Conference · Maths Support · Social Media · Virtual PAL

Virtual Peer Assisted Learning (VPAL) using Facebook Groups

by Shazia Ahmed and Lorna Love

As part of her previous post of Retention Officer (a few years ago) for the College of Science & Engineering, Lorna co-ordinated Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) sessions for level one Mathematics and Computing Science students. Although the demand for PAL was present, attempts at organising these sessions proved to be logistically difficult. This was due to reasons such as (i) difficulties with timetabling/room bookings (ii) students’ time constraints, for example, most students have part-time jobs, a large proportion commute, some have caring responsibilities etc.

To this end, it was decided to instigate and semi-moderate Facebook groups for Levels 1 and 2 Mathematics & Statistics and Computing Science students. These succeeded in providing accessible, non-threatening spaces for virtual academic dialogue between classmates, senior students and support staff. Since their inception there has been a steady stream of peer discussions ranging from social interactions to academic discussions.

In many senses, the conversations in the Facebook groups have been even more valuable than those arising from 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 the next timetabled PAL session, which is vital for step-wise learning subjects such as Mathematics. Activity continues through the day, evenings, weekends and holidays. Quieter, shyer students have intimated that virtual interaction is less intimidating than face-to-face participation. 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 mathematical terminology because of online discussions with, and between, senior students. Because of the nature of the online interaction, group members are developing the art of formulating academic questions and discussing mathematical problems.

We (Sarah, Lorna & I) have shared our VPAL experiences at the following conferences recently:
1) 19 April – Workshop at the University of Glasgow Learning & Teaching Conference
2) 22 May – Workshop at the HEA-CLL (Changing the Learning Landscape) event ‘The Use of Social Media in Engineering & Mathematics’ held in Manchester
3) 13 June – Enhancement & Innovation in Higher Education conference in Glasgow. Click on ‘6.1 Empowering students’ to see our full paper.

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