larger number who did gives cause for sexual health services to continue rethinking how they provide outreach to gay men and other MSM.

Ethically integrating methods into sexual health CBOs and NGOs

While my methods for reaching gay men and other MSM and strategies to recruit participants worked well for my study, they may not be entirely suitable or appropriate for implementation by CBOs and NGOs.  Mimicking gay men’s and other MSM’s use of Facebook is a complicated task for sexual health organisations, namely in how they integrate the methods that I was able to employ as an independent researcher into their organisational structure given the many ethical and political dilemmas that may arise.

The specific strategies I chose for identifying participants on Facebook were relatively simple and could be adopted by sexual health CBOs and NGOs. If sexual health CBOs and NGOs do not need to recruit sexual minority participants for studies or have them meet with their staff in-person, these social media recruitment strategies could be implemented quite easily.  For instance, the peer educators of some sexual health CBOs and NGOs already use social media to increase their outreach to broader sexual minorities populations, as noted by the SHARPER project in Ghana (Green et al. 2014). However, more ambitious methods could seek those left un-reached by other methods by extending beyond the networks of gay men and other MSM on social media that peer educators are already in contact with.  They could diversify the entry points into these virtual networks by incorporating contacts well beyond their circle of friends, by adding friends of friends, including 3rd, 4th, and 5th degree connections. They could also join social media groups meant for sexual minorities or simply search for “men interested in men”.

Because these strategies cast a wider net, and are based on assumptions about how gay men and other MSM use social media, it means many “straight” or heterosexual people may be included in those who are contacted.  This sort of recruitment and outreach by sexual health CBOs and NGOs should be encouraged while also tailoring the language of sexual health messages for relevance to both broader audiences as well as to sexual minorities. Broadening the language of sexual health services to avoid messages targeting only gay men and other MSM would help prevent ostracising some audiences who would not want to be associated (on social media or otherwise) to organisations or people known to have this focus.  This is particularly important for social media outreach to gay men and other MSM who are using a Facebook with personally identifying information.

However, peer educators and sexual health CBOs and NGOs using these approaches may be placed at increased risk, because they will likely reach audiences that are beyond the safety and trust that is developed within in-person peer-networks. Peer educators may not be open about their sexuality beyond small groups of friends or the sexual health CBO or NGO may be discreet about their outreach efforts. Maintaining a balance between methods that seek to reach people who are more likely to be gay men or MSM, while at the same time mainstreaming the communication and messages for general audiences may help to reduce these risks. Additionally, it may help for peer educators to conduct outreach in cities, regions or even countries different than their own and where they feel comfortable with the risks. Alternatively, peer educators could also use anonymous Facebook profiles to conduct outreach if it is not important for sexual health organisations to recruit the gay men and other MSM for in-person meetings.

When sexual health CBOs and NGOs seek to recruit sexual minority populations into physical meetings for research or to deliver sexual health services, there are more pronounced ethical and logistical considerations. Many sexual health NGOs are not well suited to employ the tactics I used to successfully bridge the gap between social media outreach and recruitment for in-person interviews.  I was successful in this regard due to the manner of my fieldwork and my own positionality.  For the most part, my fieldwork was conducted in isolation from sexual health CBOs and NGOs and as an independent researcher.  I chose this manner of fieldwork to distance myself from the stigma that many participants feared when associating with groups who target gay men and other MSM.  Operating independently in the field also allowed me to be more vulnerable and accessible to potential participants, meeting them in contexts and in manners convenient to them.  This helped reduce the inhibitions of some participants to meet me. Furthermore, my positionality as a white, gay, foreigner who was not working for sexual health CBOs or NGOs was especially important for securing in-person interviews.

My experience demonstrates a case for sexual health CBOs and NGOs to consider employing independent consultants or even including foreigners into social media outreach in addition to their domestic peer educators and researchers.  Many of my research participants only met with me because I was a foreigner.  However, when dealing with sexual minority populations and marginalised populations generally, there are heightened concerns for sexual health CBOs and NGOs who may want to employ independent researchers.  The lacking ability for these CBOs or NGOs to oversee these researchers’ operations is one concern, as well as reconciling their specific policies and ethics procedures that detail how to engage with marginalised populations. This is not to mention the prohibitively high cost of hiring foreign staff by these CBOs and NGOs. Striking a balance between researchers whose positionality and experience will grant them preferential access to sexual minority communities is integrally important. My positionality and experience was helpful for my participants to feel comfortable to talk with me on social media as well as in-person during interviews.  However, it is unlikely that any single researcher will be capable of adequately accessing all sub-populations. Even with my preferential access, I was also disadvantaged in accessing other subpopulations.

Targeting gay men and other MSM for HIV prevention and care

My research sought to improve outreach of HIV prevention and care to gay men and other MSM, however it also brings into question the logic of targeting these groups in the first place.  While 44% of those I recruited through social media had no knowledge of sexual health services in Ghana for gay men and other MSM, this should not be construed as an overwhelming desire for such services among these participants.  For participants recruited through social media, 18% (N10) were aware of peer educators and the sexual health services for gay men and other MSM, but were not interested in their services. Another 15% (N8) were not aware of these services, and even after being informed about peer educators and their services, were not interested. Some of these participants indicated that they did not experience any barriers to accessing sexual health services, but others avoided sexual health services targeting gay men and other MSM specifically because they targeted gay men and other MSM.

My research found that some gay men and other MSM feared the stigma of being associated with these organisations.  Recognising this, I argue that complementary efforts should be employed by sexual health CBOs and NGOs to better reach those who actively avoid them.  This is important because these populations are still at a high risk to HIV, yet social circumstances and personal preferences place them at odds with accessing the currently available services directed to them.  These additional efforts should include stigma reduction through nurses and doctor trainings within the public health services and offering more affordable private health services that can meet the health needs of gay men and other MSM.  Human rights organisations may be well suited for this mandate, including the broader work of educating the public about sexual minorities and addressing misconceptions and stigma that exacerbate health outcomes for these populations.  While the targeting of HIV care and treatment to key populations is certainly a frontier worth furthering, especially for the sake of populations who are denied health services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, other methods will be necessary for those who would avoid these organisations’ targeted services.

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Acknowledgements

The chapter is based upon the author’s Master’s dissertation submitted to the School of Oriental and African Studies in September 2014 titled, “The Transcultural Production of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), Securitisation and the Politicisation of Homosexuality in Ghana”.  For the support, feedback, comments and criticism spanning the planning, fieldwork and multiple drafts of this research, he would like to thank Dr Christopher Walsh, Dr Colette Harris, Dr Rahul Rao, Kwame Edwin Otu, the participants at Oxford University’s Researching Africa Day 2014 and Birkbeck University’s Re-Writing Homophobia conference in 2014, and all participants and informants in Ghana, particularly John David Dupree, Mac Darling Cobbinah and Nana Fosua Clement.

Biographical Statement

Benjamin Eveslage is a consultant to FHI 360 on the LINKAGES project. He holds an MSc in Research for International Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His research focuses on analysing the experience of marginalised populations within processes of transcultural change and international development practice. He has taken on a number of capacities during his 15 months in Ghana from 2008 to 2014, including fieldwork with sexual minorities, key populations and sexual health organisations. From these experiences and research endeavours he hopes to highlight the tensions and prospects for joint health and human rights approaches in international development.

Contact: ben.eveslage@gmail.com

Leanne McRae

Published Online: August 22, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: Ubiquitous computing describes the current conditions of our interactive, screen-based habitats where movement between screens has become a defining trope of everyday life. As students and teachers increasingly deploy screen-literacies within the education process where laptops, tablets and mobile phones become the mechanisms by which education is accessed and activated, new ways of thinking about and through attention, learning, and scholarship need to be deployed. The possibilities of a decelerated curriculum offers opportunities to re-encode the structures and styles of learning students engage with to enable them time to absorb, ponder and problematize the processes of their learning. By asking students to slow their interaction with texts, interfaces, digital and analogue environments teachers are able to engage with digital technologies and ubiquitous screens in meaningful and challenging ways via course content and assessment strategies that enable new technologies a critical and relevant space within their teaching and learning landscape. In this paper, the example of a staged assessment structure is used to demonstrate the ways in which multiliteracies can be activated via deceleration but in ways that permit screen-based interactions while creating a space for critical reflection on the networks of attention that flow across screens.

Keywords: Ubiquitous computing, pervasive learning, digital technology, pedagogy, teaching and learning

Introduction

In an age of ubiquitous computing, how we manage technology in the classroom is essential to effective teaching and learning.  Instructors are urged, by university hierarchies, employers, marketers and even students themselves to offer course materials and deliverables via new media technologies online and via apps on mobile devices. This delivery is aligned to the lifeworlds and desires of digital natives.  Many students are hyperlinked, hyper-connected and have hyperactive attention spans. Therefore, assignments and courses need to be delivered through networks and modalities that capture and sustain their attention through ‘sexy’ interfaces and ‘fashionable’ frameworks.

How this technology is mobilised within the classroom and via external nodes needs to be closely considered. This research is situated within a wider understanding of communication, digitisation, and education particularly in light of recent work in this area by Cinque and Brown (2015) who locate this debate as “a major issue in Australia (and elsewhere)” (p. 1). They affirm the importance of understanding these relationships.

we aim to contribute to this debate by examining the pivotal issue of how young people are actually using screen media – an issue that often seems to be overshadowed in the enthusiastic, if not hasty, conclusion that students and education will ‘never be the same again’(p. 1).

The unproblematic classroom deployment of a variety of tech-based interfaces from PowerPoint slides and click-through online tests, on to YouTube clips and Ted Talks, disperses resources with little consideration of content criticism, pedagogic outcomes, or the literacies flowing around and through these interfaces. How students use this technology to manage not just the unit content but their active and interactive engagement with the context of classroom and out-of-classroom instruction remains an important area for research.

It is easy to lament the students’ lack of attention and their reliance on digital technologies to shift their focus away from theories, ideas and concepts, on to Facebook, text messages and tweets. But the intersecting dialogue between attention capture and distraction via technologies, platforms and interfaces sits uneasily within the debate. More nuanced understandings of how technologies of pleasure, leisure, pedagogy and empowerment might circulate through teaching and learning is needed to reframe the expectations of students and teachers alike.

The purpose of this paper is to rethink the relationships governing the deployment of technology by teachers and students within the classroom. While instructional staff are the bearers of responsible delivery of service, the use of technology by students to receive that service is often constructed as irresponsible and even corrosive. This is not always the case. Teachers need to have reflexive understanding of the role that digital technologies play in relation to pedagogy, not to demonise or dismiss new technologies within their teaching, nor to celebrate and uncritically deploy them.  Instead, a nuanced understanding of when particular technologies are useful, in what capacity, and when to engage them needs to be considered.  Importantly, teachers and students also need to know when not to engage them – when to allow analogue deployment of ideas, discussion of concepts and even silence to percolate through online and offline spaces. Students need not be demonised as irresponsible technology users in relation to their education, but instead can offer advice to instructors to guide their use of online, mobile and digitised devices to reconfigure these relations positively.  This reflexive interaction can manifest in new ways to construct the curriculum to model and mobilise moments where technologies are centralised, cultivated and creative and then marginalised, silenced and separated for different pedagogic purposes and outcomes. An astute unpacking within the context of education strategies, effective learning and mobile, digitised devices that permeate through everyday lives can reveal new lessons being learned at all levels of education.

In the first section of this paper, the propagation of ubiquitous computing will be discussed to better understand the contexts in which students are functioning and deploying technology inside and outside the classroom. In the second section, the ways in which movement between multiple screens can disengage students from learning will be unpacked. How student attention is mobile and fragmented will be examined to consider the ways in which time is activated in education and might offer a rethink of the relationships between learning and digital technology. In the third and final section, the place of a decelerated curriculum that integrates, hails and tracks, but also hesitates and hampers technologies in education will be positioned as a possible mechanism by which to encourage students and staff to ponder and politicise the way in which digital technologies can be combined with the analogue to facilitate learning.

Youth and Ubiquity

Digitally literate students are increasingly populating classrooms. This generation is often referred to in the popular media (DeGraff, 2014) and by other educators (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008) as ‘digital natives’, meaning that they possess a particular multitasked literacy and a variety of attention strategies that enable them to leverage the power of  digital devices in a myriad of circumstances and simultaneously manage their analogue experiences. Accordingly, “these young people having grown up with computers and the Internet are said to have a natural aptitude and high skill levels when using new technologies” (Jones, Ramanau, Cross and Healing, 2010, p. 722). This philosophy suggests they are accelerated, multiliterate learners with high levels of adaptability and mobility between different genres of entertainment and educational frameworks. Education theorists have sought to harness new and effective ways to capture the attention of this cohort who are pulled between their screen lives and their offline interactions. The trope of ‘attention’ is framed as the battleground for new educational interests and instructions. Sue Bennett (2012) has argued that these students offer a convergence for reframing educational practices and policies.

It is argued that the existence of the digital native makes dramatic educational reforms necessary because traditional education systems do not, and can not, cater for the needs and interests of young people. As a result, outdated schools and universities and outmoded teaching simply alienate students from learning, leaving them disengaged and disenchanted by education’s failure to adapt to the new digital world. (p. 213)

However, the prevalence of the digital native may be overstated. While digitally literate students do possess unique multisensory interactions, these skills do not necessarily translate effectively into efficient learning strategies. ‘Digital natives’ still need to be taught interpretive and critical engagement skills that cannot evolve through exposure to digital devices and interfaces. Students may be “immersed in social media, consumer electronics and video games, but they are not nearly as proficient when it comes to using digital tools in the classroom” (Toliver, 2011, p. 60). Assuming that critical literacy arrives through exposure to digital devices does not effectively service the incoming (or outgoing) generation of university students and produces an instructional gap between what teachers assume these students know and what knowledges they really possess. Interpretive skills must be taught, reinforced and activated throughout learning experiences. For teachers, addressing the proliferation and integration of screens within everyday lives becomes the key struggle for effective teaching and learning. Understanding how screens reinscribe relationships with the real and the mediated reshapes knowledges and how they circulate through an educational landscape. The scale of screen interactions and the rise of ubiquitous computing offers new terrain through which to consider the connections between the self, information, knowledge and expertise.

Ubiquitous computing describes the conditions of being surrounded by screens and computer interfaces whereby “information technologies and telecommunications … [are] embedded into everyday objects, the environment and even the human body, to allow wireless and seamless identification and connectivity” (Hua, 2012, p. 40). The prevalence of these devices makes them invisible. Thomas (2006) argues that “the key technological requirement within a pervasive scenario is that technology recedes into the background, that it is unobtrusive, inconspicuous – it does not attract attention” (p. 48). We are so used to their presence that we do not even see them as screens or devices anymore. This invisibility means that we do not question their role nor identify these objects as barriers or problems to social, political or educational interactions. They are more likely hailed as effective social, professional and educational lubricants that create accelerated efficiencies in information management, interpersonal interactions, and knowledge distribution. Access to fast and cheap broadband service means we have “an opportunity to be online all the time” (Petersen, 2007, p. 84) meaning that ordinary and everyday activities and chores are punctuated by the computer, the screen or device, situating screens centrally within the ordinary and mundane. This is more than having the TV on during the day while moving in and out of the room where it is located doing household chores, for example. It means having access to a screen and different types and styles of screen-based interaction at all points of mobility. As a result, the boundaries between public and private, entertainment and education, leisure and work begin to collapse.

Spaces, Screens and Self

The proliferation of screens within our everyday lives creates a particular flavour to our engagements with others and our understandings of self. At all levels these experiences are now mediated.  Connection and communication is defined via poking, liking, friending and texting. Meaningful relationships are crafted in hyperlinked, timelined and tweeted contexts and commitment extends to liking posts, favouriting tweets, and up-voting reddits instead of actual interactions with people in linear time. Asynchronous communication creates the façade that we are interested, invested and engaged with other people’s lives, but also obsessed with our own profile and crafting the right update to create a “controlled casualness” (Pascoe, 2010, p. 124) in managing our digital identities. The curation of these intimate, public and private spaces of the self provides a nexus for critical interrogation of the mediated nature of identity and the seduction of screen cultures for the archiving and curating of relationships. The function of small screens in alienating “users from other occupants of the space in which they reside, as users wander around engrossed in their handheld devices” (Cao, Oliver, and Jackson, 2008, p. 88), for example, serves to remind us of the ways in which different spaces are regulated by digital and analogue technologies. Cao, Oliver and Jackson (2008) identify the different functions of “public spaces, social spaces and private spaces” (p. 88) which govern behaviour. Within these macro-spaces are a number of subspaces like personal-private spaces, which include “a telephone booth on the street” (p. 89) and social spaces that are semi-public like “schools, libraries and theatres” (p. 89). In each of these, the use of technology is contingent. In the age of mobile devices and ubiquitous computing, behaviour once exclusively contained within the private has moved into the public creating a blurring between these spheres. While this appears to offer a greater range of permissive behaviour, the blurring of boundaries has emerged in an age where public (and private) spaces are also increasingly regulated via “more surveillance” (Eriksson, Hansen and Lykke-Olesen, 2007, p. 33) including CCTV and cell-phone meta-data collection that seek to contain and control public and private behaviours. According to Cao, Oliver and Jackson, (2008) this can lead to conflicting expectations and attitudes towards the deployment of digital devices. The integration of private information (passwords, banking details), public activities (events, profiles), and interpersonal interactions (Facebook, geo-social networking) on mobile devices as individuals move through public or semi-public spaces means that “the very visibility of such behaviour has potentially undesirable consequences in that is it likely to negatively affect the integrity of a person’s interactions and communication with other occupants of the space” (p. 91). It also means that post-PRISM privacy has corroded and the premise that “social life is a continual shift between intermittent presences” (Wang and Stephanone, 2013, p. 439) in a free and frivolous manner can no longer be effectively sustained as people ‘check-in’, Instagram, Snap-Chat, and update.

When these devices move into the teaching space, the tensions between the social, private and public dimensions of that space situates the use of technology as a mediator between these experiences. The blurring of behaviours, attitudes and realities constructs a culture where “self-disclosure and self-exhibitionism have become prevalent, not only because of the private expressions of self that can easily be posted online but also because they promote online sociability with “networked publics”” (Wang and Stephanone, 2013, p. 444). Students use this increasingly normalised interaction with the world and the self to mediate and moderate their engagement with education and learning. They understand their sphere of importance through digitised devices and use the technology available to them to integrate learning nodes into their experience of the everyday. The professional, the public, the personal and the intimate blur as screens mediate engagements in multiple environments. Their ‘networked publics’ pervade and perpetuate. While this might appear to offer the potential for a seamless and integrated ‘pervasive learning’ which is described as “a social process that connects learners to communities of devices, people and situations so that learners can construct relevant and meaningful learning experiences, that they author themselves, in locations and at times that they find meaningful and relevant” (Thomas, 2006, p. 45), it can mask the situations and circumstances that limit rather than extend capacity for learning. Access to a portal, device or screen does not equate to access to an education. The skills required for effective learning are integrated and deployed beyond the screen. When access to digital technology is serviced as an essential for effective delivery of educational product to students-as-consumers, the constructs of education are diminished and teacher’s roles as experts is denied. Instead they become facilitators, providing unit content uploaded into the cloud where students can download, decrypt and distribute into assignments and tests. Teachers must model knowledge for students, display its contrasts, conflicts and capacities. While understanding the ways in which students are connected to digital resources and online oeuvres is important to effective instruction in an age of ubiquitous computing, understanding when and how to log-off, disconnect and slow-down is essential to information management and knowledge development. Preparing students for more than the soliloquies of surfing online and beyond data mining towards reflexive, engaged and critically consciousness citizenry requires a radical rethink of the role and function of digital technologies – not to deny their place within an effective education, but to understand the ways in which they are both useful and how they might limit, reduce or block a transformative educational experience.

Information Overload

The frame and function of ubiquitous computing is also structured through the constant and easy access to information. Typing keywords into the blank text box of Google has become normalised and for students it is a seductive solution to an uncomfortable and awkward struggle with knowledge. Googling is easy and fast. It removes difficult decision making as students click on the first listing returned – barely moving beyond the first page of results. They often do not understand how to discern between reliable and unreliable knowledge, useful and useless resources. Google masks this process and through its Page-Rank algorithm simply returns the most popular result.  For students “a word or phrase is typed into a friendly box. Even if it is spelt incorrectly, the algorithms will return information to the user.  It is not quality data, but is the informational equivalent of a Big Mac, Fries and a Coke” (Brabazon, 2011, para. 6). This information is then, most often, uncritically and unreflexively incorporated into assignments or answers. It is rarely engaged with, questioned, processed or interpreted. Students move seamlessly from one screen to another, copying and pasting their search result directly from the site into the assignment and slotting in the EndNote citation. Searches are conducted on their mobile phones, results emailed or texted to other accounts where it can be deployed on yet another screen. This dance between screens disengages students from learning while they instead copy, paste, slide and swipe. Research suggests that screen technology adds layers of complexity to students’ engagement with scholarship that might be efficient for time management but are not always productive for learning. The mobility of text and the hyperlinked environment – while particularly useful for students with disabilities – is also limited and limiting by a whole range of factors including “typeface differences, pixel count, stroke width, and font smoothing” (Polonen, Jarvenpaa and Hakkinen, 2012, p. 157) that reshape how text is read and understood in predictable screen use. While these elements are also important to off-screen reading abilities, when taken in consult with screen resolution and display technology where “certain features of the LCD screen, such as refresh rate, contrast levels and fluctuating light interfere with cognitive processing” (Mangen, Walgermo and Bronnick, 2012, p. 66), not only can there be an increase in eye-strain, but “knowledge transition from the episodic memory (indexed by Remember responses) to the semantic memory (indexed by Know responses) appears to be dependent on the nature of the presentation format (screen versus paper)” (Mangen, Walgermo and Bronnick, 2012, p. 62). Subjects tend to remember less of what they read from a screen than what they read from paper. While there is conflicting debates about the impact on comprehension, studies have demonstrated that the “hypertext structure tends to increase demands in decision making and visual processing and this additional cognitive load … impairs reading comprehension performance” (Mangen, Walgermo and Bronnick, 2012, p. 61). The act of scrolling down a web-page for example, tends to function as a distraction or shift in focus that impedes the absorption of information in a digital environment.

For students used to having access to information at their fingertips and scanning the screen instead of reading, it is difficult to get them off the search engine and into databases. This difficulty is born out in Cinque and Brown’s (2015) data that demonstrates the overwhelming bulk of students in their study using Google over databases (152 vs 17) (p. 12). For time-poor, time-stamped individuals, downloading is the default dialogue. It is not considering, caching, and criticising. It is also difficult for teachers to explain why they should not Google their way through their education because this requires reflexive understanding of the differences between information and knowledge that students may not yet grasp. Too often this distinction is conflated. This means students have little trouble Googling information online and replicating it in assignments. They struggle however, when moving into higher level instruction where more complex deployment and interpretation of that information is required. The structures and strategies of processing and understanding the information they gather is crucial to the means by which knowledge is generated. This is an uncomfortable process because students often fail to realise what they do not know. They are confronted with ideas that stretch their comprehension and world views that challenge their own. This can be an incredibly stressful process and the desire for the comfort of the easy answer, the seductive search engine and the Google text-box can call a student back to the platform without ever letting them explore what it means to be a learner in the spaces between the online and the offline. Tara Brabazon (2011) argues that this is the essence of instruction – unpacking where challenge lies and building vocabularies of knowledge so that understanding can expand.

The problem with Google is that a searcher can only enter vocabulary and terms they already understand. If a student does not know who Etienne Balibar is, then he or she cannot add his name to a search for postcolonialism. Therefore, Google will always make the searcher comfortable, finding what is already known, in a basic language (para. 10).

For screen saturated students, who are mobile, connected and communicating, all of their digital flexibility masks a structural disconnect from education. They are connected to information – swimming in a sea of data – but without the literacies to process and interpret that data, they can only ever replicate what is already known – about a discipline and about themselves.  The challenge is how to integrate the screen cultures and multiliterate capacities they embody with a critically reflexive pedagogy that can move them beyond swiping and liking. In order to achieve this outcome, it is important to teach through time.  Mobilising a decelerated curriculum can assist students in managing multiple information inputs and outputs by requiring focus and attention onto tasks. This requires a type of course syllabus that explicitly provides spaces for contemplation built into the course content and assessment outcomes where students must move between digital and analogue interfaces and in that process, slow their movement and understanding of ideas.  In this variability of speed, new possibilities emerge for thinking, understanding and experimenting with ideas.

The Seduction of Slow

A decelerated curriculum involves structuring a syllabus, lectures and assessment or any one of these to force students to slow their engagement with course concepts, readings or other interactions.  It is born out of an age of stream-lined or fast-tracked education that is designed to accelerate students through their course to the end of their degree. As employment is increasingly seen as the end-point of education, getting students through their degrees and into the workforce as quickly as possible has become the impetus of higher education structures. Decelerating the curriculum is also mobilised out of the circumstances of information saturation and ubiquitous computing where data percolates throughout our daily interactions leading to an abundance of information skills but fewer abilities developed in relation to scholarly interpretation, management, and assessment of that information. A decelerated curriculum offers the opportunity to slow down, think, and reassess ideas at specific points of the unit or course. By creating nodes of slow in specific units, deceleration can become a trope that students deploy as a skill or tool throughout their educational interactions, and that teachers can perpetuate and propagate across a course.

Jennifer L. Roberts, an art historian from Harvard University, has students in her art history course choose a single work of art to write an ‘intensive research paper’ on. As part of their research requirements, they must spend three hours observing their chosen work of art.  She affirms “the time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive” but also that “crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions” (Roberts, 2013, para. 4). Through this strategy Roberts (2013) encourages the students to slow their engagement with the world around them.

I want to focus on the slow end of this tempo spectrum, on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention … Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity – and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them permission and the structures to slow down. (para. 3)

Via this deceleration, students learn to see different things in the painting and learn to re-encode the function of sight from an instant, immediate sense to a nuanced and slowly evolving experience. Students are learning not to just see, but to look and to ‘perceive’. In terms of how knowledge is developed, teaching students to not just see words on a page, but to comprehend, process, unpack and problematize them, is also an important part of the academic experience. It is not only isolated to the visual arts, but to the experiences of observing, processing and understanding a variety of knowledges.

To remove distraction, encourage focus and attention to a specific idea, problem or concept is what we require of all students. The digital world in which they are immersed is structured to delay or displace this attention – to substitute it with easy answers and quick downloads, hyperlinks to the next story, page or site. For students, the velocity of movement between screens functions as an acceleration of attention where multiple inputs are gleaned, swiped and scrolled through. Consciousness is never allowed to settle, coherence does not emerge. Instead there is movement from one hyperreal context to another.

In terms of teaching and learning outcomes, movement through curriculum at speed, sifting through course concepts and pasting together assignments, is counterproductive. Students need to learn processing techniques to unpack ideas and allow them to percolate, connect and create. bell hooks (2010) describes the importance of “work[ing] for knowledge” (p. 10).  Difficult ideas may take an entire semester to evolve – sometimes an entire year. It is in reflexive understanding of the purposes and practices of acceleration and deceleration that students can learn to harness technology and disconnect from it when it is counterproductive to learning outcomes.  Constructing a decelerated curriculum can assist this process. Considering how the course information can be structured and built through the term or semester can offer tremendous opportunities to focus students on particular tasks and ideas. Taking more time with assignments can demonstrate the ways in which pondering concepts can be fruitful and effective. Thinking is not just located in the tutorial or classroom, but spills out in the everyday.  Strategies for effective learning must involve tactics that enable students to disconnect from their hyperreal swipe and like screen-based environments to merge with the analogue and the “thoughts … [that] are the laboratory where one goes to pose questions and find answers, and the place where theory and praxis come together” (hooks, 2010, p. 7).

Languages and Literacies

A range of these tactics have punctuated educational literature as new methods for teaching and learning within accelerated and changing environments have been envisioned, tested and theorised by a variety of educational theorists. Moving students through multi, transitory and complex learning environments have been well defined and offer key points for contemporary consideration when seeking to decelerate student movement through ideas and in-class interactions.  The multiliteracies project was one such endeavour culminating at the end of the 20th century to reconfigure education for a shifting global multicultural working and interacting environment.  Marked as a way of teaching that moved education beyond “mere literacy” (The New London Group, 2000, p. 5), a concept characterised by teaching “centred on language only, and usually on a singular national form of language … conceived as a stable system based on rules such as mastering sound-letter correspondence”, (The New London Group, 2000, p. 5) and into multiliteracies that emphasized interactions that are dynamic, transitory and controversial.  The focus of the multiliteracies project was to account for diverse media and identities within the teaching and learning space.  Christopher Walsh (2007), for example, activated “screen-based textual forms” (p. 79) as a mechanism for students to “fashion critical responses to problems across all subjects in the curriculum” (p 80) and generate a reflexive sense of their relationship to education. These students nurtured through the multiliteracies project were able to think and operate strategically in their own learning. Multiliteracies was a way to facilitate complexity, multiple experiences, and different attentions within and through methods that harnessed design platforms and pedagogic provocations to offer progressive alternatives to staid teaching and learning practices that were structured for empowered, singular and nationalised identities and learning modes.  Within this view “a pedagogy of multiliteracies … focuses on modes of representation much broader than language alone” (The New London Group, 2000, p. 5) and these foci allow for complex and multimodal literacies and identities to emerge and resonate within teaching allowing multiple experiences to claim space within pedagogy. These principles can be deployed within a media- and communication-rich environment to identify, facilitate as well as critique the mechanisms of movement between multiliteracies now moving across screens, and between analogue and digital capacities.

Key to the effective deployment of multiliteracies within curriculum is the activation of Design concepts. The New London Group (2000) argue that “learning and productivity are the results of the designs (the structures) of complex systems of people environments, technology, beliefs and texts” (p. 20) that allows spaces for diversity – of ideas, people, theories and assessments – but also permits focus, structure and stability to frame theoretical investigations. This modality of designing within mulitliteracies takes three dominant forms: Available Designs, Designing, and The Redesigned. Available Designs are “the resources for Design” (p. 20) which “include the ‘grammars’ of various semiotic systems” (p.  20) that are available within texts but also activated within the curriculum and specifically ‘spoken’ via , lectures, tutorials, and assessment. These are the foundations constructed by the curriculum designer to provide the framework which the learner draws upon as a vocabulary to mobilise their learning.

Assessment and Acceleration

A decelerated curriculum aesthetic and ethic was deployed in the assessment structure of a unit I taught entitled “Media and Social Context”. Spaces were created, deliberately, within the timing of assessments and structure of in-class work to extend the time that students could spend with ideas. The module aimed at developing the literacies of students in identifying and unpacking ideologies within media texts. Originally the assessment asked the students to do definitional work around ideology, conduct textual analysis, and in the final assignment, write an essay involving ideological analysis of a text of their choice. It packed in as many skills as it could across all assessment points. The unit was aimed at international students and they struggled with working within a ‘western’ context where the knowledges and meanings taken up as normal (ideologies) within the social framework were foreign to them. The work was too fast for them to fully understand and develop the ideas that were required of them within the time frame for the submission of the assessments. Just when they were grasping one idea, as well as working to improve their essay writing and comprehension, they had to abandon it for another concept, or add another layer of complexity to their writing and processing skills that proved overwhelming.  Four years ago, I changed the assessment and instead of asking the students to complete a different set of tasks at each assessable stage, had them build their knowledge through progressive assignments designed to extend the time on each task and build that temporal interaction further as their movement through the unit evolved. I began to compose an ethic of deceleration through the assessment pathway that was not unique or special, but could open space for bigger ideas about teaching, learning, time and knowledge to form and reform throughout the semester.

The students began by selecting their topic and composing a single sentence thesis statement. They were also required to provide a rationale for their statement outlining why the topic was important and how it was situated within the context of the unit.

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Accompanying this rationale the students selected five articles from the set reading for the unit and composed an annotated bibliography assessing what the material would offer their argument. This built their knowledge slowly in the first part of the unit.

The second assessment was an extended annotated bibliography requiring the students to source an extra ten resources not located in the compulsory reading for the unit. The composition of these ten resources was prescribed.  They needed a monograph, a chapter from an edited collection, two refereed articles, a website, a blog, a relevant Facebook page or group, a podcast, YouTube clip and newspaper or magazine article. The objective was to encourage comparison between the different types of resources to understand their different usage and relevance to and within academic work, while also continuing and reaffirming the use and sourcing of reading that began in assignment one.

mcrae3mcrae4The second component to the assessment involved supplying an outline for the structure of their essay and the sections and major themes they would address. They had to unpack, in detail, what they would write about, what resources they would use and how these might link together. Through this strategy, the students had to connect their reading to their topic and expand this knowledge across a variety of resources, reaffirming their ideas. This then flowed into the final assignment which involved the students drawing together the objects and articles from assignments one two and writing their essay for submission. By this final stage, the concepts have been written and rewritten multiple times, students have filtered their ideas through the reading and refined their thesis statement. They have spent over 8 weeks with the same topic.

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Importantly, this is not a new or revolutionary type of assessment structure. Brabazon (2008) refers to this framework as “building an information scaffold” designed to move students through complexity in their research practice. But when aligned with a consciousness of speed, it can offer new modes to think and teach through that also critically connect technology, spaces and screens

In this example of an assessment structure evoking a decelerated curriculum, staged assessments were used to help students project-manage their learning. In this case, the grammars of academic language were engaged as students were asked in their assessment to ‘design’ their own thesis statement for a project they intended to spend time with. They had to pull together their understanding of academic language to compose a working thesis statement that deployed a popular media example mobilising cultural studies theories of readership, race or class, for example. The grammars of the popular must be fed into and through the grammars of academic writing to compose a thesis statement that is clear, concise and that articulates the core structure of their intended argument. The students activate Available Designs under the multiliteracies model to codify their understanding and to build new ideas into that framework.

The students engaged with the Available Designs to transform and reinterpret meaning. They moved through a process of ‘designing’ their project by reading extensively, composing an annotated bibliography of available and relevant sources, and offer a structuring format for the evolution of their argument. Via this strategy their “Designing transforms knowledge by producing new constructions and representations of reality” (The New London Group, 2000, p. 22). The students moved through a slowed and slowing research process whereby their imagined project is codified, reengaged and transformed by their reading. They must maintain a rigorous connection to the protocols of academic writing and essay structure, but through these means, the students themselves are transformed as they struggle with the complexities of the material that they are deploying. They find new ‘representations of reality’ and new directions to take their argument that bring together fresh combinations of ideas.

In their final assignment, where they write the essay they have taken an entire semester to compose, research and design, they enter into a mode where there is space for The Redesigned, characterised as a moment that “is the unique product of human agency: a transformed meaning” (The New London Group, 2000, p. 23). This ‘meaning’ is not just in the development of their understanding of unit ideas and principles, but also of the time over which this knowledge evolves. In this space the students have the potential to see themselves as transformed as well as the meanings and knowledges they have been deploying and struggling with the entire semester. The process of writing mobilises identity, knowledge, complexity and rigor to redesign time, space and consciousness revealing a new series of possibilities for the self, for knowledge, and for learning. They have grown and recodified their project using resources they are familiar and unfamiliar with, and developed conclusions that have emerged out the time taken with designing and applying efforts at staged moments throughout the semester. This process of ‘redesigning’ has transitioned the students from information managers into knowledge bearers which has meaning within the arguments that they can now make, but also in the temporal understandings they have about the way knowledge evolves.

The potential in this decelerated assignment structure dialogues with Mary Macken-Horarik’s (1998) model of literacy where the objectives involve moving students from everyday experiences into applied, theoretical and then reflexive knowledges. Student knowledge cannot and should not be assumed. It must be built, cultivated and provoked. This takes time and requires nuanced understandings of how digitised and analogue interfaces interact to make meaning and offer different design capacities and capabilities for students to harness. The danger with contemporary learning structures that over emphasize accelerated digitised interactions with information is that students never move beyond the experiential. These devices and demonstrations extend their already cultivated ‘experiential economy’ codified through inspirational memes and uplifting viral videos mobilising an emotional pornography offering feel-good functionality but does little to extend, challenge or transform. Moving students into rationalised and engaged critical and interpretive spaces cannot be rushed or run-over in the desire to accelerate them through curriculum outcomes. Time for consideration and the cultivation of consciousness can be engaged with thoughtful and decelerated curriculum structures.

A decelerated curriculum is one that offers students time and teaches them course content through strategies that reveal how knowledge is developed, managed, archived and accessed. Instead of asking the students to focus on content, weekly outcomes and questions to consider, they focus on processes that mobilise information into critically engaged networks of knowledge. It is these interfaces between information, digital devices, knowledges and classroom practices that offer space for a decelerated curriculum to emerge out of teaching interventions designed to cultivate consciousness via attention management anchored in slowly evolving skills and strategies for writing and researching. Often, this involves a focus on research protocols, but can take other forms as well. In my classroom, students can learn the unit content through a strategically mapped assessment designed to cover the entire study period. It is a straight-forward scaffolding exercise where one assignment is built through a series of stages. It is not radical or revolutionary. But at each stage, the student is not rushing towards an answer or a conclusion but slowly peeling back layers of information, reformulating ideas and allowing concepts to percolate into more complex ones. These layers radiate outwards to create an ever evolving network of knowledges that convey the intersecting and complex intersections of information sites. By learning to manage these interfaces and spending the time immersed within them, the students learn to judge and rank resources as well as allow ideas to evolve and change. They begin with one idea that through a series of conceptual challenges becomes a network of ideas that must be supported, validated and legitimised by their expertise in information management. They map a digital, hyperlinked interaction over and through analogue activations of the evolution of knowledge. As a result, the students slowly work their way through the unit and move from data mining managers into reflexive knowledge developers.

A decelerated curriculum offers space to rethink how students grow, harvest, prepare and develop their knowledge. The aim is to move them beyond the accelerated, short-term outcomes of a functional education – reinforced by the drive towards employable skills – and to reclaim a view of knowledge as connected to a functional citizenry. This is not a matter of reverting to ‘traditional’ or redundant education codes or out-of-date learning strategies, but rather, to draw on those pasts and resituate them by activating a learning structure that deprioritizes the current festishization of information. It utilises the ubiquity of computing but frames it within spaces of and for disruption – to not allow an easy download and disengaged dialogue with knowledge – but to provoke struggle with information. The purpose of a decelerated curriculum mobilized through course and unit interventions is to enable and to validate a network of ideas instead of atomized interfaces and interactions with course content. Through these interventions a an authentic decelerated curriculum can emerge where students begin to see connections across modules, units, courses and entire degrees which enables space for reflection and reflexive deployment of knowledge, information interfaces and archives. This process reframes the purpose of education to allow procedures of complexity to emerge. Through a decelerated curriculum ideas are cultivated, nurtured, and dispersed rather than downloaded, disposed of and discarded. There is pleasure in this type of learning where concepts build, fold back on each other and reveal new opportunities to think, define, analyse and assess.

Governed by strategies aimed at becoming reacquainted with knowledge, the technologies and experiences of ubiquitous computing can find an important place within education. The purpose of my assignment structure is not to remove digitised interactions from the students’ experience, but to diversify their experience with digital and analogue resources, times and materials. They can use these interactions to assess and explore the different speeds attached to different information and knowledge processes. Through these means the students not only learn unit content, but they also begin to understand how to manage information within their highly networked and connected lives and transform it into knowledge. They learn how to control and contain, but also when to disconnect and disengage. Creating the time and space to think is fundamental to an effective education. Often the speed at which we move students through the curriculum, cramming as many outcomes as we can into assessment structures, we lose the resonance of a single idea, fully developed and processed that can transform and enlighten in ways that are effective, challenging and enriching.

Biographical statement:

Dr Leanne McRae is a lecturer and course co-ordinator in Internet Studies at Curtin University in Western Australia. Her current research interests involve disability and online education, popular cultural studies, and movement cultures.

leanne.mcrae@curtin.edu.au

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Abdulvahit Çakir & Çağla Atmaca

Published Online: July 17, 2015
Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: This study aims to find out student teachers’ perceptions about the use of Facebook in English language teaching and their preferences on how to integrate Facebook into English classes. This study, which is based on a mixed method research, consisted of written and oral interviews with 221 student teachers in the English Language Teaching (ELT) program at Gazi University during the fall semester of the academic year 2012-2013. Of the 221student teachers, 38 (18%) were male and 173 (82%) were female. 146 participants (69.2%) were in favour of Facebook integration into English classes while 58 participants (27.5%) were against and finally 7 participants (3.3%) were neutral. In terms of age and level of learners, adolescents were preferred as the most appropriate age group to be taught English on Facebook; intermediate level was the mostly preferred language level to be enhanced via Facebook. Furhtermore, self -study was seen as the most important type of Facebook use. These findings show us how student teachers’ educational preferences can be changed in line with the education they receive and how they should be trained according to the current educational moves and communication tools.

Keywords: Facebook, social networking sites, student teachers, English language teaching.

Introduction

The use of technology plays an important role in the lives of people from every walk of life so it is only natural that educators make use of it for a better instruction. As learning foreign languages is gaining importance day by day, the philosophy and actual practices of foreign language teaching have undergone drastic changes. Since most students are familiar with computer technologies and good at using them, e-materials especially arouse the attention of educators (Blattner & Fiori, 2009).

The possibility of utilising technology has generated interest in educational settings. A recent development in online language teaching is the shift from single classrooms to long-distance classrooms involving collaboration with two or more classrooms, even in different countries for improving intercultural competence or cultural literacy (Kern, 2006). There are various studies that focused on the implementation of technology in foreign language instruction. For instance, in a study it was found that most English teachers had positive attitudes towards technology integration into their classes but they also reported some drawbacks in the implementation process, which might result from lack of professional training resulting in insufficient use of computer technologies in their classes (Karakaya, 2010) and this shows the necessity of the inclusion of newer technologies like popular SNSs into the 21st century education and teacher education for long-term success (Hubbard, 2008).

Recently, there has been much interest in the implementation of Web 2.0 tools for educational purposes. There are studies conducted on student teachers and they came up with varying findings, both in favor of and against Facebook application in educational settings (Muñoz & Towner, 2009; English & Duncan-Howell, 2008; Boyd & Ellison, 2008; Kung & Chuo, 2002; Stern & Taylor, 2007; McVey, 2009; Çoklar, 2012). Thus, it can be said that the study of Facebook integration has become an important aspect of foreign language instruction.

Facebook integration into foreign language learning settings has been studied by many researchers. However, certain learner characteristics seem to be the overlooked areas in Facebook integration into English language classes. Therefore, this paper presents deeper analysis regarding student teachers’ perceptions about Facebook integration into English classes by considering such factors as age and level of learners, types of use as in-class, outside-the-class and self-study as well as language domains to be enhanced via Facebook. It is expected to shed light on an overlooked area of foreign language teaching since student teachers’ perceptions are taken into consideration with learner characteristics in terms of Facebook integration into Turkish EFL context.

Review of the literature

New technological tools might seem promising with advantages like feedback tools, conveying meaning, reflecting on the activities in a funny way but technology cannot become a teacher by itself (Scoter, 2004). Necessity of changes in learning contexts and its impacts on education have been stressed in different studies as well (Abbitt, 2007; Greenhow et al., 2009; Mazman & Usluel, 2010) since the arrival of the Internet and computer mediated communication (CMC) tools have made L2 learning easier by providing great amounts of input, authentic materials and interaction opportunities (Karakaya, 2010). Therefore, teachers should change their teaching styles, materials and activities in line with changing needs of students and technology because on-line learning offers a community of inquiry, social presence, cognitive presence, instructor presence and supports critical thinking with its rich resources (Anderson, 2011).

Some Web 2.0 applications like wikis and blogs have influenced learning and teaching as users have active roles like contributing to the content and controlling it (Abbitt, 2007). These applications integrate technology with teaching methodologies (Banks & Faul, 2007). Web 2.0 applications could be utilised for both social and educational purposes as e-learning environments facilitate collaborative learning (Cheung et al., 2011). Foreign language teaching has also been affected by the emergence of Web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking thanks to their opportunities for authentic materials, unlimited learning, synchronous or asynchronous communication styles but how to meet student needs remains an important factor for a successful application (Sturm, Kennell, McBride & Kelly, 2009).

Social networking sites (SNSs) like Facebook and Twitter are gaining popularity day by day. The reason might result from the fact that SNSs are different from traditional CMC in that content does not only cover the creator’s information but is also shaped by the changes or contributions that friends make (Tong et al., 2008). SNSs offer different activities like sharing personal information, connecting with other users, uploading, tagging and sharing videos, photos, comments and joining groups with common interests (Lockyer & Patterson, 2008). If the demands of the 21st century skills are considered, it is seen that it is compulsory for teachers to be good at using new technology in order to meet the needs of digital natives better (Cephe & Balçıkanlı, 2012).

There are research studies on Livemocha, Second life, Penzu and Flicker but Facebook is the most famous and widely used social network (Balaman, 2012). Here users can create content and choose what to focus or ignore among mass-produced content (Pempek et al., 2009). Users can reach loads of information about arts, sports and travel while feeling safe by hiding certain information from others (Zhao et al., 2008). They can also join groups and create new ones according to their interests and hobbies. As is seen, Facebook is a unifying tool since it combines the features of other Web 2.0 tools within itself, like MySpace and Friendster, the image-sharing site Flickr and the open-source learning management system Moodle. Therefore, teachers can utilise Facebook for educational purposes (McCarthy, 2012). Teachers can easily harness Facebook for educational purposes because they can connect with students for free and students can feel a sense of belonging in the closed groups (English & Duncan-Howell, 2008). When Facebook is considered as an educational tool, Muñoz & Towner (2009) points out that teachers and students can create groups for specific purposes of the courses or the teacher can share links, websites, videos and various documents to tailor the courses for students’ different learning styles and expectations. However, a separate account for educational activities is also needed to protect professionalism and not to cross the boundary of the teaching-student relationship (Muñoz & Towner, 2009).

Facebook facilities, technological capabilities and offline interaction have attracted attention of many researchers (Sturgeon & Walker, 2009) and it has been researched for different aspects like social capital, identity, privacy and academic purposes (Bosch, 2009). In addition, Facebook is found to have a significant positive relationship with usefulness, ease of use, social influence, facilitating conditions and community identity. Besides, usefulness is considered as the most important factor in the adoption of Facebook as well as the rapid increase in the number of its users (Mazman & Usuluel, 2010). Although Facebook is a popular website, it still needs more research studies to understand how to use it for what purposes (Greenhow, 2009).

As many people have a Facebook account and use it frequently, we can benefit from Facebook to teach language skills to our students (Stern & Taylor, 2007). People can have more friends on Facebook they have never seen, share pictures in their online albums, discuss their interests and hobbies, and list their friends. They can interact with one another through comments and messages. All these features make Facebook unique as an on-line environment (Zhao et al., 2008). When students are engaged in Facebook activities, they will have opportunities to construct their knowledge with the help of community of practice and collaboration, learn informally and develop cross-cultural understanding (Wenger, 1998). Moreover, students are easily connected with each other and share any type of information (Abel, 2005).

According to Kabilan et al. (2010), Facebook can be an online learning environment to facilitate English language learning in terms of improvement of language skills, confidence, motivation and attitude even out of the class. Facebook applications can join teachers and students via a course link which includes setting up video conferences, posting comments for the class, putting assignments, announcements, documents, and discussion topics (Blattner & Fiori, 2009). Dynamic structure of Facebook makes it appropriate for learning functional and grammatical aspects of the language like learning writing, vocabulary and reading incidentally (Akbulut, 2007; Shahrokni, 2009).

There are more positive aspects of Facebook in foreign language learning in that certain Facebook facilities like chat tool, discussion board, and email and messaging can provide learners with scaffolding they need for their cognitive development (Zainuddin et al., 2011) since learners could get the opportunity to benefit from the visual clues to conclude meaning or repeat and revise the previous linguistic points while they are engaged in Facebook activities. Likewise, mobile phone Facebook application could also enhance meaningful and individual learning thanks to its facilities like authentic material, real-life activities and student-centered education (Shehri, 2011) in which students can discuss about their courses, homework, revise and share information with each other. However, Facebook use can be distractive when exaggerated and result in procrastination, distraction and privacy issues (Vivian, 2011).

In sum, Facebook could be effective for educational purposes for various reasons like its popularity, ease of use, synchronous and asynchronous forms of mentoring and forming a professional online presence. In addition, students can get feedback with the help of a project and improve their academic performance (McCarthy, 2012). Finally, inclusion of blended learning technology can offer students facilities like learning at their own pace. Since Facebook is a tool that is easy to access, learners and teachers may benefit from it for communication and interaction, giving immediate feedback and increasing motivation (Erdem & Nuhoğlu Kibar, 2014).

Although positive and negative outcomes of Facebook application in foreign language teaching has been the focus of many research studies there is still a gap in the Facebook application due to missing information about the dynamics on the part of the learners, that is their characteristics like age and language level. Approaches to enhance language skills and domains on Facebook is still open to debate since there are no concrete findings that support Facebook application with clear and concrete examples. Another gap is the inclusion of student teacher opinions on Facebook application in English language teaching. Therefore, this study aims to fill the afore-mentioned gaps in the literature by analysing student teacher opinions on Facebook application in English language teaching together with learner characteristics and types of use.

Research questions

It is seen that although there have been various studies regarding Facebook, there is still a missing part of its use in foreign language learning settings in terms of student teachers’ perspectives about its application. To contribute to the understading of Facebook use in English language classes, in this study the following research questions will be answered:

1. What are the student teachers’ perceptions about  the use of Facebook in English language teaching?

1.1  What language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and areas (grammar, vocabulary and pronounciation) do student teachers think of improving with the help of Facebook in English classes?

1.2  What age group(s) can be taught English through Facebook according to student teachers?

1.3  What language level(s) can be taught English through Facebook according to student teachers

1.4  How (with what types of use) do student teachers prefer to integrate Facebook into English language classes?

2. Are there any differences between male and female student teachers in terms of their preference of Facebook as a foreign language learning tool?

Research methodology

Research design

This study employs mixed methods research, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods, in order to obtain more valid and reliable research findings.

Mixed methods include both qualitative (textual data) and quantitative (numeric data) methods to benefit from their strong aspects and make the research sounder by unifying them (Dörnyei, 2007). Likewise, in this study, both qualitative (analysing and coding written and oral interviews) and quantitative (calculating frequency, percentages and chi-square, mean, standard deviation) procedures were used to avoid the limitations of purely quantitative or purely qualitative studies. This way, a more practical and reliable research methodology was employed and this allowed the researcher to select different methods to answer the research questions in a broader sense. After the written interview forms (WIF) were applied, oral interviews were conducted to gather detailed data concerning the participants’ opinions. The oral interviews were semi-structured in that there were pre-determined questions but the researcher allowed for digression or elaboration to fully understand participants’ thoughts. Their answers were instantly transcribed in order not to miss any non-verbal clues like facial expressions and gestures. Their written interview form answers were shown to them to provide stimuli and remind them their initial thoughts while answering the questions, which is also called stimulated recall.

Setting and participants

The setting of the study includes student teachers in English Language Teaching (ELT) programs in Turkey. The participants of this study were 221 student teachers in English Language Teaching Department at Gazi University. The participants were purposefully selected for three reasons. Firstly, they are the seniors who have taken the necessary courses on methodology and educational sciences and are doing practicum as teachers at schools. Therefore, in a sense, they are both teachers teaching at schools and students who are taking courses to complete their own education. Secondly, they wanted to participate voluntarily so their answers are expected to be reliable. Finally, the Gazi University ELT program is one of the largest programs in its field in Turkey. 221 students were given the Written Interview Form and 21 of them held oral interviews with the researcher in the fall semester of the 2012-2013 academic year.

Data collection instruments

In this study data were collected with the help of a written interview form (WIF) and oral interviews. The WIF consists of questions about demographic features of the participants and their perceptions about Facebook use in English classes. On the other hand, the oral interviews were semi-structured and conducted face-to-face with single-sessions. The WIF was piloted with 21 pre-service teachers enrolled in the same class to test the appropriateness of the interview items and identify any misunderstanding in the language. Expert opinion was also gathered from 3 field experts for data reliability. Based on the feedback and comments from the pilot survey, necessary revisions were made in the interview forms. Each participant was given a number in the interview form so that s/he could be addressed in the later discussions with that number. Besides, no personal information was revealed for more reliable and detailed data gathering.

Data analysis

In this study, data were collected in qualitative methods but analysed in both quantitative and qualitative methods, which provides triangulation. Content analysis was employed to analyse student teachers’ responses and get deeper information. The quantitative data analysis was carried out via the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) to calculate frequencies (F), percentages (%), chi-square measures (χ2), mean scores ( ) and the standard deviation (SD) and to obtain cross tabulation tables for the research questions and analyses of the socio-demographic features. As for the qualitative data analysis, it consists of thematic categorisation of the data that relate to the choices of the participants concerning types of use (inside/outside the class activities and self-study tasks). While relating the emerging data with the categories, the constant comparison method of grounded theory was applied through in vivo coding.

According to the grounded theory put forward by Glaser and Strauss (1980), generating a theory consists of ongoing changing procedures in a messy way and the constant comparison method includes open, axial and selective coding (Glaser & Strauss, 1980). Categories can be formed with respondents’’ interpretations, which can be named “in vivo codes” and interpretation may be needed in this phase. Selective coding is when we reach theoretical saturation and refine the theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

Findings

Student teachers’ demographic features such as their gender, age and possession of Facebook accounts were taken into consideration to examine whether these features are variables that affect the outcome of the study.

Gender of the Participants

Table 1. Gender of the participants

Gender

Frequency(F)

Percentage(%)

Male

38

18%

Female

173

82%

Total

211

100%

As is seen in Table 1, there are 211 (100%) student teachers. 38 (18%) are males and 173 (82%) are females, forming the majority of the total population of seniors in Gazi University’s ELT program. Whether gender effects on participant opinions on Facebook integration will be dealt in the following tables.

Age of the Participants

Table 2. Age of the participants

Age Group Frequency(F) Percentage(%)
18-20 6 3%
21-23 190 90%
24-26 14 6.6%
27+ 1 0.4%
Total 211 100%

Whether age effects participant opinions on Facebook integration will be dealt in detail in the following tables.

Table 3. Mean and standart deviation of age

N

Minimum

Maximum

Mean

Std. Deviation

Age 211

1

4

2.05

.335
Valid N (listwise)

211

When we examine Table 2 we see the total frequency of the age groups. It is seen that of the 211 student teachers, 6 are aged between 18-20; 190 are aged between 21-23; 14 are aged between 24-26 and 1 is aged 27+. As to the percentages, it was found out that 3% of them are aged between 18-20, 90% of them are aged between 21-23, 6.6% of them are aged between 24-26 and 0.4% one of them is aged 27 or over. In light of the data, it can be said that the validity of the age categorisation was justified since participants aged between 21-23 were found to comprise a great  majority of the total participants. Table 3 gives us the mean score and the standart deviation of  the ages of the participants, which indicates that there is little difference between their ages and most of them are aged around 22 years old.

Facebook Ownership of the Participants

Table 4. Gender-based Facebook ownership of the participants

Gender NFB(F) YFB(F) Frequency Percent
Male 4 34 38 18%
Female 33 140 173 82%
GBTF 37 174 211 100%
GBTP 17.5% 82.5% 100%

Participant Opinions about Facebook Integration into English Classes

Table 5. Gender-based participant opinions on Facebook integration into English classes

Gender Agree Disgaree Undecided Frequency
Male 26 12 0 38
Female 120 46 7 173
Frequency 146 58 7 211
Percentage 69.2% 27.5% 3.3% 100%

Agree refers to those who agree with Facebook integration into English classes while Disagree refers to those who disagree with the idea and finally Undecided refers to those who are undecided about the idea.  When we examine Table 5 in terms of gender, it is seen that of the 211 participants, 26 males favoured Facebook integration into English classes while 12 were against the idea and there were no males who were undecided. Of all the females, 120 favoured Facebook integration into English classes while 46 were against the idea and 7 were undecied. In total, 146 (69.2%) participants were positive, 58 (27.5%) were negative and finally 7 (3.3%) were neutral about Facebook integration into English classes.

Table 6. Chi-Square tests of FA and FAELT

Value

Df

Asymp. Sig. (2-sided)

Pearson Chi-Square

27.744a

2

.000

Likelihood Ratio

23.442

2

.000

Linear-by-Linear Association

26.482

1

.000

N of Valid Cases

211

a. 1 cells (16.7%) have expected count less than 5. The minimum expected count is 1.23.

When we examine Table 6, we see the chi-square tests (χ2) of FA and FAELT, that is the relationship between the participants’ having a Facebook account and their perceptions about Facebook integration into English classes. Statistical significance was set at a P value of <0.05. The results are significant as probability co-efficcient is less than 0.05 (p<0.05), that is, there is relationship between the participants’ having a Facebook account and their perceptions about Facebook integration into English classes.

Table 7. Chi-Square tests of gender-FAELT

Value

df

Asymp. Sig. (2-sided)

Pearson Chi-Square

1.824a

2

.402

Likelihood Ratio

3.056

2

.217

Linear-by-Linear Association

.103

1

.749

N of Valid Cases

211

a. 1 cells (16.7%) have expected count less than 5. The minimum expected count is 1.26.

When we examine at Table 7, we see chi-square tests of gender-FAELT relationship, that is the relationship between gender and participant opinions on Facebook integration into English classes. Statistical significance was set at a P value of <0.05. The results are not significant as probability co-efficcient is not less than 0.05 (p>0.05). This is assumed to result from unequal gender distribution in that there were 38 male participants while 173 female participants.

Discussion

The study’s research questions will answered by analysing and discussing the frequencies, percentages and participant comments. First, research questions will be restated, then the findings will be interpreted and exemplified for detailed discussion.

Research Question 1: What are the student teachers’ perceptions about  the use of Facebook in English language teaching?

Both in the WIF and oral interview analyses, it was seen that of the total participants (N=211 with 100%), high majority of the participants (N=146 with 69.2%) were in favour of integrating Facebook into English classes although there was opposition (N=58 with 27.5%) or indecision (N=7 with 3.3%). Therefore, it can be said that about 70% of seniors in Gazi University’s ELT program have favourable perceptions towards the use of Facebook as an educational tool in English language classes. Examples from the WIF and oral interviews are given below to have a clear idea about the participants’ perceptions about Facebook integration into foreign language education contexts. There are two examples of positive, negative and undecided participants so that we can get a complete idea on each position towards Facebook integration into English classes. Each participant was given a code, that is number to keep their identity confidential and they are referred with these numbers in the following.

Student Teacher Comments

Participant 1, in favour of Facebook integration, indicated her opinion as the following:

I think it can be used in teaching. Because when it is used effectively it can be useful. For instance last year I was working at a nursery school, my words were vegetables and I gave my students Facebook farm game as a homework for a month and they enjoyed very much. I succeeded to teach new 20 words in an enjoyable way.

Here the student teacher articulates that Facebook can be used for teaching vocabulary to learners in an enjoyable way so they  can retrieve related vocabulary in the long run when necessary. From the comment, one can even consider how Facebook can work with young learners to teach vocabulary.

Below are two photos illustrating how Facebook could be used to enhance vocabulary knowledge taken from Balaman (2012).

cakir1

cakir2

Participant 3, in favor of Facebook integration, indicated his opinion as the following:

As English develops in our modern world, needs also gain much importance in our life. The aim of students’ teaching/learning English is also determined by these needs. Let’s say that the more developed technology and updated topics we use in classroom environments, the more enthusiastic the students are to learn English, so Facebook can be great help focus.

The student teacher highlights importance of learning English and educational requirements of the era we live in are highlighted. Besides, Facebook is said to motivate learners and help them focus on the learning content.

Participant 40, against Facebook integration indicated her opinion as the following:

I don’t think it can be useful in teaching English  for some reasons. First of all, as students have the opportunity to talk with their friends, looking at their photos and sharings, they will not deal with the things related to English or any course. If they want, they know that they can find all videos on youtube and on google. Facebook is a way of having fun actually. Facebook is not a tool for teaching English. It is just wasting time. Another reason is that maybe every student doesn’t have access to the Internet.

There is concern about Facebook use due to misuse of Facebook for other purposes, which could result from students’ lack of motivation to learn on Facebook. Additionally, Facebook may not be regarded as a learning tool by some educators.

Participant 140, also against Facebook integration, indicated his opinion as in the following:

No, I don’t think so. Because there is no rule while doing something on Facebook. Not for teaching because Facebook is a social content-web and environment. People log in Facebook to look at others’ photos, gossip and sharings. For example when I come across a group like learning one French word each day, I just skip it since learning is…. Needs time. And they, my students, will just skip, too. When I hear Facebook gossip comes to my mind immediately.

Again we see the opposition to use Facebook as a learning tool due to undesired learner attitudes. Thus, we need to be freed from prejudices as teachers so that we can encourage a new technological application in our classes.

Now we will look at comments of two participants who were undecided about Facebook integration into English classes. These are participants 134 and 182 respectively.

I don’t know.  Maybe. I am indecisive.”

“I don’t have a Facebook account so I don’t know exactly how it works. However, it can be used as communication.”

These two participants are not sure about the potential of Facebook facilities. This may result from their being not exposed to its use in their own education.

Research Question 1.1: What language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and areas (grammar, vocabulary and pronounciation) do student teachers think of improving with the help of Facebook in English classes?

Table 8. Gender-based language skill preference frequency and percentage

Gender Language Skills
R W S L G V P
Male

Percent

15

19%

15

16.5%

9

20.5%

13

18.8%

3

15.8%

7

16.3%

1

20%

Female

Percent

64

81%

76

83.5%

35

79.5%

56

81.2%

16

84.2%

36

83.7%

4

80%

Total

Percent

79

100%

91

100%

44

100%

69

100%

19

100%

43

100%

5

100%

If examine the gender-based language skill preferences, we see that 76 females (83.5%)  and 15 males (16.5%) mentioned writing skill. 64 females (81%) and 15 males (19%) mentioned reading skill. 56 females (81.2%) and 13 males (18.8%) mentioned listening skill. 35 females (79.5%) and 9 males (20.5%) mentioned speaking skill. 36 females (83.7%) and 7 males (16.3%) mentioned vocabulary. 16 females (84.2%) and 3 males (15.8%) mentioned grammar. 4 females (80%) and 1 male (20%) mentioned pronounciation.

The 5th interviewee reported opinion as follows:

Spelling, pronounciation, strong and weak forms of intonation and gisting. Through songs students could imitate sounds just like the singer and have a better idea about contractions. If we share cartoons and pictures we can teach new vocab. They want to learn its meaning and so look it up in the dictionary immediately.

This quote illustrates that Facebook could be great help in enhancing segmentals and suprasegmentals in the target language. If they are involved in enjoyable activities like having songs or cartoons, they can appreciate Facebook use due to the rich aural and visual stimuli. Besides, they will want to understand what is going on, try to learn new words.

The 7th interviewee reported opinion as follows:

Writing and reading. Vocab. Prononunciation- we can use and share videos about a topic and have them watch and comment on it. Later I would ask questions about it. We can also share samples of texts- emails, formal and informal letters- as a source for their writing or assignment. Not spelling and punctuation because it is a free environment, like writing messages, just skipping or omitting some vowels or consonants.

Learners can take the linguistic input on Facebook as their model. The teacher could get the opportunity to develop language skills integratedly and students will feel safe about making errors as they will act in a free environment.

The 11th interviewee reported opinion as follows:

Writing. I can send a paragraph and they will tell me the topic sentence. For listening we post a video and ask them to write what the boy or girl is saying between 10th -15th seconds. Reading- we can ask them to scan some texts and count the superlative words.

Facebook could be used to improve different language skills with various activities, from simple to more complex and long activities.

Research Question 1.2: What age group(s) can be taught English through Facebook according to student teachers?

Table 9. Age groups to be taught English via Facebook

Age Groups Frequency Percentage
Young Learners 18 8.3%
Adolescents 118 54.4%
Adults 81 37.3%
Total 217 100%

In Table 9, we see participants opinions on what age group(s) is/are suitable to be taught English via Facebook. The participants chose either one or more age group(s). The age groups were divided into three broad categories namely young learners, adolescents and adults. When we look at Table 17, we see that of the 227 points (100%) given in total, young learners item has 18 points (8.3%) while adolescents item has 118 points (54.4%)  and finally adults item has 81 points (37.3%).

The 5th interviewee indicates opinion in the oral interview as follows:

Young learners aren’t aware of what or how they are learning sth or not have an aim. On the other hand, adolescents and adults have awareness and they say I need to learn these things, such they think.

This participant stresses the possession of aim while learning a foreign language. In this regard, young learners are criticised for not having concrete or clear learning aims, which could damage their learning in an online environment.

The 16th interviewee indicates opinion in the oral interview as follows:

Young learners are open to any kind of thing. Facebook  can be another world for them to try where they can find interactive videos and beneficial sites. In addition, it can be a way of collaborating with parents. Young people are good at using technology so why not to use Facebook. I think adolescents have adequate information on how to use Facebook. For adults, I think no way! It is easy for us to use new tech and it will be easier for our students to be accustomed to the new tech but some will disagree. We grew up with this technology but they didn’t see such things. So it will be hard for them to accept it.

On the contrary, this participant is insisting on the involvement of young learners on Facebook for educational purposes since they are regarded digital natives but adolescents may need more guidance on how to act on Facebook while learning. Adults are thought to have difficulty in adapting to new technology due to their old habits.

Research Question 1.3: What language level(s) can be taught English through Facebook according to student teachers?

Table 10. Language levels to be taught English via Facebook

Language Levels Frequency Percentage
Beginner 30 12.6%
Intermediate 128 53.8%
Advanced 80 33.6%
Total 238 100%

Participants reflected their opinions on the use of Facebook in English classes by choosing the language level(s) that they thought to be suitable for teaching English via Facebook. They could choose one or more language level(s). The language levels  were divided into three broad categories as beginners, intermediate and advanced levels.

When one examines Table 10 which shows the overall frequency and percentage of language levels to be taught English via Facebook, we see that there are 238 points in total. Out of 238 total points, 30 points belong to beginners, 128 points to intermediate level and finally 80 points to advanced level, which means beginner level has 12.6% of the total point while intermediate level has 53.8% of the total point and finally advanced level has 33.6% of the total points.

Participant 138 indicates opinion in the the oral interview as follows:

Intermediate students because in order to get the highest learning level, learners must have the suitable and general idea about English. But beginners don’t have the necessary skills and need to be guided, which can be a burden for the teacher. As for advanced students, they already know about English and won’t need to learn sth on Facebook. For intermediate students, we can get their attention and contribute totheir own learning. If it is difficult for students, we can give them a push, whether they want to learn sth or not. Facebook can make individual learning possible for fast or slow learners.

The 15th interviewee indicates opinion in the oral interview as follows:

Beginners need the background information so that they will be able to understand what is going on Facebook. Intermediate level students seem more suitable for using Facebook and as they know the basic and necessary grammatical rules and lexical knowledge they can work out and understand the language there. As advanced students already know a lot about the language they need more academic language knowledge, I mean sth more challenging. It can be time-consuming for the teacher and they think it might be useless.

In both comments, Intermediate level students are regarded to benefit from Facebook in learning foreign languages more than the two groups in that they have an idea about how Englsih works, know some rules and equipped with some strategies to overcome difficulties but beginners are criticised for not being empowered with linguistic tools to survive on Facebook. Advanced level students are thought not to need Facebook to learn something new due to their rich language background.

Research Question 1.4: How (with what types of use) do student teacher prefer to integrate Facebook into English language classes?

Table 11. Types of Facebook use for ELT in order of importance*

Types of Facebook Use Points Percentage
In-class 333 38%
Outside-the-class 291 33%
Self-study 258 29%
Total 882 100%

*The least point respresents the highest importance.

In the WIF, student teachers ordered the items in Table 11, namely types of Facebook use as in-class, outside-the-class and self-study. The participants gave 1, 2 or 3 points, 1 being the most important and 3 the least important. Therefore, items with lower scores are considered more important than the ones with higher scores. Although some of the participants (27.5%) did not favour the use of Facebook in English classes, they expressed their views on what skills to be taught, order of importance, what age group(s) and language level(s) to be taught English via Facebook. Naturally these views were not taken into consideration in the further analyses.

When one examines Table 11, it is seen that participants gave 882 points for the order of importance in total. Of the 882 points, 333 belong to the in-class item, 291 to the ouside class item and finally 258 to the self-study item. Table 8 above shows that 38% of the points belong to the in-class item while 33% of the points belong to the outside-the-class item and finally 29% of the points belong to the self-study item. The in-class type of use appears to be the least important type of use to be applied via Facebook. The outside-the-class technique is seen as a mildly important type of use and finally the self-study type of use seems to be the most important.

Examples of In-Class Use in the WIF

The numbers represent the WIF order of the participants.

119- Even following comic pictures in a specific page with our prospective teachers and then next day talking and discussing about them are useful.

133- Yes, we can use Facebook for teaching English. There are some accounts for teaching English, if we use them, we can learn some words and review them. We can read stories via Facebook.

158- I think listening can be taught. Some warming-up activities can be done or teacher can share a video about the topic that they will learn it the next day for warm-up section.

The three participants give examples about how to use Facebook in the classrooms during English courses. They also touch upon how to teach language skills integratedly. They offer following funny pictures and discussing them, useing accounts specifically designed for language learning and watching videos. When students become a member of a group, they can learn from other members’ experiences and they can develop their skills thanks to the rich aural and visual input found in Facebook facilities.

Examples of Outside-the-Class Use in the WIF

The numbers represent the WIF order of the participants.

84- Writing can be primarily taught through Facebook. We carried out a project in which Facebook was used two years ago. It was useful because with our friends, we commented on videos, updated our status and also we had fun while learning.

100- Yes, we can use it.We can share our experiences. We can ask others about problems we encounter in English learning. We get more answers, maybe different answers which help us to grasp the meaning etc. We can have a page where we do activities.

175-Yes, it can be used actually. We used Facebook as an interactive tool in acquisiton class. By means of face, you can communicate easily with your students, announce new knowledge, give feedback efficiently.

The participants belive that learning can continue even out of the class and they offer learning acitivies like project work, forming pages for learning and making a closed group where only certain learners can keep in touch and catch up with learning content. In this way, learners can be both informed about their English classes and carry out educational activities without time and place limitations.

Examples of Self-Study Tasks in the WIF

194- Yes, somebody can see a word s/he hasn’t heard or seen before on Facebook so it can be useful. Also, they can speak English with friends so they can improve their English.

116- Listening and speaking can be taught via cameras and some listening vidos, clips.

19- Self-study is the most important as they can reach any information on this system and since the materials are various they will appeal to different kinds of intelligences and get their attention.

18- Self-study is the most important since it allows repetition and revision of what they have learnt or couldn’t understand clearly at school. An important opportunity for individual learning.

Self-study was the most preferred type of Facebook use among the participant student teachers. These participants stress the involvement of “self” in the learning process in that learning could be empowered when one is actively engaged in the learning activities. Especially interaction with friends or native speakers can greatly contribute to learner motivation. Learners can also get the chance to choose among a variety of materials which are appropriate to their age, level and interest. They can also revise their previous learning items and build bridges between the previous and new knowledge with the help of visuals and activities.

Research Question 2: Are there any differences between male and female student teachers in terms of their preference of Facebook as a foreign language learning tool?

Table 12. Gender- FAELT relationship

FAELT

Total

FAY

FAN

FAUN

Gender Male Count

26

12

0

38

% within Gender

68.4%

31.6%

.0%

100.0%

Female Count

120

46

7

173

% within Gender

69.4%

26.6%

4.0%

100.0%

Total Count

146

58

7

211

% within Gender

69.2%

27.5%

3.3%

100.0%

When one examines Table 12, we see the relationship between gender and student teachers’ perceptions about Facebook integration into English classes. As is seen in Table 13, of the 211 respondents, 38 of them are male while 173 of them are female, which means the number of female participants is nearly four and a half times more than male participants.

When one examines Table 12 in terms of gender, it is seen that 26 males favoured Facebook integration into English classes while 12 of them were against the idea and there were no males who were undecided. As for females, 120 females favoured Facebook integration into English classes while 46 of them were against the idea and 7 of them were undecied. Total score consists of 146 positive responses, 58 negative responses and finally 7 responses with undecided remarks.

Table 13. Chi-Square tests of gender-FAELT

Chi-Square Tests

Value

df

Asymp. Sig. (2-sided)

Pearson Chi-Square

1.824a

2

.402
Likelihood Ratio

3.056

2

.217
Linear-by-Linear Association .103

1

.749
N of Valid Cases 211
a. 1 cells (16.7%) have expected count less than 5. The minimum expected count is 1.26.

When one examines Table 13, it is seen that the number of male and female participants does not show equal distribution. The relationship between gender and participant perceptions about Facebook integration into English classes is found not to be significant as probability co-efficient is not less than 0.05 (p>0.05). The unequal distribution of gender among participants can be considered as the limitation of the study and further studies with equal gender distribution could give more detailed information on this aspect of the study.

However, this study offers concrete insights about the positive and negative outcomes together with detailed examples given on educatioal activities and suggested exercises to be employed on Facebook.

This study’s data indicates that  high majority of student teachers (N=146, 69.2%) support Facebook integration into English classes. There are participants with negative attitudes or are undecided but we can help the ones against the application (N=58, 27.5%) or undecided (N=7, 3.3%) to change their viewpoints. The frequency of indecision may seem small but the frequency of opposition should not be underestimated since it forms nearly the quarter of total frequency and in light with their responses they can be advised the ways of dealing with possible problems they might encounter in application and be given the necessary professional skills and pedagogical knowledge in their education so that they will feel competent enough to put innovative tools into practice in their future classes and better serve student needs.

Pedagogıcal Implıcatıons and Suggestıons

Teachers should pay attention to learners characteristics while integrating online learning environments into traditional classroom settings.  They should should consider learners’ age, language level and motivation level because students have different expectations, konwledge, background, interests, needs and motivation. Integration of Facebook into foreign language classes requires certain factors to be considered.  These include outcomes of application, social support or pressure, internal/external advantages or disadvantages. This study found, drawing on student teachers’ perspectives, that Facebook inclusion could potentially enhance language skills, motivate learners to particpate in educational activities, help students to gain self-study skills, access massive amount of authentic learning materials, recieve instant feedback, practice new points and revise previous knowledge. In addition, widespread use of online resources, the high popularity of Facebook and easy access to the Internet make Facebook applicatiosn easier now than ever to think about how this social netowkring environment can be used to support English laguage learning. However, there might be some hindering factors like social pressure, technical breakdowns, distractions, mismanaging time, misuse or overuse, digital gap, self-discipline problems, inaccess to computers or the Internet, time constraints, and mother tongue use.

Today Facebook or Twitter is currently being introduced into teacher education programs, but in coming years both will likely be replaced with other socila netowring platforms.  Therefore, teacher education requires continuous change and modification in conjuction with teaching trends and up-to-date communication services. However, we should balance the traditional and innovative ways of teaching in order to prevent misuse. We should not overuse technology or underestimate traditional teaching methods.

In conclusion, student teachers should be exposed to new and popular communication and interaction means like social networking sites in their own education so that they can gain knowledge, skill and expertise on how to apply such tools in their future classes. If they have concrete learning experiences, they will have a chance to see what it is like to be on Facebook as a learner and how to respond to students and how to give feedback as a teacher. Moreover, they will contribute to their professionalism and keep informed about the latest news and trends of educational moves. Therefore, teacher education programs need to be updated to comply with demands of the current era and help student teachers to gain the needed teachnology skills to effectively integrate both latest technology and appropriate teaching styles into their future classes.

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Biographical Statements

Abdulvahit Çakir is a professor at Gazi University in the Faculty of Education and works within the English Language Teaching Department. He is the head of the English Language Teaching Department and School of Foreign Languages. He started teaching his career as an English teacher and worked in different types of school and then went on to become an academic. His fields of interest are applied linguistics, teacher education, language testing, and curriculum design. He has an MA degree from Edinburg University in applied linguistics and PhD degree from Gazi University. He is the general editor of Journal of Language Teaching and Learning.

Contact: vahity@gazi.edu.tr

Website: http://websitem.gazi.edu.tr/site/vahit

Çağla Atmaca is a research assistant at Gazi University in the Faculty of Education within the English Language Teaching Department. She passed her doctorate proficiency examination and is now writing her Ph.D. dissertation. Her fields of interest are teacher education, technology use in education and intercultural communication. She worked as the assistant editor of Journal of Language Teaching and Learning and now is the English editor at Gazi University Turkish Culture and Haci Bektash Veli Research Quarterly.

Contact: caglaatmaca@gazi.edu.tr; caglaatmaca90@gmail.com

Website: http://websitem.gazi.edu.tr/site/cagla

Christopher S. Walsh


Published Online: July 15, 2015
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Toija Cinque and Adam Brown’s  article “Educating generation next: Screen media use, digital competencies and tertiary education” investigates the use of screen media and digital competencies of higher education students in light of the growing focus on new media and e-learning in Australian universities. They argue that there is a need to resist the commonplace utopian and dystopian discourses surrounding new media technological innovation.

Osvaldo Cleger analyes analyze how a representative selection of computer games, set mostly in a Latin American context or at the US-Mexico border, are capable of mounting arguments about immigration policy by making good or poor uses of what Ian Bogost has conceptualized as “procedural rhetoric” (Bogost, 2007). “Procedural Rhetoric and Undocumented Migrants: Playing the Debate over Immigration Reform” explores to what extent videogames can be effectively persuasive in the way they manage to create a computational representation of the experience of migrating, and its associated consequences, independently of the legal or illegal status of such displacements.

The article “Variations in recruitment yield, costs, speed and participant diversity across Internet platforms in a global study examining the efficacy of an HIV/AIDS and HIV testing animated and live-action video among English- or Spanish-speaking Internet or social media users” by Winnie Shao, Wentao Guan, Melissa A. Clark, Tao Liu, Claudia C. Santelices, Dharma E. Cortés and Roland C. Merchant presents a world-wide, Internet-based study on HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge that compared the yields, speed and costs of recruitment and participant diversity across free postings on 13 Internet or social media platforms, paid advertising or postings on 3 platforms, and separate free postings and paid advertisements on Facebook.  Platforms were compared by study completions (yield), time to completion, The study results highlight the need for researchers to strongly consider choice of Internet or social media platforms when conducting Internet-based research.

Nazanin Ghodrati’s article “Conceptualising and measuring collaborative critical thinking on asynchronous discussion forums: Challenges and possible solutions” examines the demonstration of collaborative critical thinking (CCT) on asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) in a graduate subject at an Australian university over two academic semesters. She discusses the ontological and methodological challenges in conducting her research and presents possible solutions to challenges encountered. At the ontological level, she discusses challenges in conceptualising and defining CCT. At the methodological level, she presents challenges in constructing a coding scheme to measure the demonstration of CCT on ADFs. In conclusion she proposes an operational definition of CCT and presents a synthetic coding scheme for measuring CCT in computer-supported collaborative learning contexts such as on ADFs.

This issue also has a review of Adrienne Shaw’s (2014) Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture by Sabine Herrer. A special thanks to Jesse Ko for his continued work as Line Editor for the journal’s final draft copies. We would also like to thank the many anonymous reviewers who have contributed to DCE. Their commitment to providing high quality feedback have contributed significantly to the quality of the manuscripts we have published. We rely entirely on their dedicated and pro bono labour.

Sabine Harrer

Published Online: July 17, 2015
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Shaw, A. (2014). Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 317 pages.

Adrienne Shaw starts her book “Gaming at the Edge” with a childhood memory about everyday life in Japan. She recalls receiving a Nintendo console and a handful of games from her mother, which her friends and family enjoyed playing on for years.  “Because of all this”, she concludes, “it never really occurred to me that gaming was something only a certain type of person did. In fact, it was only in my adult life that I heard people talking about the heterosexual, white, cisgendered male gamer as the norm” (vii).

As Shaw demonstrates in this vignette, marginalised game audiences have existed for as long as the video game market has ignored them. More than that, they are perfectly capable of enjoying play irrespective of whether games symbolically annihilate them or not. For those game professionals and theorists who have finally warmed to the idea that representing minorities matters, this observation might at first come as a shock. As a matter of fact, Shaw’s study calls into question the relevance of a game market custom-tailoring products to the needs of minorities. One of the central achievements of the book is its demonstration that such needs do not exist, at least not in a way that can be adequately catered to by a marketing logic.

The book systematically reviews how the usage of representation and identification in game design and game studies discourses currently serves to reproduce misconceptions about players’ relationships to games. Based on a feminist and queer theory angle on identity as a fluid, performative, and contextual process, the author exposes the problematic way in which games often isolate identifiers like race, class, gender and sexuality to construct “authentic” versions of the world. vRace, for instance, tends to be acknowledged only if it is deemed to matter for a particular plot or game setting: In Grand Theft Auto, it is used to construct a “credible” gangster fantasy, in Resident Evil 5, to paint a “realistic” picture of Africa. While these examples have been heavily contested as particularly “bad” representations of racial minorities, Shaw deeply challenges the idea that a case for the opposite, “good” representation can be made. Arguably, what is supposed to be “good” is based on the “typical”, circulating a limited understanding of a given identity. Players’ lived experiences, abiding to such essentialisms, do not simply align with what is commonly considered typical. This is particularly well illustrated in Shaw’s conversation with Julia, a queer woman of colour who distances herself from the media practices “people like herself” are supposed to like. “I would think it’s important to most other people because of what most other people do. You know, they tend to do what people like them do. [F]or me personally, I don’t listen to R&B, I don’t listen to rap. I don’t watch BET. I don’t have the weave. I’m not saying this to offend” (154).

Much in Shaw’s critique of representation reverberates Stuart Hall’s thoughts on media, particularly his discussion of the reflective vs. constitutive paradigms of representation. While the reflective view treats representations as distorted or accurate reflections of a pre-existing reality, Hall suggests an alternative, constitutive paradigm, which assumes that representation selectively constructs reality, and always incompletely so. Hall’s concerns are echoed clearly in Shaw’s interrogation of a game studies and game design discourse, in which “reflective” thinking abounds, while the lived realities of minority audiences call for a more nuanced “constitutive” approach to representation.

Conceptually, Shaw chooses “identification” as an entry point to approach the question how, when and whether representation matters to her interviewees. This strategy seems appropriate in various ways. First, it taps conceptual territory that is important for game designers and scholars, since interactivity and identification are commonly believed to be related. Secondly, its process-orientation is well-suited to support Shaw’s exploration of identity as a fluid and contingent process rather than a stable category. Thirdly, and relatedly, it is open enough to accommodate discussions on textual and production aspects of games without losing sight of its main question, how audiences actively – or passively – relate to the games they play.

As a matter of fact, Shaw’s chapter on identification opens with an extensive note on the textual aspects of Lara Croft in the context of marketing Tomb Raider. Shaw’s point is that designers’ limited imagination of players’ ability to identify with Lara has led to her specific articulation as a hypersexualized character. Similarly, feminist interpretations of Lara as a queer character have claimed this reading to be available for queer female players only. Shifting her attention to her interviewee’s gaming practices then, Shaw challenges these projected limitations by asking what readings are actually available for audiences. As she explains the difference between text-centred and consumption-centred research: “Analysing texts tell us how the audience was constructed and about the inner workings of industry logics, but an audience study helps us make sense of where these meanings go after they are constructed”. (63). The task of “making sense”, here, is carried out with utmost sensitivity towards the fact that neither do “audiences” naturally exist in the world, nor is gaming an isolated activity. Though Shaw generally calls her book an “audience study”, she is careful to conceive of her audiences as “people rather than types of markets and players” (51). This allows her to invite interviewees of a certain demography without assuming that this “marks” them in any particular way.

Throughout a range of diverse gameplay situations and conversations, the book traces factors for identification along structural, social, and embodiment aspects of play. Significantly, whether and how players come to relate to a game character or avatar depends less on an alignment of identifiers than on the way a given character deals with the world around it.  As one of her interviewees, Tanner puts it: “You’re not going to be drawn to something that has no relevance or no commonality to you… But I don’t think that I actively seek or gravitate towards the things that are most like me” (75). This pushes back against the claim that a demographic similarity between player and game character are required for identification.

At the same time, Shaw delivers a strong argument against the view that identification is a central motivation to play a game; neither is it necessarily needed to enjoy it. One of Julia’s quotes, “he could be a bunny rabbit for all I care,” referring to Kratos, the main character in God of War, is used as a programmatic chapter heading to discuss the pleasures gained from different types of relationships players can have with media characters. Contrary to the popular conception that “identification seems to be standing for… interactivity or engagement in a broad sense” (79) Shaw claims that the act of taking control over a character has little to do with identification. “Games are absorbing, but in order to do that identification isn’t required” (86). On the other hand, Shaw observes that some interviewees draw pleasure from relating to “credible” characters, allowing them to imagine that a person “like that” could really exist. (92).

While most of the book is a straight-forward, thoroughly argued and well-illustrated plea for diverse representation beyond niche marketing, the book’s only flaw might be its inconsistent treatment of “interactivity”, however marginal to the main argument. While Shaw points to the confusing way in which this term has come to stand interchangeably for the activity of physically controlling a game and emotionally relating to it, she struggles herself to reconcile it with a media-unspecific active audiences angle. First, she reminds us to remember T.L. Taylor’s assertion that “games, unlike other media, don’t just allow activity – they require it!” (104). This implies that the difference between allowing and requiring activity is somehow significant for our structural understanding of interactivity in games. By the same token, Shaw then criticises the way in which game scholarship has often dismissed non-ludic media practices as “passive”. She asserts that “other audiences also interact with nongame media texts, by questioning them, critiquing them” (ibid.). While this is no doubt the case, what results is a conflation of different notions of “activity”, glossing over media-specificity. The argument gets even more complex when “inactivity” is introduced as a pleasurable mode of gameplay consumption, be it through particularly disengaged play, or spectatorship. From the context of active audience theory, we can infer that Shaw uses “inactivity” as a subcategory, rather than the negation, of audience activity. Yet this difference may be insufficiently illuminated for readers unfamiliar with this kind of literature.

As opposed to other game-related studies, Shaw adequately accounts for the fact that games do not reside in a vacuum, but exist side-by-side of other media forms in people’s lives.  The book frequently draws on the fact that gaming is understood in relation to these other media practices, and that it is through cross-media reference that practices of identification become meaningful to us. In other words, reiterating a tenet from decade-old identity studies, it is through difference, not through similarity, that marginalised audiences – like any other audiences – are able to draw meaningful connections between game representations and themselves.

This is not to mean that the representation of marginalised groups does not matter. On the contrary, Shaw argues that being hailed at by games is something interviewees find “nice when it happens”. This niceness can be read in terms of an overall recognition and validation “both for those who identify with those representation as well as those who do not” (67). The second part of the sentence is an important way in which the book breaks with the dominant niche marketing argument, since it rejects the idea that minority representations should be crafted with a minority audience in mind. Quite the opposite is the case. If marginalised groups, until now, have learned to “make do” with games in which they are not represented, this is certainly a skill white cisgendered male heterosexual gamers can acquire as well. Paradoxically, the fact that neither representation nor identification seem to matter that much to minority audiences allows Shaw to argue how much diversity in games matters to everyone, really.

Biographical statement

Sabine Harrer is a cultural researcher and game designer based in Vienna and Copenhagen. She graduated from English Studies and Communication Science at the University of Vienna, where she also currently writing her PhD on loss and grief in games as a DOC fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.  She also works as game designer on various experimental projects with the Copenhagen Game Collective (Cunt Touch This and Pray Pray Absolution). In the past, she has worked as a lecturer in cultural studies, critical media analysis, and game studies at the University of Vienna and the IT-University Copenhagen.

Contact: sabine.harrer@univie.ac.at

Websites:


Nazanin Ghodrati

Published Online: April 15, 2015

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Abstract: The use of asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) is thought to assist in enhancing students’ collaborative learning and critical thinking throughout higher education. However, previous research has mainly focused on individual critical thinking while the investigation of critical thinking during group work has been generally overlooked. Furthermore, few studies have investigated critical thinking processes of the individual and of the group in a single study to present a comprehensive picture of collaborative critical thinking (CCT). To address these gaps, I examined the demonstration of CCT on ADFs in a graduate subject at an Australian university over two academic semesters as students discussed topics online. In this paper, I discuss the ontological and methodological challenges in conducting the above research and present possible solutions to these challenges. At the ontological level, I discuss challenges in conceptualising and defining CCT. At the methodological level, I present challenges in constructing a coding scheme to measure the demonstration of CCT on ADFs. I then discuss ways to tackle the above challenges, propose an operational definition of CCT and present a synthetic coding scheme for measuring CCT in computer-supported collaborative learning contexts such as on ADFs.

Keywords: asynchronous discussion forum, collaborative critical thinking, computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL), higher education, methodology, online discussion, ontology

Background and Review of Current Research

From the late 1970s and early 1980s developing critical thinking skills in students gained noticeable prominence in higher education (Moore, 2011). In higher education, knowledge construction is viewed as both a process and a product of argumentation and scientific reasoning (Derry, Seymour, Steinkuehler, Lee, & Siegel, 2004). In recent years, in many Western countries such as Britain and Australia, critical thinking has become a major graduate attribute that universities strive for students to develop throughout their tertiary studies and to master by the time they graduate (Moore, 2011).

Critical thinking definitions

As to the term itself, critical thinking and its definition have been long debated, partly due to variations in the terms used to define and describe critical thinking. For instance, critical thinking is seen as equivalent to higher-level thinking (Paul, 1992; Sternberg, 1987) or reflective thinking (Dewey, 1998; Norris & Ennis, 1989), or as a subcategory of higher-level thinking (Geertsen, 2003).

While there are numerous definitions of critical thinking, they fall under two categories; kernel and taxonomical definitions (Moore, 2011). Kernel definitions of critical thinking try to state the nature of critical thinking in a sentence or two (Moore, 2011). Some kernel definitions adhere to a positivist generalist approach to critical thinking, in which critical thinking is defined as a generic skill, and the critical thinker as independent of the context in which critical thinking skills are applied (e.g. Ennis, 1987; Siegel, 1988). For instance, Ennis (1987, p. 10) has defined critical thinking as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do”. Similarly, Siegel’s (1988, p. 127) definition of the critical thinker is “the individual who is appropriately moved by reasons”. Other kernel definitions adhere to a relativist approach to critical thinking, in which critical thinking is defined as a situated, contextual and domain-specific skill (e.g. McPeck, 1981; Paul, 1989). For instance, MacPeck (1981, p. 7) has defined critical thinking as the “appropriate use of reflective scepticism within the problem area under consideration”. Similarly, Paul (1989, p. 214) has described critical thinking as “disciplined, self-directed thinking which exemplifies the perfection of thinking appropriate to a particular domain of thinking”. Nonetheless, Kernel definitions of critical thinking often overlap, as these definitions address the key aspect of critical thinking which is making judgement of some sort (Davidson, 1998; Moore, 2011).

On the other hand, taxonomical definitions of critical thinking outline a range of skills and sub-skills which constitute the activity of critical thinking (Moore, 2011). Some taxonomical definitions are framed in terms of hierarchical levels, also called phases such as Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive domain (Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). In these definitions, different critical thinking skills are considered as being at the higher or lower levels on a linear scale based on the degree of abstraction required in each level. The critical thinking skills at the lower levels are less cognitively complex, while the critical thinking skills at the higher levels demand deeper and more complex critical engagement. Unlike kernel definitions, taxonomical definitions are formed not only to clarify the concept of critical thinking, but also to create a framework for teaching and assessing critical thinking. For instance, Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive domain has been widely used to describe and evaluate critical thinking in educational settings such as in higher education.

Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL)

With higher education increasingly delivered in blended learning modes that are both offline and online (Amhag & Jakobsson, 2009; Lee, 2009), a line of research has emerged that investigates whether demonstrations of critical thinking are present in computer-supported and online learning contexts (e.g. McLoughlin & Mynard, 2009; Richardson & Ice, 2010; Schellens, Van Keer, De Wever, & Valcke, 2009). Such an investigation is called a search for “transversal relationships” (Kern, 2006, p. 202), which is an investigation of the transferability of a learning skill from one communicative modality and context to another.

Furthermore, parallel to the shifts in education towards social theories of learning, technology-enhanced learning research has also shifted its focus to collaborative learning, and to how online learning tools correspond with the broader ecological context that influences learning (Warschauer, 1998). Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) research was born out of this shift in focus on human cognition and learning. Embedded in the macro level of society, the meso level of educational institutions, and the micro level of classroom and task design, CSCL research investigates collaborative learning processes delivered via computers and the Internet.

One main tenet of CSCL is that learning takes place through group interaction and computer mediation (Chapelle, 2001; Stacey, 2005; Stahl, 2006). Koschmann, Hall, and Miyake (2002) have stated that “CSCL is a field of study centrally concerned with meaning and the practices of meaning making in the context of joint activity, and the ways in which these practices are mediated through designed artifacts” (p. 18). One mediating artifact is “the computer software with which a learner interacts in addition to other learners who collaborate in the same room or from remote locations through networked computers” (Chapelle, 2001, p. 32). It is argued that CSCL tools not only provide a platform for group members’ active co-construction of knowledge (i.e. group-mediated cognition), but can also serve as significant mediating tools for such knowledge construction (i.e. computer-mediated cognition) (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Gunawardena, Lowe, & Anderson, 1997; J. Smith, 1994; Stahl, 2006).

Asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs)

Email, asynchronous discussion forums, blogs and wikis are among the CSCL tools used to complement face-to-face classroom interactions. Asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) in particular are used frequently in higher education (Amhag & Jakobsson, 2009; Dringus & Ellis, 2010) because they are text-based and deemed suitable for serious academic discussion (Motteram, 2001). Learners’ engagement in asynchronous online discussions is a form of computer-supported group-mediated collaborative activity in which an electronic medium is used (Deloach & Greenlaw, 2005). One tenet of CSCL is that individuals visibly demonstrate what they have learnt and what they are learning in the process of collaboration because individuals display to each other their understanding of the meaning that is being constructed and negotiated in the online discussions (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006). Therefore, it is proposed that utterances produced during interactions such as online postings produced on ADFs can be considered valuable data for measuring learning (Gunawardena, et al., 1997; Stahl, et al., 2006).

ADFs are proposed to have the potential to take discussions to a more critical level, since through online discussions students can create a discourse community where they negotiate with one another in an extended period of time (Land, Choi, & Ge, 2007). Such negotiations are claimed to have the potential to lead to cognitive conflict, which in turn, can trigger exploratory talk (Song, 2008). Similarly, Guiller (2008) argues that “the increase in the time available to think and consult sources of information before responding in an asynchronous discussion may give rise to an increase in the use of formal, research-based evidence and the quality of critical thinking” (p. 188). Moreover, ADFs are proposed to provide a platform for expressing multiple perspectives, negotiating meaning, understanding knowledge gaps and resolving issues (Haavind, 2006; Land, Choi, & Ge, 2007). Therefore, due to the specific features of ADFs, it is contended that students can benefit from extended learner-learner interactions on ADFs in ways not feasible in face-to-face classrooms (Ling, 2007).

When incorporating CSCL tools such as ADFs into higher education curriculums, efforts have been made to promote critical thinking, although having students respond to these efforts by engaging in critical thinking has proven to be difficult (e.g. Derry, Gance, Gance, & Schlager, 2000; Derry, et al., 2004). In response to these difficulties, researchers have tried to investigate ways to more successfully engage students in critical thinking while using CSCL tools in higher education contexts. Previous research has highlighted a number of potential drawbacks of ADFs, such as feeling of isolation (Kalman, Ravid, Raban, & Rafaeli, 2006; Zhang & Kenny, 2010), information overload (Kalman, et al., 2006; Zhang & Kenny, 2010) and absence of immediate feedback (Herring, 1999). Furthermore, while online communication tools such as ADFs provide platforms for interaction, they do not guarantee that interaction takes place (Gray & Tatar, 2004), and if interaction does take place, there is no guarantee that it will be critical and constructive.

Theoretical roots

Interactions on ADFs and their potential to promote critical thinking can be explained in light of Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory. Sociocultural theory highlights the importance of collaborative knowledge construction as a result of interaction with instructors, peers and tools in cognitive development and learning.

According to sociocultural theory, learning is social, scaffolded, and tool-mediated. Individuals do not learn in isolation; cognitive development first takes place at a social level, scaffolded by peers and more knowledgeable others, and is then internalised at an individual level. Since, according to sociocultural theory, cognitive development is socially-situated and socially-constructed, it is affected by sociocultural factors such as cultures of learning and teaching, and the learning tools used.

Moreover, based on sociocultural theory, human cognition is mediated (Lantolf, 2000; Vygotsky, 1978). Mediating tools are either physical (e.g. hammer, computer) or symbolic (e.g. numbers, language). Vygotsky (1978) highlighted the significant mediating role of language in cognitive development. Linguistic activity (e.g. speaking and writing) plays an important role in human mental activities (e.g. rational thought, learning). Besides language, the group serves as a mediating tool for developing critical thinking, as the thinking of an individual is affected by the thinking of others in the group, a thinking process referred to as group-mediated cognition (J. Smith, 1994).

Different lines of research have investigated different aspects of teaching and learning in higher education through the lens of sociocultural theory. One implication of sociocultural theory for higher education has been the increase in implementing collaborative learning, as collaborative learning is linked to the development of critical thinking skills required of a higher education graduate (Powell & Kalina, 2009; Roberts, 2005; Stahl, et al., 2006).

One active line of research that is grounded in sociocultural theory is CSCL research. As discussed earlier, CSCL research underlines the role of computer- and Internet-mediated collaborative activity in fostering learning. The proposed potential of online communication tools, which create a platform for co-construction of knowledge, in promoting positive learning experiences and outcomes acts as an incentive for CSCL research to expand.

Gaps in the previous research

Expansion of CSCL research and the increase in the incorporation of online tools in higher education have resulted in the production of a vast body of research on the effectiveness of ADFs in general and their potential for fostering tertiary level students’ critical thinking in particular (e.g. Lee, 2009; McLoughlin & Mynard, 2009; Richardson & Ice, 2010). However, there are two key gaps in the literature that need to be addressed:

  1. Previous research has mainly focused on the critical thinking of the individual; the investigation of critical thinking when a group works together, that is collaborative critical thinking (CCT), has been generally overlooked. This is partly due to the conceptualisation of critical thinking as a solitary activity by cognitive and educational psychologists. CSCL, which is a pedagogical approach grounded in social theories of learning, adheres to the notion that cognitive development occurs at both the level of the group and the level of the individual. However, the main focus of CSCL research to date has been on individual critical thinking; that is on how the individual functions within the group. In these studies, the critical thinking of the group is viewed as the sum of the critical thinking of each individual within the group. This approach has been criticised as reductionist by some researchers such as Stahl, et al. (2006) who have underlined the need for analysing both the individual’s and the group’s thinking in CSCL research.
  2. Few studies have investigated the critical thinking processes of the individual and of the group in a single study to present a comprehensive picture of CCT processes on ADFs. In fact, Schrire’s (2004) research is one of the few, if not the only, research that is fully grounded in Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory that highlights “the complementary nature of individual and socially distributed cognition” (p. 484).

To address these gaps, I examined the demonstration of CCT on ADFs in a higher education learning context. The scope of this research was limited to a graduate blended subject over two 12-week semesters at an Australian university. I investigated the demonstration of CCT on ADFs through content-analysis of asynchronous online discussions as students discussed different topics on 20 weekly ADFs over the course of two semesters. Additionally, through semi-structured interviews with the student and instructor participants, I searched for potential factors that affected the demonstration of CCT on ADFs.

In order to aid in the future replication of the above study and in the hope of promoting more rigorous debate regarding the challenges of researching collaborative knowledge construction in CSCL contexts, I present in this paper the ontological and methodological challenges I encountered while conducting this study. The paper also discusses a number of solutions to these challenges which proved indispensible to conducting the above study.

Challenges in Conducting CSCL Research

CSCL research came into being in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Stahl, et al., 2006), and as such is a relatively new line of inquiry. Therefore, at the ontological level, CSCL research faces the issue of variations in theoretical perspectives on what collaborative learning is and how it should be conceptualised (Stahl, et al., 2006). Challenges in conceptualising collaborative learning result in challenges in measuring collaborative learning. Moreover, methodologies adopted in CSCL research are often data-driven and retrospective, resulting in myriads of context-specific practices and hypotheses that are often left unattested, and are thus difficult to replicate (Strijbos & Fischer, 2007). Difficulty in replication also stems from such studies focusing mainly on research outcomes, overlooking the importance of providing methodological specifics of how outcomes are obtained.

The above concerns with CSCL research need to be addressed. This requires the promotion of methodological debates as a collaborative scientific endeavour in the field. As a means to contribute to the debates, I discuss in this paper, the ontological and methodological challenges encountered in conducting the current CSCL research, and suggest a number of solutions to these challenges.

Ontological Challenge and Solution

At an ontological level, which is the level concerned with the nature of a social reality, interpretivists view the social reality as internal to the individual (Baxter & Jack, 2008). Interpretivists view the world as a sociocognitive construct in which there are multiple realities shaping a unified whole.  This is in contrast with the positivist approach that envisions social reality as external to the individual (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2012). Therefore, from an interpretivist point of view, the social world is understood by taking into account the frame of reference of individuals acting in that social world (Baxter & Jack, 2008).

Challenge

In the current study, the ontological challenge was in conceptualising and defining the social reality under examination, being CCT. The challenge stemmed from the fact that the majority of the previously proposed definitions of critical thinking have addressed critical thinking as an inherently solitary activity. In fact, the individual nature of critical thinking is considered a given in the majority of the descriptions of critical thinking. None of the definitions have conceptualised critical thinking, either explicitly or implicitly, as a collaborative activity. For instance, Geertsen (2003, p. 8) has highlighted the individual nature of reflective thinking by referring to the “aha! experience” as a result of reflective thinking that “comes during moments of solitude when one is not pressing to find an answer due to the uncertain and elusive nature of ill-structured problems”.

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the critical thinking taxonomies have also served as frameworks for teaching and assessing critical thinking in higher education. Therefore, it is not surprising that the conceptualisation of critical thinking as an individual activity has become normalised in higher education (M. Moore, 1993).

Solution

In order to achieve the aim of this study, which was to examine CCT demonstration on ADFs, it was crucial to reconceptualise and redefine critical thinking in a way that would correspond with the kind of critical thinking that potentially occurs in a group learning context such as on ADFs. Reconceptualising and redefining critical thinking in this study required extensive review of the literature on the social aspect of cognition.

The social aspect of cognition is highlighted by a number of scholars (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978; Yukawa, 2006), who have opposed isolationist views of thinking, and who have maintained that a conceptual transformation towards a view of critical thinking as socially distributed and outwardly directed is necessary (Thayer-Bacon, 2000). For instance, Ennis (1996) wrote that thinking critically which is considered an attribute of an individual can justifiably be attributed to group cognitive engagement and decision making. Similarly, Bailin, Case, Coombs, and Daniels (1999) described responding constructively to others in group discussions as a critical thinking ability. Facione (2000, p. 72) has argued that critical thinking is not an individual activity and “at times the complexities of good CT (critical thinking) [description added] are evident when CT is carried on by groups”.

There have also been some attempts to define critical thinking that occurs in groups (i.e. CCT). Critical thinking that occurs when groups interact with each other is interchangeably called group critical thinking (Schamber & Mahoney, 2006), co-reflection (Yukawa, 2006), collaborative critical thinking (Olivares, 2005; Yukawa, 2006) or simply described without any labels. CCT is conceptualised differently in different studies. In some studies, CCT is defined as the end product of the group’s collaborative activity (product-oriented definitions), while in other research CCT is defined as the process of the group’s collaborative activity (process-oriented definitions). Table 1 lists the CCT definitions found in the literature. In the current study, these definitions became the initial framework for the conceptualisation of CCT and for the investigation of whether and how CCT is demonstrated on ADFs.

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Table 1. Definitions of CCT

As shown in Table 1, the proposed CCT definitions fall into two categories of product-oriented and process-oriented. While product-oriented definitions of CCT aid in understanding what CCT is, they overlook the process of CCT, the understanding of which has pedagogical implications for fostering CCT in higher education. Moreover, considering that the setting of the current study was higher education with its focus shifting towards both the process and the product of critical thinking (Derry, et al., 2004), I found conceptualising CCT that captured both the process and product of the phenomenon the most suitable. Therefore the process-oriented definitions of CCT were deemed most relevant to the conceptualisation of CCT in the current study.

To arrive at an operational definition of CCT that is grounded in sociocultural theory, I conceptualised CCT as a kind of collaborative reasoning activity that is mediated by language. This conceptualisation was informed by a) Ferguson’s (2009) and Mercer and Littleton’s (2007) definitions of cumulative and exploratory talk, b) Yukawa’s (2006) categories of co-reflection, and c) Jenlink and Carr’s (1996) description of interactive messages (i.e. dialog, dialectic and construction).  Accordingly, the process of CCT starts with building on each individual’s knowledge and the knowledge of the group through information exchange (i.e. cumulative talk), followed by challenging ideas through argumentation, evaluating evidence, and discussing possible solutions to the problem at hand (i.e. exploratory talk) (Ferguson, 2009; Mercer & Littleton, 2007). In contrast to the conceptualisation of critical thinking in higher education as predominantly cognitivist and individualistic, in this conceptualisation, CCT is considered a social activity.

After overcoming the initial ontological challenge of conceptualising critical thinking as it occurs in a CSCL context, I postponed defining CCT, until after I analysed its demonstration by a group of graduate level students on a series of ADFs. This is because there were not sufficient frequently-researched and tested definitions in previous CSCL research to base the current study’s data analysis on. However, it was necessary to use a content-analysis model that measured the demonstration of CCT on ADFs in accordance with the aforementioned CCT conceptualisation. This led to the second challenge, which was at the methodological level.

Methodological Challenge and Solution

In line with social theories of learning, such as Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory, CSCL research seeks evidence of development “in the discourse that occurs in the collaborative environment” (Chapelle, 2001, p. 32). Hence, reliance on qualitative content analysis is prevalent in CSCL research (e.g. Henri, 1992; Mason, 1992). Content analysis is a kind of textual analysis (Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000), and is “a technique to extract desired information from a body of material…by systematically and objectively identifying specified characteristics of the material” (Smith, 2000, p. 314). In other words, content analysis is a methodology to analyse and categorise qualitative data (i.e. text or different forms of data transcribed into text).

Challenge

While content analysis is frequently used in CSCL research, it is not often well-explained. This is in contrast to the clear guidelines available for constructing survey questionnaires and interviews (Strijbos & Fischer, 2007). Furthermore, while using multiple coding schemes or a synthetic coding scheme can strengthen credibility of content analysis findings (De Wever, Schellens, Valcke, & Van Keer, 2006), only a few studies have used more than one or a synthesis of coding schemes for content-analysis of ADFs in search for indicators of critical thinking (e.g. Schellens, et al., 2009; Schrire, 2004). Most studies have used a single content-analysis coding scheme (e.g. Kol & Schcolnik, 2008; McLoughlin & Mynard, 2009; Richardson & Ice, 2010), or have not used any coding scheme (e.g. Lee, 2009; Sloffer, Dueber, & Duffy, 1999). Therefore, the methodological challenge in the current study was in constructing a coding scheme, (also referred to as content analysis model), to measure the demonstration of CCT on ADFs.

Solution

To address the aforementioned methodological challenge, I developed a synthetic coding scheme for analysing asynchronous online discussion postings. Specifically, I decided to create a synthetic framework to enable detecting the demonstration of CCT on ADFs more readily. For this purpose, I extensively reviewed the literature to evaluate a) the theoretical compatibility of the available coding schemes with the present study, b) the available coding schemes’ proposed critical thinking conceptualisation (i.e. individual critical thinking or collaborative critical thinking), and c) the available coding schemes’ inter-rater reliability index (Buraphadeja & Dawson, 2008).

The extensive review of the literature showed that there are a number of coding schemes available for measuring the demonstration of critical thinking in computer conferencing (e.g. Henri, 1992; Greenlaw & DeLoach, 2003; Perkins & Murphy, 2006). Three of the content analysis models for measuring the demonstration of critical thinking on ADFs have been used and modified the most (Buraphadeja & Dawson, 2008). These content analysis models are Indicators of Critical Thinking (ICC) by Newman, Webb and Cochrane (1995), Interaction Analysis Model (IAM) by Gunawardena, et al. (1997), and Practical Inquiry Model (PIM) by Garrison, et al. (2001).

Among these three most prevalently used coding schemes (i.e. ICC, IAM, & PIM), I selected IAM as the basis for the content analysis of the ADF postings in the current study. To elaborate, the majority of the indicators in ICC measure individual critical thinking. Therefore, ICC was discarded, since it does not code for CCT, a key concept in this study. However, the indicators in IAM and PIM predominantly measure CCT. IAM and PIM share a number of attributes:

  1. They predominantly measure the demonstration of collaborative critical thinking.
  2. In contrast with ICC which is product-oriented and categorical, IAM and PIM are process-oriented and hierarchical, which means that the higher phases of critical thinking are built on the lower ones.
  3. There is a large area of overlap among phases and indicators of IAM and PIM.

In fact, both PIM and IAM have been successfully used for measuring the demonstration of critical thinking on ADFs as they are frequently used, modified and tested by different researchers(Buraphadeja & Dawson, 2008). However, there are two key differences between PIM and IAM that resulted in the selection of the latter for use in the current study:

  1. While both PIM and IAM code for the five critical thinking phases of questioning, analysing, synthesising, evaluating, and decision making, IAM includes five distinct indicators for each critical thinking phase; in IAM, evaluation and decision making phases are presented as two separate phases, each with detailed indicators making it more feasible to distinguish the two skills and to code for them in ADF postings.
  2. Unlike PIM, which only offers broad descriptions, IAM lists more specific indicators for each critical thinking phase. Some indicators in PIM are either too broadly defined or include ambiguous words; words such as systematically, tentative, and vicarious application. What is a tentative hypothesis? What distinguishes a justified and tentative argument from a justified but not tentative argument? These ambiguities could make coding of online postings subjective while the use of less ambiguous and more specific indicators in IAM could decrease the chance of subjective coding.

Consequently, IAM was selected as the coding scheme in this study to reduce subjective coding of online discussion postings. Another reason for selecting IAM for the content analysis of ADFs in this study was IAM’s theoretical alignment with social theories of learning such as Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory, and with the aforementioned conceptualisation of CCT. As mentioned earlier, the way I conceptualised CCT was informed by the process-oriented definitions of CCT that defined different types of interactive message types.

As outlined in Table 2, IAM codes for the three interactive message types of ‘dialog’, ‘dialectic’, and ‘construction’ (Jenlink & Carr, 1996), as well as ‘cumulative talk’ and ‘exploratory talk’ (Mercer & Littleton, 2007). Another type of inquiry-based group-mediated thinking manifested in IAM is what has been called ‘challenge and explain’ (Curtis & Lawson, 2001). Deloach and Greenlaw (2005) have described the process of critical thinking in online discussions as constantly being triggered by ‘challenge and explain’ inquiries: “In electronic discussions…students are constantly challenged to improve their answers by providing relevant backing for their opinions. Simply put, there appears to be a critical thinking spillover effect” (p. 150).

More specifically, as outlined in Table 2, in IAM, at the questioning level, which is the brainstorming and problem identification level, participants engage in ‘dialog’ and ‘cumulative talk’. At the analysing level, where dissonance among participants is shared and explained, ‘challenge and explain’ is likely to occur provided participants continue clarifying and mitigating dissonance.  ‘Developing dialectic conversation’ and ‘developing exploratory talk’ also occur at this level when participants support their statements of disagreement and extended statements with analytic and factual information. The last three critical thinking levels of synthesising, evaluating, and decision making are those in which participants engage in collective construction of knowledge by integrating ideas from different sources including other members’ statements. ‘Exploratory talk’ and ‘dialectic’ are also evident here when participants test the collectively proposed solutions or statements against different contexts, and decide on the applicability of the collectively proposed solutions or statements.

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Table 2. CCT levels in the modified IAM and interactive message types

Moreover, Gunawardena, et al. (1997) constructed IAM in light of social theories of learning, as the researchers emphasised that IAM aims to evaluate the “learning process taking place among the group of participants, rather than to assess individual student performance” (p. 405). IAM measures the kind of critical thinking that occurs within the group and among group members through interaction. This is in line with sociocultural theory which views learning as a social activity.

Furthermore, Gunawardena, et al. (1997) have argued that lower and higher mental functions can be observed in CSCL activities, depending on the groups’ degree of critical engagement in the activity. While not labelled as such, IAM categorises CCT into higher and lower level categories with the lower levels consisting of questioning and analysing, and the higher levels consisting of synthesising, evaluating and decision making with cognitive complexity increasing at each level. In IAM, questioning is defined as raising questions, asking for clarifications and collaboratively identifying possible factors relevant to the problem. Analysing is defined as identifying and negotiating areas of disagreement among online members, and advancing arguments. Synthesising is defined as bringing together a range of relevant ideas presented on the ADF. Evaluating is defined as asking oneself and others whether the solution works, and whether it has utility in certain contexts. Decision making is defined as consensually arriving at new statements or solutions and applying them to a given task or a real-world context.

However, before using IAM in the current study, a number of modifications were applied to adapt this content analysis model to the main aim of this study (i.e. measuring CCT on ADFs). The main modifications are explained below:

  1. Since the aim of this study was to examine the demonstration of CCT rather than merely the interactions on the ADFs, those indicators in IAM which coded for interaction but did not code for critical thinking were modified. These indicators were modified by adding keywords from relevant indicators present in other coding schemes such as PIM. The modified indicators are as follows and the added keywords appear in italics. ‘Relevant statement of observation or opinion’ and ‘substantiated statement of agreement from one or more participants’ at the questioning level, as well as ‘identifying and stating areas of disagreement with support’ at the analysing level.
  2. To simplify referencing during the inter-rater reliability process and during the reporting of findings, each CCT level in the modified IAM was labelled, which corresponded to the descriptions offered in IAM for the different CCT levels. The labels for each CCT level from low to high were respectively questioning, analysing, synthesising, evaluating, and decision making.

Therefore, for the qualitative content analysis of online discussion postings in the current study, the modified IAM (see Table 3) was used to measure the demonstration of CCT on the ADFs.

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Table 3. Modified IAM

During the content analysis process, I came across a number of comments on the ADFs that were not codable based on the modified IAM. This was due to these comments not containing indicators of CCT, and instead containing indicators of redundancy and off-task. Comments on the ADFs which contained redundancy were those that only paraphrased other online participants’ comments without adding to the discussion. Comments on the ADFs which contained Off-task were those that were not relevant to the online discussion topic. Table 4 presents the list of indicators for redundancy and off-task, followed by sample excerpts from the ADFs for illustration purposes.

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Table 4. Indicators of redundancy and off-task on ADFs

While IAM’s conceptual and theoretical alignment with the notion of critical thinking as a collaborative activity made it a suitable tool for measuring participation and interaction, the modified IAM proved to be a suitable tool for identifying CCT indicators in text-based online discussions because all of its indicators measure demonstrations of CCT. Moreover the modified IAM had a high inter-rater reliability index. Inter-rater reliability in the first round of coding was 70.83 per cent. After negotiating discrepancies and ambiguities, the second round of coding resulted in an acceptable percentage of 83.72 inter-rater reliability.

The modified IAM can not only serve as an analytic tool for researchers and as a formative assessment tool for educators to measure the demonstration of CCT in CSCL contexts, but also as a learning tool for students to guide their CCT demonstration online. In higher education classes where CSCL tools are used for critical discussions, students can evaluate their CCT demonstration against this coding scheme and make necessary efforts to participate more collaboratively and critically. The CCT indicators in the modified IAM can provide a clearer idea as to how critically students need to approach the discussions in computer conferencing.

What needs to be noted here is that studies such as this do not analyse thought processes, rather manifestations of thought processes. It is important to realise that simply because CCT is not outwardly demonstrated, it does not mean that CCT has not taken place. As Schallart, Reed and D-Team (2003) have stated, “students learn not only by posting comments in the discussion but also by reading other students’ and their teacher’s comments” (p. 109).  CCT that is not outwardly expressed is called tacit negotiation (Gunawardena, et al., 1997) or tacit co-reflection (Yukawa, 2006). Therefore, one inherent limitation of studies on critical thinking is that they can only capture the demonstrated cognitive behaviours without being able to observe internal cognitive processes (Arend, 2009; Arnold & Ducate, 2006).

However, while it is difficult to measure learners’ tacit negotiations as they are not readily accessible, through qualitative surveys, retrospective commentary, and introspective measures, researchers can arrive at an understanding of learners’ internal critical thinking before, while and after participating in computer conferencing such as on ADFs. Through qualitative surveys, researchers can also understand how the internal critical thinking processes are manifested in written communication such as those carried out on ADFs. Therefore, qualitative survey-based research can more meticulously examine whether and to what extent tacit CCT is taking place, and to investigate what factors hinder or facilitate such collective critical thinking processes.

Operational definition of CCT in CSCL Contexts

Informed by the findings of the current study, some of which are reported in Ghodrati and Gruba (2011), I propose an inductive and hierarchical yet cyclical definition of critical thinking that attempts to capture both the process and the product of CCT:

The overt and tacit interaction between two or more individuals which involves collectively questioning, analysing, synthesising, evaluating and making decisions in order to build the collective knowledge of the group and the knowledge of the individuals in the group.

To elaborate, CCT occurs both actively and tacitly (Gunawardena, et al, 1997; Yukawa, 2006). In a dialogue, the reflective self seeks feedback, shares ideas and critically addresses the ideas shared by others through explicit interaction. This is called active co-reflection (Yukawa, 2006) or overt negotiation (Gunawardena, et al., 1997). However, the process of CCT is not always active/overt. In line with Lantolf’s (2000) proposition, linguistically-mediated cognition is social even when one is acting alone. In other words, learners also engage in CCT through tacit co-reflection (Yukawa, 2006) or tacit negotiation (Gunawardena, et al., 1997) by seeking “responses to others who are brought to mind through reading, memories of previous interactions, or vicarious experience” (Yukawa, 2006, p. 207). In contrast with active co-reflection which can be observed and investigated in online postings, tacit co-reflection is not readily accessible or observed. Investigating tacit CCT requires enquiring beyond postings on ADFs. It requires eliciting information about the individual’s and the group’s thought processes before, while and after participating on ADFs.

Another key term in the proposed definition of CCT is interaction, also called active participation (Mercer & Wegerif, 1999). In contrast with participation, which in computer-mediated and online communication platforms such as on ADFs is defined as the posting of comments, interaction is defined as the posting of messages that either explicitly or implicitly respond to others’ messages (Schrire, 2004, 2006). Interaction can be instructor-centred or student-centred (i.e. online participants addressing their comments to only one online participant), both of which are considered individualistic. Interaction can also be synergistic (i.e. online participants addressing more than one online member) which is considered collaborative (Schrire, 2004). However, not all collaborative interactions in a group involve critical thinking. Collaborative interaction that involves questioning, analysing, synthesising, evaluating and decision making is the kind of interaction that demonstrates different levels of CCT (Garrison, et al., 2001; Gunawardena, et al., 1997). Such interaction is exploratory (e.g. Ferguson, 2009; Mercer & Littleton, 2007), and when triggered by cognitive conflict on the part of one or more members results in ‘challenge and explain’, provided it is shared actively/overtly with others. Such interaction is also constructive (Jenlink & Carr, 1996), in the sense that it builds the collective knowledge of the group as the group discusses and negotiates issues (i.e. critical thinking at the group level), and also builds on the already established knowledge of the individual as a result of tacit and active co-reflection (i.e. critical thinking at the individual level).

Conclusion

This paper presented the ontological and methodological challenges encountered in conducting a qualitative case study of the demonstration of CCT on ADFs in a blended higher education learning context. At the ontological level, I discussed the challenges in conceptualising and defining critical thinking that occurs when a group works together (i.e. CCT). At the methodological level, I presented the challenges in constructing a synthetic coding scheme to measure the demonstration of CCT on ADFs. In addition, I discussed ways to overcome these challenges. I arrived at a number of solutions to the ontological and methodological challenges encountered in the current study by a) reconceptualising critical thinking as a collaborative activity in CSCL contexts, b) constructing a synthetic coding scheme for measuring CCT on online collaborative learning platforms such as on ADFs, and c) proposing an operational definition of CCT in CSCL contexts.

It should be noted that the synthetic content analysis model and the operational definition of CCT proposed in this paper are based on the findings of research in a specific learning setting (i.e. a blended subject in higher education) using a specific online communication tool (i.e. ADF). While the proposed content analysis model for measuring the demonstration of CCT on ADFs and the proposed CCT definition were closely informed by the social conceptualisation of cognition suggested in the previous research, further research should investigate the applicability of both the definition and the content analysis model to a) other learning contexts where ADFs are used, and b) the learning contexts where other CSCL tools such as wikis, blogs and synchronous chat are used.

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Biographical Statement

Nazanin Ghodrati PhD, is a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes at Trinity College-The University of Melbourne, Australia. Her PhD research was on the development of collaborative critical thinking in multicultural blended learning contexts in higher education. Her research interests are computer-supported collaborative learning, critical thinking and cross-cultural communication.

Contact: nghodrat@trinity.unimelb.edu.au, gnazanin@unimelb.edu.au

Winnie Shao, Wentao Guan, Melissa A. Clark, Tao Liu, Claudia C. Santelices, Dharma E. Cortés& Roland C. Merchant

Published Online: April 15, 2015

Full Text: HTML, PDF

Abstract: For a world-wide, Internet-based study on HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge, we compared the yields, speed and costs of recruitment and participant diversity across free postings on 13 Internet or social media platforms, paid advertising or postings on 3 platforms, and separate free postings and paid advertisements on Facebook.  Platforms were compared by study completions (yield), time to completion, completion to enrollment ratios (CERs), and costs/completion; and by participants’ demographic characteristics, HIV testing history, and health literacy levels.  Of the 482 English-speaking participants, Amazon Mechanical Turk yielded the most participants, recruited participants at the fastest rate and had the highest CER (0.78) and lowest costs/completion. Of the 335 Spanish-speaking participants, Facebook yielded the most participants and recruited participants at the fastest rate, although Amazon Mechanical Turk had the highest CER (0.72) and lowest costs/completion. Across platforms participants differed substantially according to their demographic characteristics, HIV testing history and health literacy skills. The study results highlight the need for researchers to strongly consider choice of Internet or social media platforms when conducting Internet-based research. Because of the sample specifications and cost restraints of studies, specific Internet/social media or participant selection platforms will be much more effective or appropriate than others.

Keywords: Social media, recruitment, Internet, health education, health surveys, health literacy, HIV, AIDS, HIV testing

Introduction

By the end of 2014, there were approximately three billion Internet users worldwide, and 44% of all households worldwide had Internet access (International Telecommunication Union, 2014). Of all Internet users in 2014, two-thirds were from developing countries, whose population of Internet users has doubled since 2009. It is no surprise that with this massive user population that the Internet is considered a valuable tool for both health information dissemination and for researchers seeking to recruit a global sample of participants.

The advantages of Internet or social media-based research include low research costs for gathering data, short turnaround time for study completion, the ability to reach people in geographically remote areas and the opportunity to include individuals who may be hard to access through other recruitment methods (Wright, 2005). Potential disadvantages of using the Internet for study recruitment include difficulty reaching populations appropriate to the goals of the study and lack of representativeness among the accessed population, which can affect the external validity of the study findings (Heiervang & Goodman, 2011). The Internet has an overwhelming number of platforms through which people can be recruited. Few studies have sought to compare yield of participants, cost of advertising, speed of solicitation, and demographic characteristics of those recruited using different Internet recruiting strategies. Understanding these aspects is vital for Internet-based research since, depending on the effectiveness of recruitment, results of the research study can be adversely impacted by even well-intentioned strategies. Therefore, there exists a need for researchers to know how to identify the websites and methods that can reach the greatest number of people appropriate to the goals of the study, are the most cost effective, and produce an appropriate sample for the research in question.

The Internet and social media appear to be enticing means of widely disseminating information about HIV/AIDS and HIV testing, perhaps particularly for those who use these media as their primary resource for information, are geographically isolated, or are hesitant to seek sensitive information in person or from other traditional sources. Accurate and engaging HIV/AIDS and HIV testing information presented through free, easy-to-access digital technologies offer new and broader ways to access communities who would benefit from this information (Singh & Walsh, 2012). Opening this avenues permits empowerment through knowledge whether for prevention, self-understanding of risk and behavior, encouragement of testing, or with hope, reduction of HIV/AIDS stigma without compromising anonymity. One such Internet-based open distance and flexible learning program is Frontline TEACH (Treatment Education Activists Combatting HIV), an adaptation of Project TEACH in Philadelphia (Sowell, Fink, & Shull, 2012). This interactive website has been offered HIV information and education since 2009, although as its authors note, its full impact has not yet been fully measured.

We recently studied the efficacy of an informational HIV/AIDS and HIV testing animated and live-action video (the “parent study”, (Shao et al., 2014)), available at http://biomed.brown.edu/hiv-testing-video/, among a global English- and Spanish- speaking Internet audience. We found that the video was able to improve knowledge about HIV/AIDS and HIV testing information among this worldwide Internet and social media-using population. While conducting this study, we utilized a myriad of Internet and social media platforms to recruit participants and through the study disseminate HIV/AIDS and HIV testing information. However, we observed that there were few prior studies that examined best practices on recruiting participants through Internet and social media platforms. Thus, we wanted to analyze our results from the parent study to show which platforms and recruitment strategies can be most effective in yielding better participation rates, yet are not cost prohibitive and yield participant samples appropriate to the goals of the study.

Our primary objective in this current investigation was to determine for a global sample of English- or Spanish- speakers which Internet or social media platforms and recruitment strategies yielded the most study completions within the shortest time, highest level of completions to enrollments (total completions/clicks or completion to enrollment ratios [CERs]), and lowest costs/completion for a study examining the efficacy of an informational HIV/AIDS and HIV testing animated and live-action video. Our secondary objective was to assess the extent to which participant demographic characteristics, HIV testing history, and health literacy varied among the samples recruited across these different Internet or social media platforms and strategies.

Methods

Design and purpose of the current investigation

This investigation examined the yield and speed of recruitment (the number of completed responses solicited from each Internet or social media platform), estimated the costs of advertising, and compared participant characteristic differences from a worldwide Internet-based study on HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge. The study was approved by the investigators’ Institutional Review Board.

Parent study on which the current investigation is based

The parent study was a pre- vs. post-video knowledge improvement investigation among a global sample of English- or Spanish-speaking Internet and social media users of any age.  The objectives were to determine if a fifteen-minute, live-action and animated video “What do you know about HIV/AIDS and HIV testing?” (English-language version)/”¿Qué sabes sobre el VIH y sobre las Pruebas del VIH?” (Spanish-language version) (Merchant, Clark, Santelices, Liu, & Cortes, 2015)  improved HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge (Shao et al., 2014).  The video used in this study were developed by members of the research team and described in detail previously. (Merchant et al., 2015) In brief, the fifteen-minute animated and live-action video contains United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-recommended elements of HIV/AIDS and HIV testing information (Centers for Disease & Prevention, 2001), as well as information about acute HIV infection and current methods of HIV testing. The narrated video follows two characters, racially and ethnically ambiguous male and female protagonists, as they receive information about HIV/AIDS and HIV testing and proceed through the HIV testing process. The characters are not named so to appeal to a wider audience and avoid social labels. Throughout the video, animation, graphics, images, still shots, text, and live-action segments are used to emphasize the topics presented. The English- and Spanish-language versions of the video contain equivalent content.

For the parent study, we created a study website which hosted English and Spanish versions of the study consent form; demographic characteristics, HIV testing history and health literacy questionnaires; identical pre- and post-video versions of a 25-item questionnaire that measured improvement in HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge after watching the video (the “HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge questionnaire”); and the video. English-language versions of the study questionnaires are provided in Appendix 1. The “HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge questionnaire” contains five domains that examine understanding of and parallel the video’s content: the definition, nature, and distinction between HIV/AIDS; HIV transmission; HIV prevention; HIV testing methods; and the interpretation and meaning of HIV test results. The questionnaire’s development and evaluation have been described previously. (Merchant et al., 2015) The testing knowledge questionnaire was used as an objective assessment of improvement in knowledge before vs. after watching the video.

English or Spanish-speaking Internet users were solicited online to participate in the study across seventeen paid and free Internet or social media platforms. English- or Spanish-speaking Internet or social media users of any age who accessed the website were study eligible if they were not known to be HIV infected (by self-report), could complete the study via separate but linked English or Spanish language portals, and consented to participate. Participants were asked to give their consent on the first page of the website. Next they answered questions about their demographic characteristics, HIV testing history, the health literacy questions, a self-perceived knowledge question (which assessed subjective improvement in knowledge) and then the “HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge questionnaire.” Next, they watched the video. The study website did not allow participants to fast-forward through the video to the post-video questionnaire and did not allow them to watch the video again. Afterwards they answered the self-perceived knowledge question and the “HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge questionnaire” again. After completing the study, all participants were offered the chance to enter a lottery for one of four $50 Amazon.com gift cards.

Recruitment strategies

Seventeen Internet or social media platforms were used to solicit participants (Table 1) with either free postings or paid advertising. A mix of the top social networking websites by user traffic (eBiz, 2014), commerce websites, blogs, bookmarking, research solicitation websites and a general search engine were used. Platforms were selected based on their user penetration and recognition (i.e., the top sites used most frequently globally). Social bookmarking sites were selected based on number of users and ease of access (Alexa, 2014). We created a different Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for each Internet or social media platform, which allowed us to identify which platform participants used to reach the study and to track the number of times people clicked on each platform’s post. English and Spanish versions of each post were created for every platform.

Free and paid platforms

We first posted a short explanation of our study and a link to the study website on platforms that did not require posting costs or paid advertising (i.e., “free” platforms). Next, we paid for advertisements on four Internet or social media platforms: Facebook, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Google, and FindParticipants (Table 2). Google and Facebook were selected due to their status as the most used websites in the world (Facebook, 2013; NationMaster, 2014). FindParticipants and Amazon Mechanical Turk are websites specifically designed to locate participants for research studies. According to previous studies, participant recruitment on Amazon Mechanical Turk was found to be at least as reliable as traditional study recruitment methods (Berinsky, Huber, & Lenz, 2012; Buhrmester, Kwang, & Gosling, 2011).

For Facebook, we made our paid advertisements visible to the top 20 English-speaking and Spanish-speaking countries by population (NationMaster, 2014). No other characteristics were targeted or specified in the Facebook advertising campaign (i.e., no specific interests, age groups, gender or other attributes were selected to narrow the scope of those who could see the advertisements). Separate advertisement campaigns were created for the English and Spanish languages. For each language, we created two advertisements on Facebook. One advertisement linked directly to the study website, and the other linked to our Facebook page (which also hosted a link to the study website). Participants could access the study on Facebook either directly through an advertisement, through our Facebook page (which they also could access through an advertisement), or by seeing the Facebook page through a friend’s activity (a “like” of our page).

For Amazon Mechanical Turk, we posted a link to the study on that website and advertised payment offers for every completed response. Payment offers are bids that are advertised to viewers on the website which pay participants to complete a task, such as our study. We made separate posts in English and Spanish, which constituted different participant pools. Based on previous research, a $0.50 payment offer on Amazon Mechanical Turk could solicit participants from the United States (Berinsky et al., 2012). We experimented with increasing payment offers during the study to examine

Table 1: Description of recruitment Internet or social media platforms utilized in the study
Platforms

Type

Description

Number of Users
FREE PLATFORMS
Tumblr

Blog

Enables sharing and reposting of content

110M

Craigslist

Commercial

Displays classified advertisements

50M

Facebook**

Social Media

Enables sharing of photos, videos, pages, and apps

1.3 Bn

LinkedIN

Social Media

Networking business and professional

200M

MySpace

Social Media

Enables sharing of photos, videos, pages, and apps

30M

Twitter

Social Media

Enables Micro-blogging, RSS*, updates, following organizations and individuals

600M

4Chan

Social Bookmarking

Enables rapid sharing of content and images

N/A

Blinklist

Social Bookmarking

Enables tracking, saving, and sharing of website links

N/A

Chime.in

Social Bookmarking

Aggregates news and links

N/A

De.li.cious

Social Bookmarking

Enables storing, sharing, and discovering web bookmarks

5.3M

Digg

Social Bookmarking

Aggregates news

N/A

Pinterest

Social Bookmarking

Enables sharing of images, website, content

48.7M

Reddit

Social Bookmarking

Enables sharing of images and website and aggregating news

N/A

Stumbleupon

Social Bookmarking

Enables storing, sharing, and discovering web bookmarks

N/A

PAID PLATFORMS
Google

General

Enables content searching

1Bn+

Findparticipants

Research Specific

Enables connecting academic researchers with research participants worldwide

N/A

Facebook**

Social Media

Enables sharing of photos, videos, pages, and apps

1.3 Bn

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Commercial

Enables crowdsourcing of Internet marketplace and completion of tasks for a small fee

100K

*Bn=Billion, M=Million, K=Thousand, N/A=not applicable, RSS=Rich Site Summary    **Facebook was used as both a free and paid platform

Table 2: Paid platform descriptions, costs, and recruitment duration

Platforms

Population

to whom advertisement was visible

Budget
(per language)

Cost

method

Cost

details

Duration
of recruitment

Details

Facebook

Top 20 English- and top 20 Spanish-speaking countries by population

$50/day

Cost per click

$.50/click

11 days

Separate English- and Spanish-language campaigns, each with two advertisements: one linking to Facebook page, one linking to study website directly. Users could share the Facebook page to invite others to the study.

Google

All website users

$56.63/day

Bid per click

<$2/click

4 days

Advertisements appear as people searched for relevant topics. Link also provided to study’s Google+ page.

Amazon
Mechanical Turk

All website users

See cost details

Payment per completion

1) 240 participants solicited per language at $0.50/completion;
(2) 95 participants solicited per language at $1.00/completion; and (3) 50 Spanish-speaking participants solicited at $2.00/completion

14 days

Posted “task” (completion of study) in English and Spanish languages.

FindParticipants

All registered participants

$20 total

Lump-sum subscription

Lump-sum

subscription

30 days

English version of a recruitment email sent to 1000 participants. Spanish version sent to 53 participants.

their effects on the speed and yield of recruitment (Table 2). For Google Adwords, we launched two advertising campaigns (in English and in Spanish) which linked to our study website. For FindParticipants, we paid a fixed subscription cost for the ability to solicit participants via this platform and direct them to complete the study on our study website.

Data analysis

Completions, completions/day, CERs, and cost/completions were measured by language (English or Spanish). We recorded the number of times people clicked on our posts (if these data were available), the number of people who began the study, and the number of people who completed the study, as stratified by Internet or social media platforms. For each platform, we also calculated the average number of completed surveys per day (averaged throughout the duration of the post) to determine the speed of successful recruitment for each platform. For the paid platforms, we estimated the average cost of each completed survey by platform.

We compared the distributions of demographic characteristics, HIV testing history, and health literacy levels of the participants recruited across platforms by language. For English speakers, we compared these aspects among Facebook, Amazon Mechanical Turk, versus all other platforms combined. For Spanish speakers, we compared these aspects between Facebook and Amazon Mechanical Turk due to the small number of participants recruited on other platforms. Outcomes were reported as median and interquartile ranges (IQRs) for continuous variables and percentages for categorical variables. ANOVA testing was used for comparing continuous variables among multiple groups and the Kruskal-Wallis test for categorical variables.

Results

Yield and cost of recruitment across Internet or social media platforms

English speakers. Amazon Mechanical Turk had the highest yield for recruiting English-speaking participants (Figure 1, Table 3a). It had the highest CER, no refusals, and the fewest incomplete responses. Mechanical Turk recruited participants at the fastest rate and was the most cost effective (measured in average cost/completion) platform (Table 4). Paid Facebook advertising had the greatest visibility in that more Internet users saw the advertisement on this venue as compared to the other platforms. A large number of people also accessed our study through a newsfeed or ticker update because their friends “liked” our Facebook page after the launch of the advertisement campaign. Paid Facebook advertising was the second most effective for English speakers in terms of aggregate number of those recruited.  Paid Facebook advertising also yielded the most refusals and ineligible participants, the CER was much lower than the other platforms, and cost/completion was significantly higher than that of Mechanical Turk (but lower than the other two paid platforms).

Google was the least effective of our paid platforms for English-speaking participants, having generated no completions. It also solicited a significant number of ineligible participants. Of the free platforms (Table 3a), Facebook (the page and shares before the launch of the advertisement campaign) and Reddit had the most number of completions among English speakers. Few of the free platforms had more than 20 clicks on the posts about the study.

Spanish speakers. Facebook yielded the most completed responses for the Spanish–speaking participants (Figure 2, Table 3b) and the fewest ineligible

shao1

Figure 1: Summary of English-speaking participant recruitment enrolment

shao2

Figure 2: Spanish-speaking participant recruitment enrollment summary

Table 3a: English-speaking participant recruitment by platform

Advertising route

Duration of
recruitment (days)

Dollars
(USD) spent

Number of clicks

Cost/click

Completed

responses

Incomplete
responses

Refusals

Ineligibles

Cost/
attempt

Cost/
Completion

Free advertising

42

0

>96

0

44

56

2

1

Delicious

42

0

5

0

Reddit

42

0

>50

0

>10

Twitter

42

0

>34

0

Tumblr

42

0

0

0

Blinklist

42

0

0

0

Classified Ad

42

0

1

0

Chime.in

42

0

1

0

Digg

42

0

2

0

craigslist

42

0

1

0

LinkedIN

42

0

0

0

4chan

42

0

2

0

Pinterest

42

0

1

0

Unadvertised Facebook Page (friend invitation)

42

0

>14

0

14

Myspace

42

0

2

0

Paid advertising

Findpartcipants.com

30

20

N/A

0

13

19

2

0

N/A

N/A

Facebook Advertising

11

550

16148

0.034

78

728

60

34

0.61

6.9

Google Advertising

4

226.5

445

0.508

0

0

7

27

6.66

N/A

Amazon Mechanical Turk

14

247.5

N/A

N/A

347

78

0

24

0.55

0.7

TOTAL

1044

482

908

71

59

*USD=United States dollars, N/A=not applicable

Table 3b: Spanish-speaking participant recruitment by platform

Advertising route

Duration of
recruitment (days)

Dollars
(USD) spent

Number of clicks

Cost/click

Completed

Incomplete
responses

Refusals

Ineligibles

Cost/
attempt

Cost/
Completions

Free advertising

42

0

>25

0

2

1

0

0

Delicious

42

0

1

0

Reddit

42

0

10

0

Twitter

42

0

7

0

Tumblr

42

0

3

0

Blinklist

42

0

1

0

Classified Ad

42

0

1

0

Chime.in

42

0

1

0

Digg

42

0

0

0

craigslist

42

0

1

0

LinkedIN

42

0

1

0

4chan

42

0

0

0

Pinterest

42

0

0

0

Unadvertised Facebook Page (friend invitation)

42

0

0

0

Myspace

42

0

0

0

Paid advertising

Findpartcipants.com

30

20

0

0

0

0

0

0

20

20

Facebook

11

550

2424

0.036

173

501

29

25

0.753

3.14

Google

4

226.5

492

0.46

4

0

0

39

5.033

37.75

Amazon Mechanical Turk

14

209.5

N/A

N/A

156

50

2

9

0.95

1.31

TOTAL

1006

335

591

31

34

Table 4: English- and Spanish-speaking participant paid Internet or social media platform recruitment summary
English
Platform

Completion/Day

Cost/Completion

Clicks

CER

Facebook
Paid Advertising

7.1

$6.90

16148

0.09

Free Advertising

0.33

$0.00

18

0.09

Amazon Mechanical Turk

N/A

N/A

N/A

0.78

$0.50/completion

120

$0.50

331

0.73

$1.00/completion

107

$1.00

123

0.87

Google

0

N/A

445

0.0

Free Resources

1.05

N/A

50

0.39

Spanish
Platform

Completion/Day

Cost/Completion

Clicks

CER

Facebook
Paid Advertising

15.9

$3.14

15101

0.24

Free Advertising

0.02

0

0.24

Amazon Mechanical Turk

N/A

N/A

N/A

0.72

$0.50/completion

2.14

$0.50

25

0.6

$1.00/completion

10.57

$1.00

96

0.77

$2.00/completion

50

$2.00

99

0.51

Google

1.5

$37.75

445

0.13

Free Resources

0

N/A

3

0.0

*CER=Total Completion/Clicks, N/A=not applicable

responses across all recruitment platforms. Facebook solicitation was faster for Spanish than for English-speakers, and was the fastest method of solicitation across all platforms for Spanish-speaking participants (Table 4). Mechanical Turk had the second most completed responses and was the most cost effective for Spanish speakers. Solicitation, however, was not successful until we offered $2.00 per completion. CER was higher for Mechanical Turk than other platforms. Google solicited four completed responses from Spanish-speakers, the second lowest of the paid platforms (FindParticipants had zero). It also solicited the most number of ineligible responses. Free advertising was ineffective for Spanish-speaker recruitment, having only solicited three clicks and two completed responses.

Participant differences across Internet or social media platforms

English speakers. Across platforms, approximately half of English-speaking participants were in their mid-twenties in age, most had received formal education after high school, and most self-described themselves as having strong English-language skills (Table 5a). There were notable differences in participants across platforms. As compared to the other platforms, English-speaking participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk were slightly older, had more years of formal education and had higher health literacy skills. Participants from Facebook were more likely to be male, had lower self-described English language skills, were less likely to have ever been tested for HIV (but more likely to have been tested recently), and had lower health literacy skills. Participants from all other sites were more likely to be female, have fewer years of education (high school or less), have stronger self-described English-language skills, and have been tested previously for HIV.

Spanish speakers. Across platforms, Spanish-speaking participants were in the latter twenties in age, mostly male, and most had received formal education after high school, yet many indicated that they had lower health literacy skills. Compared to those recruited through Facebook, Spanish-speaking participants from Mechanical Turk were slightly older, more likely to be male, and were more likely to have college degrees. Participants from Facebook indicated better Spanish-language proficiency than those recruited from the other platforms. There were no differences between the platforms in participants’ HIV testing history and for two of the health literacy measures (Table 5b).

Geographic diversity

Among English speakers who completed the study, a majority came from Asia, primarily from India (Table 6). North America was the second most represented region. Of the Spanish-speaking participants, a majority was recruited from South America, with Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador being the most represented countries. Of those who came from Mechanical Turk, an overwhelming majority resided in India, with some from the Philippines or Pakistan. Facebook recruits were from a much more diverse geographic region, spanning an even distribution over several Latin American countries among Spanish-speaking recruits.

Table 5a: English-speaking participants demographic characteristics comparison

Facebook

Amazon
Mechanical Turk

Others

p-value

n=78

n=347

n=57

p<

Age (years; median, IQR)

25.5 (20.0, 36)

28.0 (25.0, 37.0)

25.0 (20.0, 33.0)

0.00

%

%

%

Gender (female)

29.5

44.1

57.9

0.00

Education

0.43

No school

0.0

0.0

0.0

Elementary

1.3

0.3

1.8

High school

3.8

2.4

3.5

General equivalency diploma

6.4

8.9

14.1

College

20.5

26.5

33.3

Bachelor degree

48.7

45.5

31.6

Graduate school or higher

9.2

16.4

15.8

Language skills

0.00

Very well

59.0

82.4

93.0

Well

34.6

17.6

7.1

Somewhat

3.9

0.0

0.9

Not well

2.6

0.0

0.0

Self-reported HIV test
Have ever tested for HIV

21.8

38.6

45.6

Last HIV test

0.02

Less than 6 months ago

52.9

17.2

23.1

Less than 1 year ago

5.9

16.4

15.4

Less than 2 years ago

29.4

18.4

26.9

Less than 5 years ago

0.0

20.9

26.9

More than 5 years ago

11.8

26.1

7.7

Health literacy
Confidence with completing forms

0.00

Not at all

12.8

0.9

1.8

A litte bit

12.8

6.6

5.3

Somewhat

14.1

17.3

21.1

Quite a bit

28.2

32.0

43.9

Extremely

32.0

43.2

28.1

Difficulty reading/understanding forms

0.02

Most of the time

2.6

3.8

7.0

Some of the time

15.4

21.0

7.0

A little of the time

39.7

32.3

22.8

None of the time

42.3

43.0

63.2

Needing help with forms

0.00

Most of the time

7.7

5.8

5.3

Some of the time

20.5

17.9

3.5

A little of the time

29.5

32.9

21.1

None of the time

43.5

70.2

70.10

*IQR=interquartile range

Table 5b: Spanish-speaking participants demographic characteristics comparison

Facebook

Amazon
Mechanical Turk

p-value

n=173

n=156

p<

Age (years; median and IQR)

27.0 (21.0, 38)

29.5 (25.0, 36.0)

0.02

%

%

Gender (female)

49.7

47.4

0.00

Education

0.00

No school

0.0

0.0

Elementary

1.2

0.0

High school

9.8

1.3

General equivalency diploma

16.2

8.3

College

37.0

28.2

Bachelor degree

27.8

49.4

Graduate school or higher

8.1

12.8

Language skills %

0.00

Very well

91.3

78.2

Well

8.7

18.0

Somewhat

0.0

1.9

Not well

0.0

1.9

Self-reported HIV test
Have ever tested for HIV

55.0

52.0

Last HIV test

0.60

Less than 6 months ago

24.2

22.2

Less than 1 year ago

19.0

24.7

Less than 2 years ago

14.7

19.8

Less than 5 years ago

28.4

19.8

More than 5 years ago

13.7

13.6

Health literacy
Confidence with completing forms

0.00

Not at all

14.5

18.0

A little bit

20.3

7.7

Somewhat

30.1

23.7

Quite a bit

27.8

32.7

Extremely

7.5

18.0

Difficulty reading/understanding forms

0.20

Most of the time

2.9

2.6

Some of the time

19.1

14.1

A little of the time

31.2

42.3

None of the time

46.8

41.0

Needing help with forms

0.06

Most of the time

4.6

0.0

Some of the time

15.6

17.3

A little of the time

25.4

26.9

None of the time

54.3

55.8

Table 6: Recruitment by region and country
Regions

Accessed in English and Spanish (Total)

English

Spanish

Accessed study
(total)

Refused

Ineligible

Incomplete

Complete

Accessed study (total)

Refused

Ineligible

Incomplete

Complete

North America

285

182

0

2

73

182

103

1

1

46

103

Canada

4

4

0

0

7

4

0

0

0

1

0

Cuba

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

United States

267

178

0

2

66

178

89

1

1

34

89

Mexico

14

0

0

0

0

0

14

0

0

10

14

Central America

32

1

0

0

2

1

31

0

5

50

31

Anguilla

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

Antigua and Barbuda

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

1

0

0

Aruba

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

Bahamas

0

0

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

Belize

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Costa Rica

3

0

0

0

0

0

3

0

0

2

3

Dominican Republic

17

0

0

0

0

0

17

0

3

20

17

El Salvador

5

0

0

0

0

0

5

0

0

9

5

Guatemala

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

3

0

Honduras

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

3

1

Nicaragua

5

0

0

0

0

0

5

0

0

12

5

South America

151

1

0

0

1

1

150

2

18

237

150

Argentina

8

0

0

0

1

0

8

0

1

10

8

Brazil

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Bolivia

14

0

0

0

0

0

14

0

1

27

14

Chile

6

0

0

0

0

0

6

0

1

19

6

Colombia

32

0

0

0

0

0

32

0

2

47

32

Ecuador

28

0

0

0

0

0

28

0

1

34

28

Paraguay

8

0

0

0

0

0

8

0

4

43

8

Peru

11

0

0

0

0

0

11

0

0

15

11

Trinidad and Tobago

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

Uruguay

4

0

0

0

0

0

4

0

0

0

4

Venezuela

38

0

0

0

0

0

38

2

8

42

38

Europe

26

14

0

2

12

14

12

0

1

8

12

Albania

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Andorra

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Austria

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

2

0

Bulgaria

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

0

Greece

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

Italy

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

1

0

Lithuania

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Macedonia

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Netherlands

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Norway

2

2

0

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

Portugal

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

1

1

Romania

3

3

0

0

0

3

0

0

0

1

0

Spain

8

0

0

0

0

0

8

0

0

1

8

Switzerland

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

0

Ukraine

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

UK and Northern Ireland

5

5

0

1

11

5

0

0

0

0

0

Asia

306

268

0

43

363

268

38

0

5

7

38

Afghanistan

0

0

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

Bahrein

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

Bangladesh

2

2

0

8

81

2

0

0

0

0

0

China

1

1

0

0

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

India

236

202

0

22

74

202

34

0

3

7

34

Indonesia

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Iran

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Israel

2

2

0

0

1

2

0

0

0

0

0

Japan

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Malaysia

2

2

0

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

Myanmar

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Oman

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Pakistan

19

19

0

9

115

19

0

0

0

0

0

Philippines

38

36

0

4

80

36

2

0

1

0

2

Qatar

0

0

0

0

2

0

0

0

0

0

0

Saudi Arabia

1

1

0

0

2

1

0

0

0

0

0

UAE

3

3

0

0

1

3

0

0

0

0

0

Vietnam

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Greater Australia

1

1

0

0

8

1

0

0

0

3

0

Papua New Guinea

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Australia

1

1

0

0

7

1

0

0

0

0

0

Africa

17

16

0

2

28

16

1

1

0

1

1

Algeria

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

Botswana

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

Egypt

14

13

0

1

21

13

1

0

0

1

1

Kenya

0

0

0

1

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Morocco

1

1

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

Nigeria

0

0

0

0

3

0

0

0

0

0

0

South Africa

2

2

0

0

2

2

0

0

0

0

0

Zambia

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

0

0

0

Pacific

3

0

0

0

0

0

3

0

0

0

3

French Polynesian Islands

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Other

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Antarctica

1

0

0

0

0

0

1

0

0

0

1

Discussion

This investigation provides important insight into differences in recruitment across Internet or social media platforms in terms of their yield, cost, and participant characteristics for a global study of English- or Spanish-speakers about increasing HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge. Each platform used in this study exhibited advantages and disadvantages in regards to recruitment and participant diversity, which have implications for future research when using the Internet or social media for studies such as these.

Amazon Mechanical Turk and Facebook exhibited the greatest overall recruitment results. Amazon Mechanical Turk was the most effective in recruiting English-speakers in terms of cost effectiveness, CER, and total yield. This was likely due to participants being guaranteed a payment for each complete response. However, one might be concerned that participants from this platform are trained in completing online questionnaires for payment. As such, this group of participants might be less interested in learning about the topic, as compared to those who might seek information about HIV/AIDS and HIV testing for their own knowledge empowerment. We cannot gauge, however, motivation to complete the study, as that was not measured outcome. Researchers should be mindful that although websites such as Amazon Mechanical Turk might be very useful in finding participants, the applicability of the research findings to other populations might be questioned. This caution might particularly be relevant for investigations that measure the impact of educational or informational media, such as examined in the parent study on the utility of the HIV/AIDS and HIV testing video. In this study, Amazon Mechanical Turk participants could have been less engaged in the topic, which could have reduced the measured utility of the video. However, as noted, the video was shown to improve knowledge among participants (Shao et al., 2014). Future researchers examining other digital educational interventions might not be as fortunate.

Paid Facebook advertising was not as cost effective, but reached a more diverse sample geographically and demographically. Paid Facebook advertising was also more effective at reaching a Spanish-speaking audience. Another advantage in using Facebook was in the organic capabilities of content sharing. Many participants engaged in our Facebook page left comments and further questions, indicating interest in the subject beyond the scope of the parent study. In addition, participants or visitors to our page also “Liked” and “Shared” our page throughout the duration of the study, and activity on the page continued even after the advertisement campaigns ceased. These activities let to increasing the spread of the study which led to further recruitment possibilities. Further, “liking” and “sharing” led to further dissemination of the video, which is a highly useful aspect of social media networking and commensurate with the underlying goal of improving HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge.

Amazon Mechanical Turk and Facebook, however, had other significant limitations despite their greater total yield and cost effectiveness. Amazon Mechanical Turk included primarily well-educated participants from South and Southeast Asia, and future researchers should expect this trend as well. There were also not as many Spanish-speakers with access to Amazon Mechanical Turk, so those wishing to recruit Spanish-speakers should investigate Facebook as an option instead. Yet, Facebook had a much lower completion rate in relation to the amount of people who accessed the study. If researchers are purely looking for quick survey completions without regards to specific demographic representation concerns, Amazon Turk would be preferable. However, this choice comes with costs and the aforementioned concerns regarding internal and external validity of the study findings.

For researchers who plan to use the Internet or social media to recruit participants, it is important to anticipate challenges during the study planning stages and consider how certain platforms might be better suited for one’s budget, demographic targets, and research goals. As demonstrated in this investigation, the reach of the study (i.e., who will see it) and conversion of views to completions differs among the platforms and can vary significantly depending on the amount of money spent for advertising and offered compensation. If a researcher is unable to spend money on recruiting, free platforms can be used, but as shown by this study’s results these platforms might be less effective at recruiting participants and time elapsed to completing recruitment goals might be longer.

The online platforms chosen for participant solicitation for studies can have significant implications on a researcher’s findings. There is a potential to reach a large, global audience, yet there also is the possibility of obtaining inappropriate or non-representative samples. Researchers should be explicit in their participant demographic characteristic needs and plan Internet-based recruitment strategies carefully, so not to discover after recruitment that the sample collected is not representative of the targeted population. Researchers also need to keep in mind that some platforms may not be fully globally accessible. Both Google and Facebook, for instance, are currently blocked in China, providing limited access to that population (Frizell, 2014). Facebook also has experienced censorship in Cuba, North Korea, and Syria. Google and YouTube have faced restrictions in China, Iran, and Pakistan (Google, 2015). Facebook and Google also are not the most used social media and search engines in all countries. There also exist popular social media websites in Latin America that are not readily used in the United States. Researchers may be interested in expanding availability of content to these other large platforms, particularly in areas experiencing censorship. Based on our experience with this study, we recommend that whenever possible researchers should examine Internet or social media platforms on their projected recruitment yields, cost of advertising and characteristics of the platform’s users. We also recommend that studies provide explicit details on their recruitment yields and participant characteristics when using multiple Internet or social media platforms to help inform future researchers on best pathways to achieve their goals.

Limitations

Given the study topic and the platforms chosen for recruitment, the findings from this study may not apply to other types of research that targets specific groups, solicits participants with other demographic characteristics or spoken languages, addresses different topics, uses other study formats or involve other Internet or social media platforms. Also, because our aim was to recruit as many participants as possible, this was an observational study, and so the platforms were not randomly chosen; the study findings (e.g., yield, costs of recruitment, recruitment diversity) were undoubtedly influenced by these factors. However, we believe that the observations were valid for the platforms chosen and study design employed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we observed significant variations in study completions, time to study completions, level of completions to enrollments and costs/completion across Internet and social media platforms in this global study of increasing HIV/AIDS and HIV testing knowledge through an animated and live-action video. In addition, we observed that participant demographic characteristics, HIV testing history, and health literacy varied among the samples recruited across Internet or social media platforms. Some platforms led to quick recruitment, yet had costs and potential concerns about internal and external validity of the study findings. Other platforms provided slower recruitment, but enabled opportunities to spread knowledge opportunities through social networking. As shown by the results of this study, there is an inherent trade-off between the rate of data collection and the diversity of participants recruited for Internet-based research. Depending on research needs in terms of speed, completions, and participant language, the choice of recruiting strategies through social media and the Internet can have very different yields, costs, and resultant participant characteristics. Researchers choosing Internet-based recruitment for studies should consider these aspects and invest their resources wisely in light of their study goals. Public health workers and advocates outside of academia concerned with information dissemination and survey work should also consider appropriate Internet and social media platforms commensurate with their objectives.

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Biographical Statements

Winnie Shao is an undergraduate student at Brown University. She completed this study as part of an independent study project. She was supported by a summer undergraduate research opportunity from the Lifespan/Tufts/Brown Center for AIDS Research (P30AI042853), which is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy And Infectious Diseases.

Wentao Guan is a biostatistics graduate student at the Brown University School of Public Health. He was supported by a graduate assistantship from the Brown University Department of Emergency Medicine.

Melissa A. Clark is Professor of Epidemiology of the Brown University School of Public Health and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology of the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Tao Liu is Assistant Professor of Biostatistics of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Claudia C. Santelices is Associate Research Scientist of the Northeastern University Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice.

Dharma E. Cortés is Adjunct Assistant Professor of the Northeastern University Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice.

Roland C. Merchant is an emergency medicine physician and researcher in the Department of Emergency Medicine of Rhode Island Hospital, and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and Epidemiology, Brown University School of Public Health.

Contact: Roland C. Merchant, MD, MPH, ScD, Rhode Island Hospital, Department of Emergency Medicine, 593 Eddy Street, Claverick Building, Providence, Rhode Island, USA 02903. rmerchant@lifespan.org