Social Learning: Understanding Classroom Facilitation

How the combination of front-end (educator created) and back-end (student created) strategies can enhance learning outcomes.

Today’s educators are responsible for more than just direct lectures.

The content organization, instructional design, and delivery structure for their lessons must be well-planned and duly-executed. New learning and research shows that educators should consider the multiple channels of communication that are available today. They also need to evaluate the tools, technologies, and curricula that will need to be in place to facilitate student discussions outside of the classroom.

If not provided by the educator, students may put these plans into motion themselves, and the instructor may not get an invite to join this conversation. The educator, then, should look to spearheading the creation of an online group or community where they can interact with their students. Many professionals assert that the teacher has a duty to become digitally literate to remain relevant in the classroom and to continue to connect with their students into the future.

A Point of Discussion: Instant Access to Unlimited Information vs. Memorization and Specialization

Frequently, a conversation arises in our field: Is using your smartphone to find information dishonest or is it an efficient use of time and technology? Not sure where you stand on this issue?

I think this is an important conversation to have. Teachers are charged with teaching – supplying and applying information, providing context, and building skills. If one of the goals of education is to prepare the student for the real-world working environment, then teaching a student to use technology to solve problems and complete tasks is on task.

Now, students may look at this as a shortcut, i.e., “All I have to do is search for the answer,” and often they will reference an answer on the first page to complete the task. The first answer may not be the right answer, but experience and repetition will teach them this. Only by constantly utilizing this means of gathering information can they tailor the methods that work best for them and that produce consistently positive results.

Front-End and Back-End Classroom Facilitation Explained…

When describing “Front-End Classroom Facilitation,” we’re talking about strategies that are traditionally instructor-dominated. The teacher has been hired to teach and to perform as they were instructed during their own education. They know to create a syllabus, develop the course materials, and deliver a program that fits the defined class parameters (i.e., three days a week for 50 minutes for 16 weeks). Add some homework and a couple well-placed tests, and you have a traditional three-credit semester course.

In this method, teachers often utilize Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Blackboard. The addition of an LMS to a classroom provides online access to the class materials as well as a schedule of assignments. An LMS also offers the ability to test and to turn in assignments online, and a real-time report on the grades for the class, pending a timely submission from the teacher.

Supplementing this world of online enhancement, ebooks and Publisher Adaptive Learning Programs provide the materials and references for the class in a digital format, some with audio tracks or linked resources which are updated automatically as the publisher supplies them. Other features may include interactivity, feedback and support.

But in many cases, learning is no longer a one-way street dictated solely by the professor. “Back-End Classroom Facilitation” refers to those strategies, groups, and communities arranged by students to supplement and facilitate their learning. These newer, student-dominated strategies are rising in popularity, concurrently with the technologies that enable them.

Today, the use of social media and chat apps is a wildly popular approach for students to organize outside the classroom. Private Facebook groups allow students to quickly and easily share materials, due dates, etc. Missed a class? Just make a quick post in the Facebook group – the other members will see your post, and they’ll respond (usually) in a timely fashion. These groups are accessible anywhere Facebook is – from a personal computer, mobile phone, or tablet.

The invention and evolution of cloud-based services, such as Google Docs and Dropbox, function similarly. Students assemble in one place, uploading materials and leaving comments and notes as they need. With these platforms, information is even available offline, meaning a student can access the material even when a data or WiFi connection is unavailable. They won’t be able to share and discuss the content in real-time, but being able to view a PDF or study guide wherever, whenever is a distinct advantage for today’s students.

Online tools, like Quizlet, are also gaining notoriety as a valid back-end learning strategy. With this, students can create flashcards and review materials, which can then be distributed to their classmates. Oh, and there’s an app for that as well, keeping students connected and informed straight from their favorite mobile device.

From the Professor…

In the past, the richer, deeper conversations took place in the classroom, while e-learning from a distance struggled to produce the same level of engagement. Whether it was the digital divide or a lack of bandwidth, the online experience was never able to bring the same level of interaction as the classroom experience. When a student missed a class with a great lecture, they missed a vital piece of the learning puzzle.

This is because face-to-face offers the educator a visual, auditory, and contextual channel of communication to the students, as well as a means to gather and to respond to feedback from students on what they have provided.

Today, technology allows the replication of face-to-face with webcams, video chat and text-based (SMS) sharing as additional channels of communication and audience response tools. These, however, require educators to learn a new pedagogical environment and strategy that works with their courseware and teaching style.

Mobile pedagogy is not a replacement for a teacher leading in the classroom by any means. Rather, it serves as a supplement to traditional lectures and extends the times for the learning environment past normal class times – from a synchronous experience to asynchronous – and many, like me, believe this is for the better.

From the Student…

It can be argued that more learning takes place after the lecture than during, especially in larger lectures that are limited to a one-way presentation format covering a significant amount of content in a relatively short period of time.

Multiple times I have had the experience of teaching myself the textbook as a result of not being able to adapt to the stadium-seating, massive learning environment. What really saved me was access to my peers through alternative modes of communication. The lack of opportunities for student expression in the live lecture were supplemented by our own preferred methods, social chat platforms. When the professor’s pedagogy is not equipped to facilitate student engagement, we tend to gravitate toward what is familiar, our own mobile-based, virtual extension of the classroom.

When asked about his experience with student-led learning initiatives, SDSU student Derek Argonza echoed these sentiments.

“I have worked together with other students on projects in live chat rooms and library study groups,” he said. “Social media groups are also very useful for planning study groups and staying on top of the class updates. In the end, it takes leadership of outgoing students and professors to create a welcoming atmosphere to ensure that nobody is left out.”

A professor who masters mobile-based pedagogy can enhance the sense of learning community among his students by encouraging the use of alternative learning environments. Today, mobile-learning allows for quick and reliable exchanges of information and valuable communication outside of class time. It also offers tools to engage in peer-supported learning while having the advantage of not requiring a specific time or location.

What We’ve Seen Work…

A) Educator-led front channels

SDSU Associate Professor of History Dr. Elizabeth Ann Pollard offers one of the best localized examples of facilitating and encouraging back-channel learning in her classes. A recent publication of hers discusses the value of this method, detailing how she applies it to generate the best learning outcomes for her students in her 300+ student world history course.

“Although I had heard of a concept called ‘backchannel learning’ and was eager to open that backchannel to transform the one-way nature of the conversation into a bi- or even multi-directional learning environment, I had not yet settled upon a technology that could facilitate the interactivity, responsiveness, and engagement for which I yearned,” she said.

Primarily utilizing Twitter to accomplish her goals, however, she unveiled some unique outcomes.

“…while Twitter was used during class sessions (or mid-day), as I had hoped, Twitter was also used by both students and me later in the day—after classes—to digest what had happened in class and even later into the evening (television primetime, when one would almost never imagine student engagement with course materials),” she mentions in her case study linked above.”

While this approach may not always provide the solution needed for a particular classroom, Dr. Pollard’s methods have shown merit and should be considered moving forward.

B) Student-led back channels…

At the start of every semester, there should be a student in every class who copies the class email list from whichever LMS the campus uses and invites the entire roster to a Facebook chat group.

With this, though, there is always one person in every class who never gets the invite: the professor. The problem with that is the professor is the one person who can drive conversations further than a student-only conversation can go. The professor can also help dial back those who go too far down the wrong path or those who are forgetting something critical to the discussion.

Despite these benefits of including the professors, they are usually not invited because many students feel this is more invasive. Their Facebook group is just that – theirs – and it’s a place they can chat freely and discuss the class without any repercussions on the administrative level.

C) Combining the two…

Somewhere in the middle of strictly professor-led and strictly student-led applications are web-based applications that facilitate social learning as part of a larger platform tied to attendance, grades, and materials – a digital classroom, relevant to the needs of both teachers and students.

Web-based applications, like CourseKey, bring the required tools and preferred types of classroom communication into play. These types of solutions provide a place for social learning and the need to connect on personal social networks is no longer a requirement. An application like this is less invasive into everyone’s personal life and the “Hawthorne effect” of a moderated communication channel keeps discussions relevant and appropriate.

In this situation students and teachers can mingle together, creating an environment where each can contribute and each can enhance the other’s learning. Students and teachers can interact with each other in real time 24-7 to create study groups, share content or answer each other’s questions.

Share Your Experiences…

These evolutions are already happening in the classroom, one way or another. The way people communicate is changing, and the student demographic adapts more quickly than others because they have grown up with the technology. It’s familiar to them and even ingrained in their very being. They’ve never known a life without the Internet, so they weave it into everything they do, including learning in the classroom.

Older demographics, like teachers, generally learn new technology that replaces old technology they had previously learned when they were of a younger, more adaptive age. Leveraging student-led learning initiatives and incorporating these into the traditional instructor-led strategies creates a collaborative environment where both educators and students are contributing to the learning process.

For professors: How do you encourage back-end learning in your classrooms? Are you a part of your students’ outside groups and communities? If not, how can you bridge the gap to enter into that conversation to further facilitate positive learning outcomes?

For students: What types of back-end learning environments do you prefer? What is the singular best experience you’ve had utilizing these tools and applications? How are professors encouraging you to use them?

Join the conversation and tell us about your campus’ social learning preferences.

As we continue to analyze and discuss more issues like this one throughout the blog series, our collective contributions will prove valuable. Share the article with a friend or colleague and see what they think, as well. All of us know more than one of us.

Follow authors Kevin Popovic and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share our own experiences and insights. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.

Download ebook: Creating Engagement in the Classroom


San Diego State University Lecturer Kevin Popović and SDSU student Ryan Vanshur combine their learnings about improving the classroom dynamic with their mutual experience and research, creating an insightful look into the strategies and technologies that influence today’s faculty and students.

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