Over several years we tried to provide face to face Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) sessions where students could work together informally with their classmates in the presence of senior student facilitators. Although the demand for PAL was present, our attempts to bring students together voluntarily in the same place at the same time were disappointing, and four years ago we decided to try a fresh approach.
We set up and semi-moderated Facebook groups for two Level 1 courses: Mathematics and Computing Science. Now in their fourth year, these succeed in providing a non-threatening space for virtual academic dialogue (PAL) between classmates, senior students and support staff. There are numerous fruitful peer discussions resulting from students posting attempted solutions to problems – for example previous exam questions or textbook exercises. Senior students who are also members of the group make welcome additional responses.
The virtual community arising is, in many senses, more valuable than traditional PAL. Posts persist after online conversations, visible to all members. Students can self-select and choose which posts to interact with. Peer feedback can be requested at any time, without waiting for a weekly PAL session and responses are quick: vital for step-wise learning subjects. Activity continues throughout evenings, weekends and holidays. Some of the quieter/shy students have intimated that virtual participation is less intimidating than face-to-face. Non-native English speaking students have spoken of their appreciation of having time buffers to digest and construct posts; junior students comment that they are able to familiarise themselves with academic terminology because of online discussions with, and between, senior students.
In following years, at the request of student group members, we roll over these original groups and rename them as second, then third, then fourth year groups while also setting up new groups for each new intake. We have also initiated groups for other classes in the College of Science and Engineering. As before, many senior students join these groups and participate in discussions. We have observed a sharp increase in the volume of academic discussion and deep learning occurring in these groups which, we conjecture, is due to the emergent structure of these communities. This structure is that of the dojo: a model for student-led learning where each student is at the same time a teacher and a learner. The community that is evolving is one in which students can serve a cognitive apprenticeship in a supportive environment.
Two years ago we introduced an Entrants’ group which students were invited to join prior to induction. Students were able to interact other Freshers from their College at this landing site, join subject-specific groups and ‘meet’ other classmates before arriving at university
In this paper we discuss the structure of our Facebook groups, provide examples of the support and advice we offer to students’ examples of how students support each other academically and socially, show instances of collaborative learning and consider whether there might be any disadvantages of using this model. Participants will be able to consider how this model might transfer to their institution and discuss this with others.