Using social media in language learning


One of our team recently took part in a course called 'Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching', which was developed by the University of Southampton and the British Council and hosted on the Futurelearn platform.

Perhaps the first thing of interest about the course was that it was a 'MOOC', i.e. a 'massive open online course' in thuis case available to anyone and delivered completely online. Discussions about the various topics raised regularly attracted contributions from 1000s of people and their comments ran into the ten of thousands. In short, it was a very successful course and a lot of people were highly engaged with it. The hashtag #FLlanguage on Twitter captures some of the conversation from the course.

Social Media In Language LearningContent on the course mainly consisted of short videos introducing a subject and links to reference information about each. There were also a number of interactive exercises and lots of discussions. Some of these used the Futurelearn system but Facebook, Google Hangouts, Twitter and YouTube were also used and one discussion held on Facebook was 'attended' by around 60,000 people.

There was a live panel discussion which provided an excellent round up of tools and techniques for using social media in language learning which is available on YouTube here. Besides covering good uses for Facebook, Twitter and other popular platforms, there is also discussion about other less well known tools for sharing resources, presentations, short messages, bookmarks and joint working on wikis. The video is quite long but it's worth keeping and coming back to in chunks as time permits if you can't watch it in one go.

Some of the themes that emerge are:-

  • the idea that a teacher can become more of a 'guide on the side' than a 'sage on a stage' when working in this way - stimulating and encouraging discussion and providing guidance
  • linked to this is the notion that teachers do more content curation when working on line and that learners have the power or autonomy to pick and choose what they consume and then engage in a 2 way dialogue about it rather than being lectured to
  • at the heart of these themes is the general affect that they can have on increasing learner autonomy and interaction
  • 'connectivism' which some describe as a theory of learning for the digital age and which places the learner at the centre of their own network of nodes of information and resources that they access for continual learning

There was also discussion about whether social media tools can help increase engagement by students or provide a way of encouraging them to do things outside the classroom. It seems possible that they can do this but some wonder if students want spaces for learning that are separate from those that they use outside class. This maybe the case to some extent, it's early days really but what seems pretty certain is that students want the ease of use and familiarity of the tools that they already use.

There were also a number of concerns that were touched on relating to things like how best to keep students on task and the possible impact on workloads for tutors that a whole new channel of delivery and engagement might represent. These sorts of issues are explored in some detail in Pearson's annual survey of social media use in HE, which has been conducted annually since 2009 and concludes that there will be a steady increase in classroom use of social media but that fundamental changes are needed to address some of these concerns or adoption will be very selective.

There was also some discussion about which areas of language learning are better suited to social media approaches and research is ongoing in this area.

The whole discussion was of particular interest to us as we believe that social media platforms can be of real use in helping teachers run reading projects by providing a place where reading groups can meet, share resources, schedule and hold discussions and provide each other with help and support.

All in all what is clear is that this is an interesting and rapidly evolving area. Like so many others in the digital world....