Analysing Social Learning (#LAK12)

Dawson (2010) concludes that the value of learning analytics is to provide relevant and real-time visualisation that can assist staff to align their pedagogical practices more fully with the learning needs of all their students.

In an interesting webinar, Shane Dawson suggested that the VLE can be generalised into two tools: content page or discussion. Content is typically analysed via  session counts, dwell time, and downloads and discussions provide metrics relating to posts, replies, and views (modelled via Social Network Analysis (SNA)). I would adapt this to suggest that all activities in the VLE be viewed as discussions. Giest (2010) argues that interaction can be concrete and direct as in an online forum, but can also be abstract and indirect where the interactions or cultural tools of activity are represented in materialised forms such as content. In the hypermedia learning environment seeing activity as interactive (social) allows consistent analysis: while traditional hand-outs might show teacher-centric interactions, student-created content or collaborative Wikis may reveal different learning networks.

Some of the interesting findings that Dawson (2010) made were that students tend to interact with those of a similar ability, forming clusters of high and low performing learners. One explanation proposed was how this could represent  an effect of the Vygotskian zone of proximal development – learners gravitate within their zone and so engage with discussions at similar development levels. One might see this as an example of interaction creating conditions to identify zones (Chaiklin, 2003), where it is instruction that should create the zones (Geist, 2010). Dawson’s analysis finds a phenomenon inconsistent with this where staff interventions tend to gravitate towards the high performing networks.

Teaching staff were positioned in 81.7% of the high-performing and 34.61% of the low-performing student networks (pg. 746) and thus may be further restricting educational opportunities. One reason proposed was that in pursuing the values of a learning community it was often assumed that low end questions would be answered by other students. Whereas the tutor focused on the high performers because the questions were more difficult and so they felt more inclined to intervene. Rather than a shared project of community-wide learning students seem motivated to form networks that best enhance their individual grade performance (ego-centric).

One solution might be to use the SNA to identify peer-mediated instruction interventions (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2009). Where in practice peer groups contain a range of competency levels, ideas, conceptions, misconceptions and areas of expertise, learners can benefit from both the giving and receiving of ideas, embodied in different ways in both Vygotskian and Piagetian perspectives on social constructivism (Webb and Mastergeorge, 2003).

When designing successful social interactions and understanding the relation of technology to culture it is suggested that the only way to define the technological effects of the Internet is to build the Internet (Poster, 1995). Responsive feedback via SNA has shown how effective good visualisations of data can be in revealing these effects and allowing tutors to rebuild interactions or interventions.


Chaiklin, S. (2003). The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context (pp. 39-64). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dawson, S. (2010). “Seeing” the learning community: An exploration of the development of a resource for monitoring online student networking. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(5), 736-752.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (2009). Peer-mediated instruction. Better: Evidence-based Education, 1(1), 18-19.

Giest, H. (2010). The Formation Experiment in the Age of Hypermedia and Distance Learning. In B. van Oers, W. Wardekke, E. Elber, & R. van der Veer (Eds.), The Transformation of Learning [Kindle Edition]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Poster, M. (1995). Postmodern Virtualities. The Second Media Age. Blackwell.

Webb, N., & Mastergeorge, A. (2003). Promoting effective helping behavior in peer-directed groups. International Journal of Educational Research, 39(1-2), 73-97.


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