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ODU's Landers Has a Facebook Strategy for Teaching

Richard Landers

Richard Landers, a psychology faculty member at Old Dominion University, isn't one of those teachers who wrings his hands over the online games and Facebook exchanges that keep his students from their homework. He figures if you can't beat them, join them.

The young assistant professor, who arrived at ODU last year, has embraced social media as an educational tool and his schemes are getting national attention. When the ProfHacker blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site looked recently at the subject of "Gamifying Homework," it used Landers' work as a cutting-edge example. The article noted his success at "testing gamification's usefulness for basic problems, such as getting undergrads to do their homework."

Landers received a start-up $7,000 grant from the ODU Office of Research for eight weeks of research this past summer, and the results have boosted his hopes of winning a much larger grant from a national funding agency.

During the summer, Landers launched a pilot program utilizing an online social network - socialPsych - that he created especially for undergraduate courses. He won permission from his department and other faculty members to deploy the network in 17 summer-school psychology classes at ODU. Of the 600 students in the classes, about 400 set up profiles, much as they would do with Facebook, and used the network to varying extents. Participation was encouraged by several different $100 prizes that were awarded for the best single post, the most active user, etc.

SocialPsych is more than Tweet-like exchanges between instructor and classmates about assignments. The gamification aspect of the network is a key reason for its early success, Landers said. "I implemented two experimental features in this social network, and, to my knowledge, I am the first to use such technologies."

Landers set up a Certification Center within the network that allows a student to take quizzes on course material. These quizzes are voluntary and they don't affect grades. But the student who answers a lot of questions correctly earns ribbons and badges. These are little icons that appear beside the students' names in their profiles and posts to indicate that they have reached various mastery levels.

Also a part of socialPsych is a Mentoring Center that allows students who become certified via their performance on the quizzes to tutor other students. All participants were allowed to make up socialPsych names for themselves - "handles" he called them - so struggling students could seek and get help without identifying themselves to classmates.

So how did the summer pilot project turn out?

Suffice it to say that Landers was pleased by how eagerly the students took to socialPsych. Of the 400 students who participated, 113 willingly chose to take the optional multiple-choice quizzes that determined whether they got ribbons and badges. That figure alone is enough to make educators "shake their heads in disbelief," he said. "For 28 percent of students to willingly complete optional multiple-choice quizzes that would never have an effect on their grades, that's absolutely amazing.

"Especially fantastic is that simply spending time completing the quizzes exposes them to course material more than they otherwise would have been exposed, meaning they were more likely to learn something." Landers said the study found that the more a student used socialPsych the better his or her grade in the course would be, although he did not have data to establish this as a causal relationship.

Fewer students became involved in the mentoring program, but Landers was satisfied with the results. Sixteen students qualified and signed up to be mentors. Nineteen signed up to request help. "Although these numbers seem relatively small, remember that these are students struggling who I would hypothesize would be unlikely to seek out help from their instructors, or possibly even their classmates, if it had to be done in person," he said.

"What a fantastic resource such a system would make, especially one that vets expertise automatically through the ribbons and badges certification system."

Another positive result Landers found had more to do with the strictly "social" part of the network. Said one student participant in a wrap-up assessment: "I believe the best thing about socialPsych was the interaction you have with your classmates. ODU is a big university and everyone is always on the go. It was nice to have a moment to ask people questions and hear encouraging words from other people."

From another participant, a commuter student who only comes to campus to attend classes: "Normally I don't socialize with other students. SocialPsych provided the opportunity to speak with other students during the course, which I do not typically do. I think the site should continue."

"Just what I was hoping for," said, "totally unsolicited positive virtual interactions between students." In some cases, instructors of the classes participating in socialPsych were impressed by how virtual class discussions were more open and useful than actual discussions. "In the Drugs and Behavior course," for example, "the students were more forthcoming about their personal behavior."

The ProfHacker blog noted that Landers is seeking collaborators for a grant from the National Science Foundation that would allow him to explore a similar social network in a larger setting and in different subject areas. He said he already has tentative support from faculty at 11 other institutions to deploy a network at either departmental level or for a complete institution.

Mohammad Karim, the ODU vice president for research, said Landers' leveraging of a summer research grant from the Office of Research is just how this seed-support program is supposed to work. "We contribute a smaller sum to help faculty win larger research support from external sources. We are very much pleased with Dr. Landers' progress toward his goal of obtaining external funding for his project," Karim added.

Landers, who received his bachelor's degree in psychology in 2004 from the University of Tennessee and his Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of Minnesota in 2009, said his goal is also to develop social network training programs for large companies. "For example, multi-national employees could use the network as an online learning community, exchanging tips to improve job performance, to share experiences they have had with customers, and so forth."

This article was posted on: December 9, 2010

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