Last modified 05/09/08 14:02:09

Persistent Community (Social Network)

This pilot will investigate whether students on our short courses will build their own community and continue their learning in an informal way beyond the end of the course. In addition does the course subject affect the community?

This Pilot may take the form of 3 separate experiments.

  • Social Networking (detailed below)
  • Forum Based
  • Virtual World Based

Please read Discussion area before making too many comments on what is below as things are changing...


A. Basic information

Title of pilot:
Persistent Community (Social Network)
Brief description:
Students on our short courses will be provided with a link to Facebook (Reason why we chose Facebook) and brief instructions on how to signup and join a closed group that we have created.More detailed description
Purpose of pilot:
This pilot will investigate whether students on our short courses will build their own community and continue their learning in an informal way beyond the end of the course. In addition does the course subject affect the community?
Tool(s) being piloted:
Internal: none
External: Facebook
Course in which the pilot is taking place:

  • Subject
    • Philosophy
    • English Literature
    • History of Art
    • Archeology
  • No. of students

Circa 450 students will be alerted to the FaceBook group each term.
Control course:

  • not needed

Duration, incl. start and end dates

  • Starting November 07 - March 09 The Facebook group will be promoted 5 times throughout the life of the Isthmus projecty

B. Detailed description

The Facebook group that is setup must provide a friendly welcome/description that tells both our students and anyone who finds the group the who, what, where and why of the group. Some possible text (to be developed):

Welcome to this online learning group. It is hoped that you, the members and owners of the group will enjoy furthering the discussions you had in your courses. We also hope that you we enjoy talking to students who took courses in other subject areas.

  • Alpha pilot:
    • Duration: November 07 - April 08
    • contact tutors to see if any of them would be interested in joining the pilot
    • ask tutors, plus TALL staff, for 'keenies' on the courses who may be open to joining the pilot - sell it to them that X,Y,Z tutors are on Facebook now, join them to further your learning
    • run a pilot with these individuals to see whether it will develop
  • Beta pilot:
    • Duration: April 08 - November 08
    • open the idea up to all students

The alpha and beta format may be too complex. In the light of running 3 experiments I think we should keep this pilot as simple as possible. Also, I'm now concerned that the presence of our tutors may make FaceBook appear to be provided by Oxford?

C. Rationale and expectations

What existing shortcoming/potential "added value" is the pilot addressing? (i.e. does it aim to solve a specific problem or explore a new direction?)
To provide students with a potential 'community' of similar students to allow discussions of, for example, ideas, issues, other courses.
To encourage cross course discussion and break student communication out of course silos.
To extend the learning experience beyond the between individual courses.
What questions do we want to answer? (i.e. in relation to the problem/opportunity that we are addressing)
Do students use the service?
if yes -

  • Why do they use it?
  • What do they like about it

if no -

  • Is the service to complex for our students to setup?
  • Is the service to complex for our students to interact with?
  • Is the service ok but they don't want to do this anyway?

What would we describe as a good (i.e. desirable) or acceptable (i.e. bottom-line) result in terms of

  • Uptake by students
  • Uptake by tutors
  • Feedback from students re its usefulness and usability
    I think that this is going to be difficult to collect. The idea of this persistent community is to 
    observe what happens at the end of the project - whether or not people use Facebook to continue their 
    learning in an informal way. 
    Potentially the more interesting students will be those that do not partake in the extended community 
    and the reasons why not - how could we discuss this with them?
  • Healthy discussion taking place in the group
  • The students taking ownership of the group
  • Students encouraging one another to take additional courses
  • Feedback from tutors re its usefulness and usability to them, and their perceptions of its impact on the course
    • none
  • Performance of the technology
    • FaceBook is worryingly complex at times.
  • Acceptability to management
    • The department is keep to establish a persistent community to market test new course ideas.

D. Envisaged risks & problems

What risks or problems do we foresee?

  • Pedagogical
    • This group could disperse discussions that would be better located in the course forums.
    • Getting the level of structure right in the group initially (eg. should we create subject based forums to begin with?)
    • FaceBooks? discussion forums do not have very good functionality.
  • Management
    • increased support (even though it's not our software)
    • if the service is popular during the trial period then there will be an overhead associated with having to grant access to the group
  • Technical
    • none (apart from the students finding FaceBook too technical)
  • Legal
    • we are seen to be advocating the views of Facebook, Facebook sponsors and/or individuals using Facebook.
    • data protection
    • Ensuring that FaceBook doesn't become a 'data processor' for Oxford.
    • Making sure that the students understand that we don't own the FaceBook group
  • Human - students’ use/disposition, tutors’ use/disposition
    • Could be seen as needlessly complex
    • Could be seen a irrelevant to 'learning' goals
    • Could become exclusive or rules by a small core of students.

Do we have a plan for averting/dealing with them within the pilot?
It is believed that providing we make it explicit that this 3rd party software is nothing to do with us and that we are not responsible for anything that happens during it's use will we are in the clear! To check this we will/have:

Contacted JISC legal asking:
As part of our JISC funded project we are looking to run a pilot where we provide a link from some of our online courses to an 'unmoderated' Facebook group. We are planning on providing our users with information about how to create an account and join the group, but will make it very clear that we are very 'hands off'.

Not really sure what my question is on the topic - I suppose it is more about do you have any advice on what we should or shouldn't do or say? Are their any reports or guidance on the use of Web 2.0 technologies?

JISC Legal's respose:
Thank you for your query to JISC Legal. At the moment there are few sources of material which deal with the web 2.0 technologies and the legal issues. However a couple of sources may be of interest to you as a starting point.
These are the University of Edinburgh guidelines for using external services at  Guidelines for using external Web 2.0 services They look at issues of privacy, copyright infringement and liability for misdemeanours of staff and students.
There was also a JISC funded report published in May of this year which you may find of interest. It is Web 2.0 for Content for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and is available at  Web 2.0 and Policy.

I hope this is helpful and once you have had the chance to look at the papers, please do get back to us with any follow up questions you may have.

Investigated guidelines given in:  Guidelines for using external Web 2.0 services

Review of draft guidelines:

This document is primarily concerned with providing information to individuals from Edinburgh University who 
are considering using an external Web 2.0 supplier and in particular with issues around the Data Protection 
Act 1998 (as well as the Scottish Freedom of Information Act 2002). 

Fall foul of the Data Protection Act 'if the service provider is explicitly contracted to provide particular 
services for the University in such a way that they becomes a Data Processor on behalf of the University'. 
This can include:
  * if the service is branded as a University service 
  * it is not immediately apparent to users that they are providing information to an external service 

The document makes it very clear that the more the University can distance itself from becoming 'leagally 
responsible' for the service providers compliance with the Data Protection Act the better. This can be 
done by making it clear that the 'provider is a separate legal entity over which the University has 
no control'. This can be done by:
  * providing messages both on our own site and the service providers site
  * making users sign up for the service with the provider and not through the university
  * warn them about the risks of disclosing personal information to external services.

I believe, providing we make it absolutely clear (on both Moodle and Facebook) that the service/group the
user is signing up for is in no way endorsed by the University and that we can accept no responsibility
for what is discussed/said within the external service, then the matters discussed within the guidelines
are not relevant to our pilot.

  * if we distance ourselves from the group, including no University branding, where does that leave
us as Administrators of the group?
  * does the University have accessibility legislation that we could be in breach of by suggesting
this service provider?

There are additional complications if it becomes a compulsory requirement of the course to sign up to an 
external provider.

I have meet with Oxford Legal (20/11/07) they are happy that the FaceBook group represents no significant additional risks in comparison to our normal course offering as long as we are clear about the responsibilities the students have relative to 'terms of use' in FaceBook and the fact that we don't 'own' the service. (DW)

Below is the text of the invitation mail we sent to students:

As part of our ongoing research into how people study online, one of the things which kept appearing in the surveys was that you wanted a more permanent
space beyond the end of your course. In response to this feedback we are running a pilot group in Facebook, a social networking site which is designed to
informally keep groups of people in touch and also contains discussion forums. We aren’t sure exactly how you will want to use this space, it may be that you will want to:

 * Keep in touch with people from your course
 * Meet people from other online courses
 * Continue discussing topics related to the subject of your course
 * Discuss topics unrelated to the subject of your course

We don’t want to prescribe how this space should be used, we are just creating an area for you to use as you want to. Ideally, we would like to see the space develop into a community, brought together by a common interest in learning. This will be a group-led rather than University-led space. For instance, it will be up to the members of the group to initiate discussions and debates.

To join the group first create a profile on Facebook by going here:  and clicking on the ‘Sign-Up’ button (note: you can ‘skip’ a lot of steps). Once you have set-up your profile then copy and paste ‘Oxford University Online Short Courses’ into the search in Facebook. When you get to the group click on the ‘Request to Join Group’ link below the picture. Only people who have attended one of our online short courses will be eligible to join the group, so your request to join will be verified by Claire Kelly, Manager of Online Courses. After that it’s over to you. 

We will be reviewing the group on an ongoing basis to see what works and what doesn’t work. As part of the process will be asking group members a few questions as the pilot progresses. We would also value any feedback or ideas for improvement you may have, so please do post any ideas for these to the relevant thread in the group’s discussion forum.

The University will not be responsible for the activity within the group we would expect members to adhere to the same code of ‘netiquette’ and general behaviour as you have been during the courses ( ). This is similar to the Facebook terms of use:  You also need the be aware that to join the group you will need to create/use a profile on Facebook. Their policy on privacy can be found here: . The University accepts no responsibility for the content in third party websites. 

In addition it is envisaged that the number of support calls will increase as people look to use this software - even though we are not providing support for Facebook we are interested in the issues people have with using the software.

E. Intended approach (can be updated later – but variations from the original approach should be noted)

What are the details (incl. timings) of our approach in relation to the following 5 key factors?

  • Pedagogical (embedding in the course)
    • notification to the students via email or final forum with link to Facebook/support information
  • Management (acceptability in terms of costs vs. benefits, …)
  • Technical
    • none
  • Legal
    • 'hands off' (Checking with JISC and Oxford legal)
  • Human (induction, training…)
    • none

F. Evaluation plan (can be updated later):

What kind of evaluation: formative and/or summative?

  • If there is sufficient take up we hope to discuss this pilot in FaceBook with the members of the group.
  • If there is good take-up we will advertise the FaceBook group to the spring 08 cohorts and possibly add some questions about the group to the end of course evaluation form.

How & when will we gather evidence to answer our questions?

  • Initially we will post questions in the group in Jan/Feb? 08

How will we measure success (i.e. quantify the good/acceptable outcomes specified in section B)?

  • Membership numbers
  • Quality of discussion (that is visible)


G. Narrative (record significant moments as they happen, if possible – but aim to synthesise the material into a succinct story of 500 words max.)

What actually happened?
Each term around 70-80 of the circa 500 students join the group. There is then a flurry of posts which dies away after a couple of weeks. The posts seem to start again when a new term is on the horizon with students discussion which course they might take.

Tread types include:

  • Discussing a theme from the course they have just left
  • Discussing the pros and cons of a specific course (general reflections)
  • Discussing course mechanisms (marking systems etc)
  • Discussing what course to take next

Any unexpected happenings?

  • Not totally unexpected but we now have a keen student administrator on the Facebook group.
  • The pattern of activity each term seems quite predictable
  • An exisitng book group joined and then left the facebook group
  • Nobody asked for any technical support


H. Analysis

Has a good or acceptable result been obtained?
The group has proved useful to communicate informally with the students and some valuable threads have been started.
Why did it run in the way it did? I would seem that the group is a useful pool of studnets which can feed other smaller groups. A couple of smaller groups have formed elsewhere from the main facebook group (one of them was also in facebook)

  • Enabling/impeding factors

Complex to set-up initially to establish the correct relationship between the facebook group and formal 'Oxford' offerings.
Those who didn't join seemed to mainly be worried about privacy or could not see the point.
Serious discussions about how we should format the group and if tutors should be invited. In the end we just added subject area forums and didn't invite tutors.
Any unexpected results/outcomes (+ve and –ve)?

  • As mentioned nobody required any tech support
  • Everyone who joined seemed to implicitly understand that the facebook group was not 'owned' by Oxford.
  • It became a very useful group to as general questions. A specific example being when we asked if anyone would be interested in joining a Second Life pilot we were running.

Comparison with expectations

  • Facebook forums proved as tricky to work with as we expected.

Comparison with “control” course

  • All our courses in this case are 'control'. The facebook group did not sustain discussions as well as the courses but his is to be expected.

I. Reflections, implications & recommendations

Overall, what went well

  • Students understanding of the position of the group relative to the courses.
  • I suspect that the students use the group to socialize and communicate behind the forums. Not sure the best way to find this out properly.

Overall, what didn’t go so well

  • Not all that much in the way of forum posts.
  • The group is almost too broad (across disciplines) which seems to discourage people from talking.

What does the pilot mean?

  • It would seem that the group is a very useful 'hub' for the students. They dip in and out of it a crucial times (start and end of terms) and have used the group as a root to form more specialist groups from. I think the group will continue to act as a low activity pool of people that can be called on when relevant by the students or by us.

It is good to be able to give the students 'somewhere to go' at the end of their courses rather than simply waving goodbye. In a wider context the group demonstrates that a low activity pool of students can be of value.
Next steps:

  • Within TALL:
    • How will we take the pilot forward?

The group will continue to run and be promoted to students. Now that we know the group is stable we might start to promote new course via the news feature. We still need to assess the amount of behind the scenes activity the group is encouraging.

  • Within the wider community:
    • What is our message to the world?

Students have a good understanding of the role of these services and don't expect the institution to be too involved. They also appreciate the chance to be in group after the end of a course but most don't like to communicate visibly if the group is too broad and may well form sub-groups.